Everyone has their own idea of what makes a great musical!
West Side Story (1957)
The story of how West Side Story came to be written is well known – Bernstein himself kept a diary about it – and the combination of Arthur Laurents (who wrote the book), Stephen Sondheim (who wrote the lyrics), Jerome Robbins (who did the choreography), Leonard Bernstein and Hal Prince was unbeatable. Conceived as a modern version of “Romeo and Juliet”, it was originally East Side Story, with a Jewish Juliet and a Catholic Romeo. By the time of its premiere eight years later, and in the light of contemporary social problems, it had metamorphosed into a love match between the all-American Tony and Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant.
West Side Story has strong thematic unity, enormous rhythmic verve and subtlety, and is built over unstable harmonies that suggest confrontation and non-resolution – key elements of the plot. Interestingly, “One Hand, One Heart” and the music for “Gee, Officer Krupke” were originally written for Bernstein’s Candide, while “O Happy We”, irrevocably linked with Candide, was actually written for a discarded scene from West Side Story.
The Music Man (1957)
All the characters in The Music Man were based on real people. Meredith Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa, where there is now a museum in his name. He wrote the book, lyrics and music after the idea for the show had been suggested to him by a friend – none other than Frank Loesser. The story begins on the Fourth of July 1912 with one of the most original openings ever devised: an unaccompanied setting of words to the rhythm of train wheels clicking along rails.
The show’s star is “Professor” Harold Hill, who cons the gullible citizens of River City into believing he can create a boys’ marching band to rival a once mammoth parade featuring “Seventy-Six Trombones”. The part of Harold Hill was offered to Danny Kaye, Phil Harris, and Gene Kelly before being taken up by Robert Preston, who starred in the memorable Broadway production and in the 1962 movie version. After the film was released, Meredith Willson led a band down Mason City’s main street complete with rah-rah girls.