Plays

October 20, 1957 – NYC Mayor Robert Wagner’s Coney Island Campaign Stop

The Mayoral Debate: Catsup or Mustard? Photo: Eddie Hausner, The New York Times Photo Archives, available at the New York Times store

On October 20, 1957, incumbent New York City mayoral candidate Robert F. Wagner, Jr. stopped for a classic Coney Island treat – a All-American hot dog.  On his way to a second-term landslide victory, Democrat Wagner’s alignment with Carmine DeSapio’s Tammany Hall machine during his first election in 1953 instigated a intra-party feud between DeSapio and Presidential Widow Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband Franklin had previously stripped the long-standing political society from federal patronage.  Tammany Hall’s 140-year influence over the city had begun to wane in the 1930’s, with the election of Republican Mayor Fiorello La Guardia on a Fusion ticket.  The 1953 DeSapio-Wagner alliance resulted in a brief resurgence of machine politics in the 1950’s.

Mayor Wagner, a Yale graduate and Scroll and Key member, was born in Manhattan in 1910, the son of U. S. Senator Robert Ferdinand Wagner, Sr.  During his tenure in Gotham he was instrumental in building public housing and schools, creating the City University of New York system, establishing the right of collective bargaining for city employees, and barring housing discrimination based on race, creed or color.  He is said to be the first mayor to pro-actively hire a significant number of people of color into city government positions.  The city’s performing arts jewel, the Lincoln Center, was developed while Wagner was in office.  The Public Theater’s New York Shakespeare Festival (now known as Shakespeare in the Park) also took shape during his tenure.  His administration’s inaction led to the out-of-town migration of the Giants and Dodgers baseball teams, although a subsequent commission he formed led to the birth of the New York Mets.

Wagner broke with DeSapio and Tammany Hall during his third-term mayoral campaign in 1961.  His victory set a milestone in New York City, and local machine politics thereafter entered a decline.

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September 26, 1957 – West Side Story Opens on Broadway

The Winter Garden Theater, Broadway, New York City. Photo: Library of Congress, Leonard Bernstein Collection

The Winter Garden Theater, Broadway, New York City. Photo: Library of Congress, Leonard Bernstein Collection

On September 26, 1957, West Side Story, a modern musical take on Romeo and Juliet based on rivalries between white and Puerto Rican teenage street gangs, opened at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway in New York City.  Arthur Laurents wrote the book, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, newcomer Stephen Sondheim (with contributions from Bernstein) wrote the lyrics, Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed the dancing, and Harold Prince and Robert Griffith produced the dark, revolutionary musical which became a critically-acclaimed hit and part of our American cultural legacy.

Originally conceived as a doomed love story between an Italian-American Roman Catholic boy and a Holocaust-surviving, Jewish Israeli immigrant girl on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (hence the first working title, East Side Story), the story morphed several times (including a Los Angeles-based version of a Chicano turf war) before finally settling on portraying the rivalry between West Side teenage gangs appearing increasingly in the city in 1957.  West Side Story’s songs were more complicated musically and the dancing far more extensive than most Broadway productions to date.  Adding to the producers’ challenges, most of the cast members needed to be both singers and dancers, and at the same time be (or at least appear to be) teenagers.

Maria (Carol Lawrence) and Tony (Larry Kert). Photo: Publicity shot by Leo Friedman

Tryouts in Washington, DC and Philadelphia in August of 1957 garnered positive reviews.  The 39-member cast included: Michael Calin as Riff, leader of the white Jets gang; Larry Kert as Tony, Riff’s friend (a role originally intended for James Dean); Ken Le Roy as Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks; Carol Lawrence as Maria (Bernardo’s sister, Juliet to Tony’s Romeo); Chita Rivera as Anita, Bernardo’s girl; William Bramley as Officer Krupke; and a young Elizabeth Taylor as Francisca (a Shark girl).

The production garnered several Tony nominations and two awards in 1958.  Jerome Robbins won Best Choreographer, Oliver Smith won Best Scenic Designer, Carol Lawrence was nominated for Best Featured Actress, Irene Sharaff was nominated for Best Costume Designer, Max Goberman was nominated for Best Conductor, and the entire production was nominated for Best Musical, the award for which went to Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

The original production of West Side Story ran for 732 performances on Broadway through June of 1959, considered a very successful run.  It then went on the road, returning to the Winter Garden Theatre in 1960 for an additional 253 performances.  Many productions and tours of the musical have been staged over the years in New York, London, and regional theaters.

From John Chapman’s review in the New York Daily News:

“The American theatre took a venturesome forward step when the firm of Griffith & Prince presented West Side Story at the Winter Garden last evening.  This is a bold new kind of musical theatre – a juke-box Manhattan opera.  It is, to me, extraordinarily exciting . . . the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot – and the music and the dancing are superb.  In [the score], there is the drive, the bounce, the restlessness and the sweetness of our town.  It takes up the American musical idiom where it was left when George Gershwin died. It is fascinatingly tricky and melodically beguiling, and its marks the progression of an admirable composer . . .”.