New York, January 10, 1949. Jerome Robins, Arthur Laurents, and Leonard Bernstein meet at Robins’ residence. The three shake hands and agree to begin shaping the musical that after many re-writes, delays, and tribulations would become West Side Story. Laurents adds one caveat: “This is not going to be an opera.”
Sixty years after its premiere in 1957, West Side Story’s fusion of classical and non-classical music still stands as a singular theatrical experience. Since first opening, West Side Story has been performed over 40,000 times around the world, and is still performed at least 250 times a year domestically[i]. If you’d like to catch the show in person, the EmilyAnn Theater in Wimberley, TX is presenting a production of West Side Story through July 2.
Van Voorhis, Genevieve . The Sharks dance in “Prologue,” 1961. Digital Image. “Steven Spielberg Is Planning A ‘West Side Story’ Remake.” Moviepilot. June 12, 2017. https://moviepilot.com/posts/3969228.
After its run on Broadway, West Side Story became an even bigger phenomenon in 1961 with its film adaptation, co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
While West Side Story didn’t end up being an opera per se, it does contain distinctive operatic qualities: a deep orchestral texture, a plot that is frequently developed through song, and a libretto centered on romantic tragedy.[ii] At the same time, West Side Story also has the popular music flavors of and jazz and Latin American music, as heard in pieces like “Dance at the Gym.” There’s also joyous, humor filled-music that is more typical of Broadway productions like “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
Clearly, West Side Story is more than just an opera, which is interesting considering the scholarship of its primary composer, Leonard Bernstein. The twentieth century was the age of musical modernism. Writing complex music for complexity’s sake was the norm. The compositional trends in this period included writing serial, atonal, and aleatoric music among others. For of these many composers, to be considered popular was to be shallow, and writing music for musicals certainly filled that criteria.
Colter Walls, Seth. Pierre Boulez gesturing. Digital Image. “Remembering Pierre Boulez’s Radical Legacy.” Pitchfork. June 12, 2017. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/988-remembering-pierre-boulezs-radical-legacy/
Twentieth-century composers like Pierre Boulez took pride in credos like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Leonard Bernstein was a Harvard music graduate. He was a pupil of the legendary conductors Fitz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. On paper, Bernstein was the classiest of the classical, and yet one of his greatest accomplishments was composing for a Broadway musical. In Bernstein’s collection of lectures, The Infinite Variety of Music, he acknowledged that although he valued his position as an educated professional musician, he equally considered himself a “simple music lover,” a non-discriminatory fan of all music, classical or otherwise. This was a departure from his peers’ view of the shallowness of popular music, and likely why Bernstein was able to recognize the artistic value of musicals.
With this pluralist mentality, Bernstein was the perfect fit to compose West Side Story.[iii] Perhaps to Arthur Laurents’ disappointment, the creative team behind West Side Story continued to brainstorm ways that opera could successfully co-mingle with musical theater until its premiere in 1957. They were adamant that the show not fall into what Bernstein called the “operatic trap,” in which a production could slip too far into the opera realm, lessoning the presence of its mainstream, Broadway appeal.
Friedman, Leo. From left to right: Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Harold Prince, Robert Griffith, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins, 1957. Digital Image. “Remembering Pierre Boulez’s Radical Legacy” KNKX. June 12, 2017. http://knkx.org/post/book-explores-phenomenon-west-side-story
More than just a collection of various music genres, West Side Story was a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” encapsulating the arts of dance and visual theater (Jerome Robbins), lyricism (Stephen Sondheim), and storytelling (Arthur Laurents).
Bernstein occasionally needed help navigating through this trap due to his proclivity for overly poetic, bombastic instrumentals. In letters written to his wife Felicia Montealegre in July of 1957, Bernstein described his growing disappointment with the creative team, as they would repeatedly ask him for compositional revisions or would drop entire songs from the show for being too operatic. In a letter, lyricist and co-composer Stephen Sondheim recalls that no one had called Bernstein’s pieces too operatic, but that some were too clumsy, long winded, and monotonous. Though this irritated Bernstein, the editing of his music from Robbins, Laurents, and Sondheim ultimately strengthened the show.[iv]
West Side Story’s finished score clearly utilizes material from historically significant classical works. The lyrics of “Somewhere” is pitch-for-pitch ripped from the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, “Cool” is written in the style of a twelve-tone fugue, and “The Rumble” shares a striking resemblance with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes “Storm” interlude. Even the “Quintet” is operatically informed, made in the tradition of “Bella Figlia dell’amore” from Act III of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Eisenstaedt, Alfred. From left to right: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins, 1956. Digital Image. “Leonard Bernstein;Jerome Robbins;Stephen Sondheim” Getty Images. June 12, 2017. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/conductor-composer-leonard-bernstein-w-choreographer-jerome-news-photo/50410281#conductorcomposer-leonard-bernstein-w-choreographer-jerome-robbins-picture-id50410281
The creative partnership between the four wasn’t without strife. Sondheim and Bernstein routinely debated on the use of overly poetic language in songs. Jerome Robbins’ previous role as a whistleblower for the House Un-American Activities Committee also created an air of tension between everyone involved.
Non-classical elements of West Side Story include its use of Latin American and jazz influences. Bernstein took cues from composers like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, who had previously integrated these musical styles in their own classical works. Throughout the score Bernstein used jazz combos in conjunction with orchestras, and experimented with meters not commonly heard in Broadway music in order to replicate the instrumental and rhythmic color of Jazz and Latin American music. This imbued freshness to straightforward classical orchestrations. One example is the use of the huapango dance pattern in “America,” a textbook use of mixed meter presented in new way.
Robbins, Jerome, Robert Wise. Maria and Tony meet in “Dance at the Gym,” 1961. Screen Capture. “West Side Story (2/10) Movie CLIP – Love At First Sight (1961) HD.” Youtube. June 13, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77KnithfRRk
Other rhythmic dance patterns used throughout West Side Story’s score include the mambo, pasodoble, seis, and cha-cha.
Casting non-professional singers for West Side Story’s original production was just as important as its dynamic score in avoiding the operatic trap. While the instrumental orchestrations of the show were lush and complex, the vocal parts were specifically composed to be easy enough for youthful, unstudied voices to perform. Although hiring more experienced singers was discussed at some point during pre-production, the team ultimately decided against it in order keep a “kid quality” to the singers that was more true to the temperament of the characters. The cast of actor-singers was also more theatrically expressive than it would have been with performers that were strictly singers.[v]
Cohen, Stephen. Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, and Cheynne Jackson and Alexandra Silber performing West Side Story, 2014. “Swinging, Soulful B’way Cast Clicks In West Side Story.” Classicalvoiceamerica. June 12, 2017. http://classicalvoiceamerica.org/2014/07/31/michael-tilson-thomas-west-side-story-recording-swinging-soulful-broadway-cast-san-francisco-symphony/
In 2014, Michael Tilson Thomas used actor-singers to produce a Broadway sound with his semi-live recording of West Side Story.
In remembering the show’s opening night, actress Carol Lawerence (Maria) recalls a dead silence from the audience as the curtain was raised at the end of the performance. For a moment the cast and crew were sure the show was a dud, but after seconds of quiet they were met with roaring applause. Bernstein then came from backstage, placed his arms around Lawrence, and began to weep.
Through its visuals, poetry, and music, West Side Story changed the way audiences perceived classical music, theater, and even movies. Its success in portraying musical tragedy paved the way for modern musicals like Spring Awakening and this year’s Tony Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen. Whether performed in a concert hall or on a dingy stage, Bernstein’s music for West Side Story can still take its audiences to a place where music, both popular and classical, can evoke sadness, anger, joy, and love.
H. Phillips, Robert . Leonard Bernstein at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., opening night of West Side Story, 1957. “Birth of a Classic: West Side Story.” Library of Congress. June 13,2017. https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0709/detail/westside2.html
“There’s a place for us.”
[ii] While the “Romeo & Juliet” formula certainly wasn’t anything new in 1957, its presence on Broadway was. Audiences were often shocked with the end of Act I, in which the lifeless bodies of Riff and Bernardo are left onstage as the curtain closes.
[iii] This can be heard in works even earlier than West Side Story, such as his intermingling of jazz and ballet for the show Fancy Free, where he first met and collaborated with Jerome Robbins.
[iv] Pieces that were cut from the show for being too classical included “Mix,” a tune meant to be sung by the Jets in the first act, which was eventually replaced by the “Jet Song.” Bernstein would later reuse material from “Mix” in the second movement of his Chichester Psalms.
[v] In 1984, Bernstein and Deutsche Grammophon recorded the entirety of West Side Story with professional opera singers. The goal was to create a definitive version with Bernstein conducting the whole score, which he had never done before. It was ultimately met with mixed reviews which were in part due to the overly operatic vocals of the cast.