"West Side Story" lyrics still embarrass Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim tells 60 Minutes why some songs in "West Side Story" make him look away.

What embarrasses Stephen Sondheim?
What embarrasses Stephen Sondheim? 02:21

"West Side Story" returned to Broadway in February in a drastic new incarnation of the classic musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim.

"Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable," wrote Brooks Atkinson in his 1957 New York Times review of the original musical.

More than 60 years ago, "West Side Story" performed for 732 Broadway audiences and introduced the world to Stephen Sondheim. Then a 27-year-old composer and lyricist, Sondheim says he was trying to mimic the success of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein.

"The lyrics, by Stephen Sondheim, have simple grace, and there is a lovely tribute by the sidewalk Romeo to his dusky girl, Maria," wrote John Chapman, in his 1957 review for the New York Daily News.

But Sondheim said he's actually embarrassed by the lyrics he wrote for the musical.

"I've always been somewhat critical of my work on 'West Side Story,'" Sondheim told 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker, "There are moments in it that embarrass me-- I'll give you a poetic one. Says Tony in 'Tonight,' 'today the world was just an address.' I thought, 'wait a minute, that sure sounds like he's been reading a lot to me.' I can't imagine that a kid would say, having just met this girl and being, you know, the kind of kid he is, a street kid, would come up with a phrase that fancy."

Sondheim acknowledges that audience members may feel differently, but he would like to take the line back.

"When I hear it, I just look away and then I look back up at the stage," Sondheim said. "But that's not true for a lot of people who find it a very good line and enjoy it. I'm not going to argue with anybody. But, you know-- and it's not modesty, it's-- if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't write that line... I know better now."

Sondheim is again involved in the Broadway production, collaborating with a pair of Tony Award winners in director Ivo van Hove and producer Scott Rudin.

This week on 60 Minutes, Whitaker peeled back the curtain to reveal what van Hove describes as "West Side Story" for 21st Century.

"'West Side Story' was huge when we were young," van Hove told 60 Minutes. "So we respect at an enormous level what has been done before us, but it's 60 years later now and-- perhaps it's also good to have another take on it with all this respect that we have for the work and for the people that have made it before us. And that they leave us with this fabulous material to work with."

The 2020 revival is radically different from any other production of "West Side Story." Robbins' original choreography is gone and so is the classic set, replaced by modern moves and a 25-camera video production projected behind the actors on stage.

The changes were approved by Sondheim and the estates of the play's other creators.

"What keeps the theater alive is reinterpretation," said Sondheim. "The thing that essentially is different between let's say theater and movies or television is that it's changeable. Each generation brings new ways of looking at a play."

Sondheim on new "West Side Story" 03:02

What remains virtually untouched is the music originally written and composed by Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. Music that was immortalized in the 1961 Hollywood production, which Sondheim credits for its longevity.

"It's endured I think because the movie made it popular." Sondheim said. "The movie was a huge hit and suddenly everybody thought the tunes were hummable."

"West Side Story" is slated for a double-revival in 2020. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the musical debuted in February at The Broadway Theatre in New York. A film iteration is expected to return to the silver screen in December under the direction of Steven Spielberg

The videos above were originally published on February 16, 2020 and edited by Peter M. Berman.