The Inside Scoop On The VMA’s ‘West Side Story’ Theme

Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Ne-Yo, host Russell Brand collaborated on 'Tonight' for Video Music Awards promos.

After spending two years out West, the Video Music Awards will return to their New York City roots on September 13 at 9 p.m. To celebrate that homecoming, and to reconnect with the town’s urban and artistic DNA, show organizers dreamed up a contemporary riff on the iconic Broadway musical, “West Side Story.”

” ‘West Side Story’ is the language of New York in musical form,” VMA executive producer Jesse Ignjatovic explained.

For an ambitious series of promos, MTV gathered together “[news id="1618745"]Taylor Swift,[/news] [news id="1618895"]Katy Perry[/news], Ne-Yo, [news id="1618817"]Cobra Starship, Leighton Meester[/news] and host Russell Brand for a cheeky take on the ’50s-era musical’s iconic song, “Tonight.”

” ‘West Side Story’ is an oft-imitated classic,” explained on-air promos chief Kevin Mackall, whose team spearheaded the effort. “We wanted to push the look and feel of the campaign, along with the music and lyrics, to a place that MTV could own.”

(Check out the VMA “West Side Story” promos
right here!)

Ignjatovic said, “I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be brilliant to take these five archetypes in the musical — the star-crossed lovers, the rival gangs, the sister character — and use them as our talent and rethink it and make it about that big, pivotal song.”

In “West Side Story,” Ignjatovic continued, “['Tonight'] is about the night of the knife fight, and it’s building, building, building to that moment. You can use it in the exact same way with the VMA night. It’s building, building, building to that night.”

“Tonight, tonight, I know it’s impolite,” sings Brand in the video, holding up a Moonman statue, “but I’ll swap these for sexual rewards!”

In addition to Brand, there’s Cobra Starship frontman Gabe Saporta and Meester crooning in a subway station, Ne-Yo staging an impromptu dance session in a graffiti-covered alley, Perry doing some late-night gardening on a rooftop and Swift riding through Times Square in a yellow taxi.

Pulling off such an extravagant promo campaign was no easy feat. They had to secure rights to the music, then enlist the talents of Tony-winning lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) for a month-long writing spate. With the finished song in hand, MTV pitched the idea to the stars.

“They loved it,” Ignjatovic said. “I think you can see when you see the campaign, they really embraced it.”

“The artists were all fantastic to work with and they all really delivered,” Mackall said. “Watching each artist embrace their respective roles was the most rewarding part of the production.”

The 2009 MTV Video Music Awards will take place September 13 at 9 p.m. ET. Additional celebrity presenters and performers will be announced in the coming weeks. To be the first to find out the inside scoop, follow the Inside MTV Twitter account at Twitter.com/InsideMTV.