Bernstein: West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein was born August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and died October 14, 1990, in New York City. He composed the musical West Side Story principally from autumn 1955 through summer 1957, and it received its first performance (a pre-Broadway try-out) on August 19, 1957, at the National Theater in Washington DC. It opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957, at the Winter Garden Theater, with Max Goberman conducting. The San Francisco Symphony has performed music from West Side Story in concert many times; this week’s concerts mark the world premiere performances of the complete orchestral score.

Lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim. The orchestrations were realized by Sid Ramin and Irving Kostal, in consultation with Bernstein. The work uses an orchestra of clarinet (doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), bassoon, three further woodwind players (playing three piccolos, three flutes, oboe, English horn, three clarinets, three bass clarinets, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, and bass saxophone; these parts may be distributed among standard orchestral sections), two horns, three trumpets, two trombones, timpani, bells, three bongos, castanets, chimes, claves, conga drum, three cowbells, finger cymbals, glockenspiel, gourd, guiro, small maracas, four pitched drums, police whistle, ratchet, slide whistle, snare drum, steel pipe, two suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourines, temple blocks, timbales, trap set, triangle, vibraphone, woodblock, xylophone, piano (doubling celesta), electric guitar (doubling Spanish guitar and mandolin), and strings (distributed among first and second violins, cellos, and basses). Performance time: about two hours and fifteen minutes.

As early as 1949, Leonard Bernstein and his friends Jerome Robbins (the choreographer) and Arthur Laurents (the librettist) had batted around the idea of creating a musical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set amid the tensions of rival social groups in modern New York City. The project took a long time to find its eventual form. An early version tentatively titled East Side Story was going to focus on the doomed love affair between a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy on New York’s Lower East Side, their hopes dashed by differences of religion and their difficulties intensified by the rivalries of neighborhood street gangs. The idea simmered on the back burner for several years. In 1955, Laurents and Bernstein encountered each other by chance at the Beverly Hills Hotel and started chewing through the idea yet again while basking beside the swimming pool. According to Laurents: “We realized the religious issue had become extraneous. Juvenile delinquency had become the problem.” This change of concept mandated a new title. In an uncensored moment, Laurents floated Gangway! as a potential name. “To my horror,” he recalled, “they took it so seriously, it was stenciled on the back of the scenery and stayed there even after reason prevailed.” A better solution was practically staring everyone in the face, of course. The collaborators decided that the action would center logically on a ghetto on New York’s Upper West Side, where a Polish-American boy falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl, the title West Side Story was born.

The piece itself would require rather more time. Everybody involved had very full calendars. In 1956, much of Bernstein’s energy went into the premiere of his operatic musical comedy Candide. It opened on Broadway on December 1, received passionately mixed reviews, and closed in a sea of red ink and frustration after seventy-three performances. It was also just then, in November 1956, that Bernstein was selected to be joint principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic. That appointment not only revivified a relationship that had been dormant for the preceding five and a half years—he had not conducted the ensemble in a subscription concert since 1951—but also placed him in a position to succeed Dimitri Mitropoulos as the orchestra’s music director, an eventuality that would take place in September 1958. The joint appointment would not begin officially for another year, but Bernstein needed to be re-introduced to the orchestra’s audience right away. Suddenly New York Philharmonic subscriptions concerts packed his schedule, twenty-one of them in December 1956 and January 1957 alone. In April 1956 he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia, and five Bernstein-conducted LP’s were scheduled for release that fall. His lectures on the Omnibus television show were growing ever more popular (the ABC network had just decided to pick up the series), and it was announced that he would also be taking over the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts (on the heels of which CBS acquired broadcast rights). He was already committed to conduct concerts in South America and Israel later in 1956. Now a major, time-consuming new project had to be squeezed into the schedule.

Even compared to the typical turmoil that surrounded the birth of Broadway shows, the genesis of West Side Story was chaotic. Producers shunned it from the get-go, fearing that its tragic tale would guarantee commercial failure. Finally Cheryl Crawford and Roger Stevens signed on to produce the piece. Crawford ended up getting cold feet, and after she withdrew her support Stevens gave the project a fighting chance by providing a bridge loan before pulling out. The creative team hoped that Bernstein’s friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green would write the lyrics; but it turned out they were tied up with a movie project, so there was another key position to be filled. Bernstein made a stab at writing lyrics himself, but he was really not up to the task. Laurents had heard some songs by a fledgling composer-lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, and he had especially liked the lyrics. Sondheim was brought in for an audition at Bernstein’s apartment and left feeling lukewarm about getting involved. He discussed his misgivings with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and, as Sondheim wrote in his book Finishing the Hat, “it was he who persuaded me that if I was offered the job, I should leap at it. The show has an interesting idea, he said, and here was a chance to work with three of the most gifted and experienced men in music and theater. . . . When Lenny phoned a week later and invited me to join the crew, I duly leapt.”

Apart from snagging the future pacesetter of American musical theater at the outset of his career, this personnel decision proved useful in another way: Sondheim secured the interest of his friend Harold Prince to be involved as a producer (along with Prince’s producing partner Robert Griffith). Then, to everyone’s amazement, Robbins announced at the eleventh hour that he would rather spend his time directing the show rather than choreographing it, thereby jeopardizing Prince’s participation. In the end, he was persuaded to stay on as choreographer—as well as assume the director’s spot—and was granted an unusually long rehearsal period as an inducement.

Some of Bernstein’s composition of West Side Story overlapped with his work on Candide. On the face of it, the two stage works would seem entirely dissimilar. Bernstein described Candide as a valentine to European music, and he peppered its score with allusions to the waltz, the gavotte, bel canto warbling, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Gounod’s Faust. West Side Story, with its highly spiced and syncopated Latin undercurrents, was a paean to urban grittiness. Notwithstanding the disparity, music flowed in both directions between the two scores: the duet “O Happy We” in Candide started life as a duet in West Side Story, while West Side Story’s “One Hand, One Heart” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” originated in Candide before finding their proper places.

Laurents recalled being struck by the distinctive quality of Bernstein’s score from the very first run-through he heard:

The thing that distinguishes American music theater music is its vitality and its complex rhythms, the qualities to be found in Bernstein, and to me those qualities reach their peak in West Side Story. It was the best theater music that’s ever been written. He didn’t think. The music just poured out of him. He somehow knew how to take the vernacular and raise it up, make music instead of a pastiche. He had that rare quality of being able to feel each character; he was a musical dramatist.

Indeed, the dramatic choices in West Side Story are far from routine, even to a point where the creative team had trouble agreeing on how to describe this work in which singing, acting, and dancing all play integral, extended parts in building the work. Robbins viewed it as “an American musical”; Bernstein considered it “a tragic musical comedy.” There’s no question that dance scenes, often sinister and threatening, play a more dramatically vital role than was customary in American musicals, though of course precedents were to be found in such dance-infused pieces as the 1936 On Your Toes, by Rodgers and Hart, with its famous “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma! (1943; Bernstein cited it as a specific influence) and Carousel (1945), all of which included potent dance scenes that were essential to the narrative.

On August 19, 1957, West Side Story opened in a try-out run in Washington DC, and then it continued through a shorter booking in Philadelphia. Even as it went through inevitable pre-Broadway adjustments (though fewer than many a show has had), Bernstein sensed its claim to greatness. To his composer-friend David Diamond he wrote: “The three weeks in Washington were phenomenal sellouts, raving press and public. Now similar in Philly. It really does the heart good—because this show is my baby, my tragic musical-comedy, whatever it is, and if it goes in New York as well as it has on the road, we will have proved something very big indeed, and maybe changed the face of American musical theater.” Indeed it did go well in New York, its initial Broadway run totaling 772 performances—just short of two years. It then embarked on a national tour and made its way back to New York in 1960 for another 253 performances, after which it was released as a feature film in 1961.

Notwithstanding the show’s resounding success in the theater, it was really the film that made the work iconic in the American memory. In fact, West Side Story did not even win the Tony award for best musical in 1957, that honor instead going to Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, a fine show that looked more to Broadway’s past than to its future. Of the six Tony categories for which West Side Story received nominations, it won only two: Robbins for Best Choreography and Oliver Smith for Best Scenic Design. The 1961 film, in contrast, won Oscars in ten of the eleven categories in which it was nominated—to this day a record achievement for a film musical.

Candide is famous as the Bernstein stage work that kept morphing through various versions, never reaching a form that everyone considers definitive. Though its basic text is more of a fixed quantity, West Side Story also holds a number of editorial challenges, principally involving its orchestration. Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal carried out the show’s original orchestration under the composer’s supervision, scoring it for about thirty players. Some of their decisions were specific to the available forces. For example, their original orchestration uses a string section that lacks violas. The reason? Union rules governing the Winter Garden Theater, where the show played, required that the members of the house orchestra be used in the performances, and Bernstein found the theater’s two viola players sub-par. “Let’s just do without them,” he told his orchestrators, “because I couldn’t stand listening to my show every night and hearing what those guys would do to the viola parts.” Ramin and Kostal re-orchestrated the work when it was turned into a movie, increasing the forces to a full symphony orchestra, and Bernstein worried that the result was overblown and unsubtle. In 1984, Bernstein retouched the score as he prepared to conduct West Side Story for a Deutsche Grammophon studio recording, with his revisions at that time reflecting what we may take as his final thoughts on the piece—the state of the score that is used for these performances.

“The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr, critic of the Herald Tribune, in the wake of the opening in New York, and one might argue that his assumption remains true more than a half-century later. West Side Story stands an essential, influential chapter in the history of not just American musical theater but, indeed, of American theater of any sort, and its engrossing tale of young love against a background of spectacularly choreographed gang warfare has found a place at the core of Americans’ common culture.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
RECORDINGS—The original Broadway cast recording from 1957, with Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, and Chita Rivera (among others), with the composer conducting a truncation of the score (Sony)  |  The 1984 studio recording in which the approach is operatic and, curiously, Tony is more Latin than Maria; with Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, and Tatiana Troyanos (among others), again with Bernstein conducting (Deutsche Grammophon).  |  The motion-picture soundtrack from 1961, with the voices of Marni Nixon, Jim Bryant, and Rita Moreno (part of whose portrayal of Anita was dubbed by Nixon and Betty Wand) (Sony)

READING—Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday)  |  Leonard Bernstein: A Life, by Merle Secrest (Bloomsbury) | Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus)  |  Bernstein: A Biography, by Joan Peyser (Beech Tree Books/William Morrow)  |  Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,by Stephen Sondheim (Knopf)  |  Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, by Misha Berson (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books)  |  West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, edited by Elizabeth A. Wells (Scarecrow Press) 

West Side Story
Book: Arthur Laurents
Music:  Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics:  Stephen Sondheim
Based on a Conception of Jerome Robbins

Leonard Bernstein
Composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, humanitarian, thinker, entertainer and adventurous spirit, Leonard Bernstein forged his many talents with an irresistible personality to transform the way people everywhere hear and appreciate music. He broke rules, shattered precedents and opened doors, insisting that the art of music could and should play a vital role in the lives of all people.

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, Bernstein was the son of middle-class Jewish immigrants. His musical abilities became apparent when he was a child and he began composing while attending the Garrison and Boston Latin Schools. At Harvard College, his musical studies became more serious. Accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he studied piano with Isabella Vengerova, conducting with Fritz Reiner, and orchestration with Randall Thompson. In the summer of 1940, he began what would become a lifelong association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s newly created summer festival at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. Bernstein became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic when he was only twenty-five; he became became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958. A tireless educator, his landmark achievements include the award-winning Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic on CBS television and the six lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1972-73 as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, which were subsequently published and televised as The Unanswered Question.

Bernstein’s successes as a composer ranged from the Broadway stage (most notably, West Side Story) to concert halls all over the world, where his orchestral and choral works continue to thrive. As conductor of a vast repertory, he was a dynamic presence on the podiums of the world’s great orchestras for half a century, leaving a legacy that endures and continues to thrive through an uncommonly rich and diverse catalogue of over 500 recordings and filmed performances.

Jerome Robbins
Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) is world renowned for his work as a choreographer of ballets as well as his work as a director and choreographer in theater, movies and television. He joined the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 1939, where he went on to dance principal roles in the works of Fokine, Tudor, Massine, Balanchine, Lichine, and de Mille. Mr. Robbins joined New York City Ballet in 1949, and became an associate artistic director with George Balanchine. Mr. Robbins directed for television and film as well, and his co-direction and choreography of West Side Story won him two Academy awards. After his Broadway triumph with Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, Mr. Robbins continued creating ballets for New York City Ballet. He shared the position of ballet-master-in-chief with Peter Martins until 1989. Creator of more than sixty ballets, Mr. Robbins's awards and citations include four Tony awards, five Donaldson awards, two Emmy awards, the Screen Directors' Guild Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Mr. Robbins was a 1981 Kennedy Center Honors Recipient, was awarded the Chevalier dans l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur and the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government, was an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and was awarded a National Medal of Arts as well as the Governor's Arts Awards by the New York State Council on the Arts.

Arthur Laurents
An award-winning playwright, screenwriter, librettist, director, and producer, Arthur Laurents was responsible for creating the librettos of many Broadway shows including Gypsy, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Hallelujah, Baby!, Anyone Can Whistle,and Nick & Nora (the latter two which he also directed). He wrote the screenplays for The Snake Pit, Anna Lucasta, Anastasia, Bonjour Tristesse, The Way We Were, and The Turning Point; and  the plays Home of the Brave, The Time of the Cuckoo, and A Clearing of the Woods. Mr. Laurents’s directing credits include productions of I Can Get it for You Wholesale, Gypsy, La Cage aux folles, and Birds of Paradise.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim, one of the most influential and accomplished composer/lyricists in Broadway history, was born in New York City and raised in New York and Pennsylvania. As a teenager he met Oscar Hammerstein II, who became Sondheim's mentor. Sondheim graduated from Williams College, where he received the Hutchinson Prize for Music Composition. After graduation he studied music theory and composition with Milton Babbitt. He worked for a short time in the 1950s as a writer for the television show Topper.

Mr. Sondheim has received Tony awards for Best Score, Music, and Lyrics for Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Into the Woods (1987), and Passion (1994), all of which won the New York Drama Circle Award for Outstanding/Best Musical, as did Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sunday in the Park with George (1984). In total, his works have accumulated more than sixty individual and collaborative Tony Awards. “Sooner or Later” from the film Dick Tracy won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Song. Mr. Sondheim received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984 for Sunday in the Park with George. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded him the Gold Medal for Music in 2006. In 1990 he was appointed the first visiting professor of contemporary theatre at Oxford University and was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in the 1993 Kennedy Center HonorsHis collected lyrics with attendant essays have been published in two volumes: Finishing the Hat (2010) and Look, I Made a Hat (2011).

Music Theatre International (MTI) is one of the world's leading theatrical licensing agencies, granting schools, as well as amateur and professional theaters from around the world the rights to perform the largest selection of great musicals from Broadway and beyond. MTI works directly with the composers, lyricists, and book writers of these shows to provide official scripts, musical materials, and dynamic theatrical resources to more than 60,000 theatrical organizations in the US and in more than sixty countries worldwide.

West Side Story is presented through special arrangement with Music Theater International (MTI). All authorized performance materials are also supplied by MTI. 421 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019. Phone: (212) 541-4684. Fax: 9212) 397-4684.