Death (the Musical)

Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
—Woody Allen

Nearly everybody is familiar with West Side Story, the musical about two rival gangs based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The innocent young protagonist, Anton “Tony”, who belongs to an established local gang (the Jets), falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the rival gang (the Sharks). Since its debut on Broadway in 1957, it has been performed around the world and has been adapted as a successful film.

What most people don’t know, however, is that collaborators Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins had originally based the production, not on Shakespeare, but on an early 13th century Japanese poem:


Roughly translated, this reads “I feel the life is / sorrowful and unbearable / though / I can’t flee away / since I am not a bird.” Laurents, who had taken three months of Japanese as part of a ploy to avoid the draft, ineptly translated it “Life’s a bitch; then you die.”

Laurents’ questionable translation eventually became the basis for the team’s 1953 production draft which was given the working title “Death, the Musical.” Later the team settled on the now-suggestive “Death Side Story.” Robbins reportedly confided that the play was meant as a good-natured Jewish jab at the Easter story, but this is speculation.

The plot of these drafts revolved around the charismatic figure Death (nicknamed Morty) who is leader of the Doppelgangers, a motley crew of lost souls with dreams of the big time. Problems start when Morty falls in love with Élan who is the longtime girlfriend of Moshe Fickleberg, owner of a struggling Yiddish dance studio and part-time rabbi. When Morty convinces Élan to join him, Moshe is forced from his predictable life to enter the dark world of the Doppelgangers to rescue her.

Pre-production trials made clear that the post WWII audience would not embrace a musical about Death, no matter who starred. (Bernstein had gotten tentative agreements from Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly, but both backed out when they discovered that the script required Kelly to yodel.) The drafts were canned in January 1955 and subsequently lost.

Luckily, a few lyrical fragments from the original drafts were preserved, having been written on the table cloths at “The Manfred,” a seedy club where the team liked to brainstorm. A perceptive waiter named Jules Tandy (a Broadway wannabe himself) saved the scribbled cloths from the cleaners and took them home for safekeeping where they waited until March 2003 when Tandy’s daughter found them in a drawer as she inventoried for an estate sale.

Whether these fragments are valuable historical artifacts or mere curiosities, they shed light on the genesis of what would become one of the most beloved and successful Broadway productions ever. Whether or not the world lost a Jewish Easter extravaganza remains a question. Be that as it may, here are the only remaining song lyrics from the original “Death’s Side Story.”

Dead Song (became “Jet Song”)

When you are dead,
You are dead all the way
From your last gasping breath
To the smell of decay.

When you’re a stiff
No one asks for a dime.
There is no need to rush;
You’ve got plenty of time.

You’re staunch as a stone,
You never re-call or miss
The office or phone.
You’re hip with rigor mortis—
You’re dying for this!

When you are dead
With a capital D,
The odor and worms
Are provided for free.
When you are dead,
You stay dead

I Feel Eerie (became “I Feel Pretty”)

ÉLAN (after her first encounter with Morty):
I feel eerie,
Somewhat bleary,
I feel dreary and must seem a fright!
I’m so weary—
I’m not certain I will last the night.

I look ghostly,
At least mostly,
Looking closely I’m grossly surreal
And so pallid
I’m a Mona Lisa death ideal.

See the sickly girl in that mirror there:
Who can that cadaverous girl be?
Such a ghoulish face,
Such a grimy dress,
Such a ghostly smile,
(ÉLAN) Such a ghastly me!

I feel dreadful!
With a head full—
Feel drop dead full of dreadful delight!
I was kissed
By a dreadfully macabre guy!

Somewhere (title retained)

There’s a room for us,
Somewhere a tomb for us.
Side by side in formaldehyde,

There’s a nave for us,
Somewhere a grave for us,
Time together in sweet repose,
Time enough to decompose,
Some day!

We’ll find that gothic fantasia,
Maybe we’ll try euthanasia.
Somehow . . .

There’s a sleep for us,
An endless deep for us.
Slit your wrist or choke down some pills.
Use a gun if that gives you thrills.
Let’s play!

Sheol Business (became “America”)

I like to be in the Sheol business!
On the marquee in the Sheol business!
Grim bourgeoisie in the Sheol business!
Exit emcee in the Sheol business!

I like the city of Tombstone.

But you must park in the dead zone!

It’s a laid back destination.

If you like putrification!

Affordable rates in the Sheol business!
Tempting the fates in the Sheol business!
Lots of blind dates in the Sheol business!
No pearly gates in the Sheol business!

I drive a bargain you can’t beat.

Your only product is cold meat!

I offer service you can trust.

Who needs a warranty for dust?

Everyone stars in the Sheol business!
Win your cigars in the Sheol business!
Don’t mind the scars in the Sheol business!
Fortune is ours in the Sheol business!

You are the dealer of suffering.

I am the prince of the sure thing!

Nothing but grief comes from your works.

You don’t complain when I snuff jerks.

Gone in a flash in the Sheol business!
No need for cash in the Sheol business!
Ashes to ash in the Sheol business!
Take out the trash in the Sheol business!

Leave her alone, you’re not her fit.

I operate with a permit!

Why don’t you pocket me instead?

A shmuck is a shmuck even when dead!

Postscript: It was rumored that singer Neil Sedaka had at one time approached both the Tandy estate and The Leonard Bernstein Office about production rights for the original script but was rebuffed. Later there was talk that Tim Burton had also approached them but was also denied. (Corpse Bride nearly earned Burton a lawsuit from the Tandy estate, but the issue was settled quietly out of court.) At this time, there appears no further interest in mounting a revival of “Death.”

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