Ed often made a point of bringing Broadway on The Ed Sullivan Show. Especially fond of musicals, he had over 400 excerpts performed live over the years. One of the biggest musicals of all time, West Side Story, was preserved for posterity when it was showcased on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Based on the classic Shakespearean tale of Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story modernizes the famous tragedy, setting it in Harlem during the 1950s. Rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, battle over turf while star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight. The show marked Stephen Sondheim’s debut as lyricist, was conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, produced by Harold Prince and Robert E. Griffith, and composed by Leonard Bernstein.
Because Jerome Robbins would not allow any scenes from West Side Story to be performed on television during the show’s first year, Sullivan had to wait. On September 14th 1958, a week shy of the show’s first anniversary, the cast performed a minimalist, yet smooth, performance of “Cool” with Hank Brunjes leading the pack as Riff. That night was a big evening for the musical as the nation got a preview of this critically acclaimed show. In addition, the director and master choreographer, Jerry Robbins, was introduced by Sullivan. After the live show, Sullivan gave the only tape of the performance to Robbins. It remained unseen until 2008, when researchers found it while preparing an American Masters program on Robbins.
West Side Story returned to the Sullivan stage a few months later when Broadway leads Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert were guests. On November 2nd 1958, they performed the balcony scene on The Ed Sullivan Show stage and sang “Tonight” as Maria and Tony. The power of Sullivan as an outlet was obvious, as Lawrence recalled, after performing that evening, “it was just lines around the block” with people waiting to purchase tickets to the show. “It was as if the American public as a whole had gotten a taste of it and then everybody coming to New York had to see our show. We ran to standing room only as a result of Mr. Sullivan’s exposure.”
The show’s outstanding music was covered by other artists on The Ed Sullivan Show. Singer Leon Bibb sang “Maria”, Stan Kenton offered a jazz version of “I Feel Pretty”, opera singer Jan Peerce belted out “Maria”, Sammy Davis Jr. performed a West Side Story medley, Dame Shirley Bassey sang “Something’s Coming” and even The Supremes did their version of “Somewhere”. After the success of the film version, its star George Chakiris performed a medley of songs and dances, including “Dance at the Gym.”
The original Broadway production was nominated for six Tony awards, and took home two (one for Robbins’ choreography). The 1961 film adaptation received ten Academy Awards out of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture of the year. Both the original Broadway cast and the movie soundtrack albums earned Gold Record status. West Side Story has had four New York-based revivals and three runs in London’s West End, is frequently performed in schools and regional theaters, and will no doubt continue to touch the hearts of young lovers around the world.