Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

West Side Story — 50 years old?

by Reri Grist

Strange! — it seems only a short time ago that we, the Sharks and Jets girls, were upstairs in our large, common dressing room on an upper floor of the Winter Garden Theater chatting away happily as we changed into our vibrant red and lavender or bright yellow and blue costumes, preparing for the next evening show. Although we originated from different parts of the USA, from sometimes contrasting social and educational backgrounds, we were joined together to perform a new kind of musical which unexplainably moved and united all of us beyond anything else we had before known or seen.

During the early period of rehearsals Jerome Robbins, the stage director and great choreographer, was the kingpin. He wanted all of us to have the energy and life he saw in the kids in the area of NYC where I grew up — Spanish Harlem. Jerry wanted WSS to be like the real thing. So we all, especially the dancers, dedicated ourselves to the task and worked without holding anything back to give him all that he wanted — and more. I, in my role of Consuelo, had the privilege to be the first to sing “There’s a place for us,” (“Somewhere”) which, in the felt I particularly understood. As we began to coordinate the scenes and music into a unified whole on stage, there was increased contact with Leonard Bernstein, whose warmth, guidance and unrestrained enthusiasm with our interpretations of his composition created an atmosphere which encouraged us to keep on movin’ on.

West Side Story allowed me, personally, the opportunity to convince Mr. Bernstein that “I could sing other music, too,” such as Zerbinetta’s aria from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. And I do remember that audition! Between a matinee and evening show, racing up 7th Avenue to Carnegie Hall with some of the Shark girls along with me, all still wearing parts of our colorful costumes. The stage of the great hall seemed so big and intimidating to little me. When I finished the long and difficult aria, Mr. Bernstein’s reaction, “Well, I guess you can sing!” led me on to other engagements in concert with him and the New York Philharmonic. Years later, after my operatic career had been established in Europe and the USA, we again worked together at the Vienna State Opera in Austria where he conducted a beautiful new production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier in which I sang the role of Sophie.

Whenever and wherever I see West Side Story listed to be performed — on stage, in selections in concert, in jazz or chamber arrangements, in Italy, Germany, China or South Africa, in French, Russian, or Japanese — my heart skips a beat, and I am thrown back in time to that first preopening night performance for a New York City audience at the Winter Garden. When the shot rang out that killed Tony and the last chords softly diminished into space, we, the Sharks and the Jets on stage and the audience in their seats, remained frozen in an all encompassing silence, held by the meaning of the killing — and perhaps the knowledge that we were part of a great moment in American theatre and music. At first, slowly and almost inaudibly, there arose an electrifying roar from the audience — shouts, applause whistling, stamping of feet — which crescendoed into a fortissimo causing the space and our beings to vibrate with a deafening joy of approval and accomplishment.

50 years ago... HAPPY BIRTHDAY WEST SIDE STORY! Keep movin’ on! “You done good buddy boy”— real good!

Reri Grist is an internationally acclaimed opera singer and teacher.

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