Hosted by internet celebrity, Matt Rodin, the event was moderated by original cast member (and Annie lyricist) Martin Charnin (Big Deal in WSS). The incredible panel consisted of Grover Dale (Snowboy), Marilyn D’Honau (Clarice), Carol Lawrence (Maria), Ronnie Lee (Nibbles), George Marcy (Pepe/Bernardo), Tony Mordente (A-Rab), Liane Plane (Marguerita), Chita Rivera (Anita), Jaime Sanchez (Chino) and David Winters (Baby John).
Each was asked about their first audition. Marilyn D’Honau couldn’t remember, although she clearly made an impression on Robbins who subsequently used her in Gypsy. Tony Mordente, just an acting hopeful, was working in a Times Square Howard Johnson’s when he heard that WSS was being assembled and he showed up with no professional experience and managed to impress the powers-that-be. Some flew in from the Coast or Las Vegas or were known by Robbins before hand, like Ronnie Lee who was in Peter Pan. All were reminded by Robbins before the opening night that they were “handpicked.”
The running theme of the evening was, of course, Jerome Robbins and how his creativity, cruelty and point of view molded the show. Some hated him (Ronnie Lee), some adored him (Carol Lawrence), but all recognized his genius.
It was also made quite clear that Peter Gennaro—“perfect buns!” according Chita Rivera—choreographed all the dance movements for the Sharks. They made gentle fun of Gennaro’s sweet speech defect and how he helped everyone survive Robbins’ tough love approach. (Robbins, for instance, insisted that the actors playing the Jets and the Sharks never socialize, although a devious Chita managed to romance and marry Jet, Tony Mordente!)
It was fascinating to see the dynamics of the interplay among these actors even after 60 years. Carol Lawrence seemed to dominate (even revealing that she was the highest paid cast member) while Ms. Rivera spoke mostly about Gennaro after saying hello to her daughter Lisa Mordente who was in the audience. Liane Plane was mostly quiet, while Grover Dale went off on several non-WSS tangents.
They all did agree in the end that West Side Story was a turning point for each of them and that it still held important messages for today’s audiences.
Original cast member (Anxious), the late Gene Gavin, wrote an autobiography, Twinkle Toes – Tales of a Broadway Gypsy 1949-1969. His nephew, Richard Tuttle, read a fascinating excerpt from the book that described his WSS experiences. Gavin was particularly unhappy that Robbins seemed to barely notice him, after the two had had a shared experience dancing in Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.
Upcoming musical star Jay Armstrong Johnson sang a stellar “Something’s Coming,” after Charnin alluded to how the song was mysteriously inserted into the show at a rehearsal. Curtis Reynolds accompanied. Reynolds also played for a special, close harmony arrangement by Ross Baum of “Somewhere” sung by Rodin, Sojourner Brown, Hannah Corneau and Amanda Savan that ended the program on a lyrical, but somber, note.
The show included a sneak preview—what Charnin called a “sizzle reel”—of an upcoming British West Side Story 60th Anniversary Documentary which included some historic views of New York City in the Fifties and reprises of a few of the stories related live by the panel members. Keep an eye open for this.
Dancers Over 40 is planning similar anniversary events, but it will be difficult to top Cool!. Thrilling is the only way to describe this event. For musical theater fans, it was earthshaking.
Cool! The 60th Anniversary and Reunion Event: West Side Story (September 27, 2017)
St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For more information: http://www.dancersover40.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission