When the dream team behind West Side Story – dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Laurents, and fledgling lyricist Stephen Sondheim – joined forces to write the 1957 Broadway show, they wanted to create a form of musical theatre that was “unlike anything done before”.

Some of the cast for Handa Opera’s West Side Story. Photo © Phillip Booth

The aim, said Robbins, who had first suggested the idea for the musical some years earlier, was to create a work for the popular stage in which “the poetry of the piece [would] come out of our best attempts as serious artists”. And what an all-star line-up of artists they were: “one of the most talented teams in showbiz history,” as Ben Brantley put it a decade ago in The New York Times.

Their contemporary update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with its tragic love story set against the backdrop of rival gangs – the white ‘American’ Jets and the recently arrived Puerto Rican Sharks – in the crowded tenements of Hell’s Kitchen in New York, was wildly different from most Broadway fare of the day,...