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West Side Stories: The Making of a Classic, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

West Side Stories: The Making of a Classic, BBC Two

West Side Stories: The Making of a Classic, BBC Two

Excellent footage and interviews not always put to good use

'West Side Story' composer Leonard Bernstein: a realist or an optimist?

The last time BBC TV headed over to West Side Story, it landed itself with a contradiction. Christopher Swann’s 1985 fly-on-the-wall documentary The Making of West Side Story – about Leonard Bernstein recording his celebrated score with a cast of opera singers – bagged the prestigious Prix Italia, but the actual material was a wildly unidiomatic misfire. The reverse was true of BBC2’s Boxing Day special West Side Stories – The Making Of A Classic. The material – archive and newly filmed – that producer/director Ursula Macfarlane had acquired was often first-rate: what she did with it was somewhat frustrating.

If you wanted to hear the original creators talking about their groundbreaking show, this was most definitely the place. We heard the voices of both the late director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, who had the idea of transplanting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into youth gangs of New York, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who wrote the “book” (ie the dramatic spine formed of the story and dialogue). And co-presenter Suzy Klein talked in person to both the original producer, Hal Prince, and the show’s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, who looked back drily on joining the team in 1955 as the 25-year-old “kid” making his professional debut.

The latter’s memories in particular were pungent, including Bernstein vanishing from rehearsals to head to a bar rather than face a confrontation with the famously testy Robbins (Sondheim and Bernstein, pictured right). And Carol Lawrence was illuminating about the dramatic process as she described her final audition for the show – her thirteenth – in which she and Larry Kert landed the lead roles of Maria and Tony. Best of all were the observations of Leonard Bernstein’s elder daughter Jamie. Avoiding the generalisations elsewhere in the script, she homed in on the nuts and bolts of the piece’s creation and was the closest the programme got to responding fully to Klein’s initial voice-over position: “I want to find out how this jewel of a show … came together.”

Part of the problem was Macfarlane’s attempt to be all things to all audiences. She intercut archive material with everything from kids in tight close-up intoning Shakespeare’s prologue to the play, to a screening of the movie version to now elderly former real-life gang members, to conductor Gareth Valentine working on performances of some of the score with a cast of highly able young singers, thereby underlining the fact that the show opened in 1957 with a cast of unknowns. As a sop to TV dance audiences in both the UK and the US, she hired Strictly and Dancing with the Stars judge Bruno Tonioli as Klein’s co-presenter. But although he did point to the way dance is woven into the storyline like dialogue, one of the show’s defining characteristics, elsewhere he mostly gushed to little effect. It was depressing to have him meet the original Anita, Chita Rivera – “Oh my God, it’s Broadway royalty!” – only for him to get so little out of her.

Few of these elements were explored in sufficient depth. Important though the gang-warfare is to West Side Story, too much time was devoted to it. The musical has endured not because of its subject matter, but because of the rare collaboration of a creative team who found a way of taking dark material and driving it forward via characters in properly active situations whose drama is presented through compelling song and dance.

At the end of the programme, Jamie Bernstein wondered: “Was my father a realist or an optimist?” To answer her question, she proceeded to analyse the drawn-out tension of the score’s pain-filled final bars. It was as intriguing as it was revealing of the show’s superb synthesis of music and drama. More of that and the programme could have been as winning as the work it celebrated.

If you wanted to hear the original creators talking about their groundbreaking show, this was most definitely the place


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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This documentary was a Christmas plumb. What a treat! The musical genious of Leonard Bernstein shone through his daughter`s memories. The racial conflict of 1940s New York was exemplified by the except of modern- day unknown singers performing Tonight with a beautiful lyrical melody soaring over the disharmony of the score. Eat your heart out, Lloyd Webber!

Who was the young man with the fabulous voice singing the part of Tony in the modern version. He was stunningly good ,and I hope he goes far in his singing career. We thoroughly enjoyed the whole programme, but the young singer left us all breathless.

I've just found that it's Rob Houchen & there's quite a bit of him on youtube. Amazing talent.

Who was the young man who sang Maria with the symphony orchestra

I agree. This singer is wonderful and a perfect Tony !! Z

Who was the young man with the fabulous voice singing the part of Tony in the modern version. He was stunningly good ,and I hope he goes far in his singing career. We thoroughly enjoyed the whole programme, but the young singer left us all breathless.

Was this a recording or rehearsal? Other than being to provide the music for the TV programme of course. Will the complete version be available?

I agree it should've had more of Jamie B's insight, but this may have drawn other criticisms. I suspect we just had time constraints, so a longer version at some point would be fabulous. However, it was still by far the best TV show about the history of this masterpiece.

Yes, the yo0un man who sang Tony and the curly haired giirl who sang Maira blew us away - who were they????????

The young man was indeed Rob Houchen and the girl singing the Maria role was Christine Allado

I, too, was ‘blown away’ by the singer portraying Tony, such a voice! Let’s hope it’s not the last we hear of, or from, him.

Just watched this fantastic documentary about West Side Story. Tremendous. What a wonderful experience. Who was singing the part of Tony, he has the most wonderful voice and personality, ideal for this role. Tremendous to see and hear such a broadcast.

Rob Houchen who sung on the show has a truly outstanding voice hope we get to see a lot more of him on our tv

Rob Houchen has a superb voice, but so did the fair haired girl playing the role of Maria who sang with him, what is her name?.

Absolutely fabulous. Looking to buy the CD but unable to find it anywhere. Please release the recording so I may buy it, the singers and orchestra together were amazing. If it has been released please let me know where I can get it. Wonderful.

I too have just watched the BBC2 Making of West Side Story and immediately it finished I tried to discover who the male singer was playing the part of Tony. I agree with everyone else that Rob Houchen has an amazing voice and presence. Let's see and hear more.

Very enjoyable and the young man who sang Maria - breathtaking!

Wonderful documentary. It transported me back to when I was 18 and participating in a school production of WSS just before taking my A-levels. Every rehearsal was a revelation as we learned yet another amazing piece of music. With my two left feet I don't think I ever really got my head around the dancing aspect, but the tunes will stay with me forever. So interesting to see Suzy and Bruno interviewing people who were there with Leonard Bernstein right at the beginning.

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