Bernstein: West Side Story

“Why do you kids live like there’s a war on?”

A whistle rings out through the empty streets of Manhattan, a long, sustained note leaping up a tritone—“the devil’s interval.” This distinct signal summons the Jets, a gang of white youths on the city’s West Side, and it resounds throughout Leonard Bernstein’s musical masterpiece.

The 1961 film’s choreographer and co-director, Jerome Robbins, was struck with the initial inspiration back in 1949: What if Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet were transposed into modern-day America? He liked the idea of turning the warring Capulets and Montagues into New York Jews and Catholics, set during Passover season, and calling it East Side Story. He pitched it as a stage musical to Bernstein, who he’d collaborated with on the 1944 ballet Fancy Free, and they roped in playwright Arthur Laurents to write the book. But Bernstein’s celebrity conducting career took off, and the idea got shelved for six years—when Bernstein and Laurents read a story about Chicano riots in Los Angeles and realized that a racially-fueled gang feud between white New Yorkers and Latin Americans (specifically Puerto Ricans) would be a perfect adaptation for their modern Romeo and Juliet.

The resulting musical—brimming with a talented young cast and Bernstein’s instant-classic songs, with lyrics by a tenderfoot named Stephen Sondheim, and electrified by Robbins’s street-ballet choreography—conquered Broadway and then the globe, earning six Tony nominations and a place in the pantheon of American musical theater. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, by way of United Artists and director Robert Wise, who shared the captain’s chair with Robbins. The cast was mostly populated with unknown young actors (Elvis reportedly turned down the role of Tony), with the exception of Natalie Wood who adopted a Puerto Rican accent to play Maria. The singing performances of Wood and Richard Beymer, who played Tony, were dubbed by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant—despite the fact that Wood signed on with the understanding that her vocals would be on the soundtrack.

Deceiving your star is hard to justify, but in this case the motivating factor was the acrobatic difficulty of Bernstein’s music. From the quick and jagged melody lines to the lightning syncopations, West Side Story is a high threshold for any singer to clear. That devilish tritone, which activates songs like “Cool” and “Maria,” is representative of a score filled with tension and angular, unresolved motion. The story’s sizzling racism and glinting knife blades are musically translated by Bernstein into the angry engine in “Jet Song,” the sarcastic confessional “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and the boiling twelve-tone jazz in “Cool.” He surrounded the raw testosterone in these melodies with snarling muted brass, rumbling percussion, finger snaps, and restless, herky-jerky rhythms. Rhythm dominates the standout number, “America”—a collision of complex, Latin-influenced meters.

But it’s also a passionately romantic musical, evidenced by Tony’s smitten ballad “Maria,” which Bernstein turned into a snappy cha-cha number when the two lovers first lock eyes (and later when Maria dances alone just before learning about her brother’s death). Equally lovely are Tony and Maria’s blissfully romantic duet “Tonight,” the tragically romantic “Somewhere,” and the somber wedding hymn “One Hand, One Heart.” Tony’s lover-not-a-fighter is introduced right at the start with “Something’s Coming,” an idealist tune he sings over a steam engine rhythm and silky strings. The almost naively sweet Maria twirls around with the Latin-inflected aria, “I Feel Pretty.” Such innocent optimism begins to crack in “Quintet,” when the gang members subvert what Tony and Maria mean by the word “tonight,” lines of violence and love braiding and counterpointing. It’s further shattered in “A Boy Like That,” with Anita’s passionate fury expressed in harsh, cascading lines, countered by Maria’s hopeful, ascending line in “I Have a Love.”

The Oscar-winning score was orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had also prepared Bernstein’s music for the stage, along with Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green. “If he’d had the time he wouldn’t even need us,” Kostal once said. “When it came to West Side Story every note is his: still, he would say once in a while, ‘Who said that orchestration can’t be creative?’ He was entirely appreciative of anything that we did.” The score was arranged for thirty players on Broadway, and the movie offered three times as many (although Bernstein is reported to have found the film’s orchestra overbearing). As in most musicals, the underscore serves as connective tissue between songs, mining their melodies for an extra layer of emotion—an instrumental of “Maria” under the balcony scene, or a string reprise of “Somewhere” as the lovers lie together after the killing.  There are also scored dances like the “Prologue” basketball ballet, the wild “Mambo” in the gym, and the intense, violent accompaniment to the rumble. At the end, Maria struggles to get the words of “Somewhere” out as Tony dies in her arms, and the orchestra sympathetically finishes it for her—her optimism that “there’s a place for us” undercut by a sinister, dirge-like drumbeat.

Tim Greiving

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at

(January 2018)