Artscape
8:00 am
Sun July 24, 2011

Book explores the phenomenon that is 'West Side Story'

When "West Side Story" opened in 1957 on Broadway, the audience's reaction was silence. Followed by applause.

"No Broadway musical ended with these deaths and this very sad young woman walking off the stage with her head bowed. That was just, 'Whoa!'" author Misha Berson explained.

Berson is theater critic at The Seattle Times and the author of the new book, "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination." Berson looks at the phenomenon that has become the musical turned-mega hit motion picture, which starred Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno and eventually won 10 Academy Awards.

"West Side Story" is the second most popular movie musical ever made, second to "The Sound of Music," she notes in her book.

"It fed into the public’s consciousness in a way very few musicals have," Berson said in an interview. "Even if you don’t recognize the show, you might have this sort of 'West Side Story' moment."

The book chronicles both the inspiration for the musical and its impact throughout the world a half-century later. For example, Michael Jackson's dancing in "Beat It" echoes Jerome Robbins' choreography; and "West Bank Story" adapted the story and turned it into Jewish and Palestinian young love affair.

Plot still resonates

Berson says "West Side Story" is among the most inventive – and influential – musicals. For one, it grabbed audiences with its opening music.

"That was a very radical departure from the norm ... that you would have no overture, but just these very modern chords. And then you’d have snap snap snap. That was just insane," she says.

What is essentially the story of "Romeo and Juliet" still resonates, Berson says, because audiences can still relate to young lovers from different groups, different communities who face a backlash from society at large.

And then there's the rest of the music.

"Those songs just don't die," she says.

Book reading

Misha Berson reads from "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story at the American Imagination" at 6:30 July 29 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.