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Kert, Larry (1930-1991)    
 
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The gay actor and singer Larry Kert originated the lead romantic role of Tony in the landmark 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. With his expressive, vibrant tenor, he introduced some of the most memorable songs in the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score, including "Maria," "Tonight," and "Something's Coming."

In 1970, Kert triumphed again on Broadway in another Sondheim musical, Company, as Robert, a New York bachelor observing the strains and tensions in the marriages of his best friends, as well as struggling to commit emotionally to each of his three girlfriends.

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Other Broadway shows involving Kert were unfortunately short-lived, and his later career was devoted mainly to cabaret, television, and regional theater.

He was born Frederick Lawrence Kert in Los Angeles, California on December 5, 1930 into a comfortably middle-class family. His father was a jeweler and his mother an actress. He had a brother, Morton, and two sisters, Evelyn and the singer later known as Anita Ellis.

He initially attended Hollywood High School but transferred to the Hollywood Professional School in Los Angeles. While still in school, Kert performed as an extra and stunt double in several movies, including Lassie Come Home (1943), where he was a stand-in for the film's star Roddy McDowell.

After graduation, Kert took some classes at Los Angeles City College but soon dropped out and moved to New York City where he studied with the celebrated acting teacher Sanford Meisner.

Kert eventually returned to Los Angeles and joined a song and dance group known as "Bill Norvas and the Upstarts." He toured with the group nationally and ultimately played on Broadway when the group was featured in the 1950 musical revue Tickets, Please!

He later landed roles in the chorus of the musicals John Murray Anderson's Almanac (1953) and Mr. Wonderful (1956), which starred Sammy Davis, Jr.

While in Mr. Wonderful, a dancer friend, Chita Rivera, who had a featured role in the show, told Kert about a new musical she had recently auditioned for and encouraged him to try out as a dancer in the chorus.

That show ultimately became West Side Story (1957), a retelling of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which innovatively merged drama, music, lyrics, and dance. Set in the tenements of New York City, the show explored the rivalries between the Jets, a white working-class street gang, and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

It is of particular note that, in addition to Kert, all the members of the show's core creative team were gay or bisexual, including the director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Arthur Laurents. In addition, set designer Oliver Smith, lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, and costume designer Irene Sharaff were also gay or lesbian.

Kert initially auditioned for the role of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, and then again for Riff, the leader of the Jets, but was turned down for both. Several months later, he ran into Stephen Sondheim who encouraged Kert to audition again, this time for the Romeo-like role of Tony.

Kert had heard that the musical's creative team was looking for a blond Polish-looking tenor to play Tony, and being dark and Jewish, he thought he was wrong for the role. But he took Sondheim's advice and auditioned anyway, and was eventually cast as the lead, opposite Carol Lawrence in the Juliet-like role of Maria. Chita Rivera, who had told Kert about the show to begin with, played Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend.

The show's rehearsal process was strenuous and demanding. The immensely talented but fiery-tempered Jerome Robbins was a harsh taskmaster who often clashed with Kert and castigated him, in front of the cast and crew, for being a "faggot," although Robbins himself was bisexual. Kert recalled Robbins as a "perfectionist who . . . destroys you."

The show opened to mainly rapturous reviews, and promptly entered Broadway musical history.

Kert remained with the production for three years. He later felt that he may have stayed in the show too long, and became too closely identified with the role of Tony. As he recollected in an interview, "West Side Story was my security blanket. I was afraid to fail in something else."

Even when he did eventually leave the show, Kert was pursued by it. For example, he was often invited as a guest on television variety shows, but always to sing "Maria."

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Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence performing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958.
  
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