...a rather different kind of musical.
- Arthur Laurents
One of the best-loved musicals of the 20th Century, West Side Story broke many moulds when it opened in 1957. Leonard Bernstein's score is of a symphonic breadth that makes it a joy for world-class orchestras and opera singers to perform, yet it was written to tell the story of a bunch of New York street kids, whose raw exuberance is bluntly conveyed in the slangy street vocabulary of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and Arthur Laurents' book. The choreography of Jerome Robbins blew audiences away, conveying the drama more fully than any language.
The first Broadway production featured a cast of young unknowns, and received rave reviews. The film version won ten Oscars in 1961, including Best Picture1. The musical has been recorded with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras in the leading roles. It is something of a phenomenon in the world of musicals.
The air is humming,
And something great is coming!
It's only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
- 'Something's Coming'
West Side Story is a modern version of the Romeo and Juliet story. The rival families of Verona are now rival gangs of white immmigrants and Puerto Ricans on the streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Our Romeo is Tony, of Polish origin, whose best friend Riff is the leader of the Jets. The Jets are fighting a turf war with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo ('Prologue' and 'Jet Song'). Bernardo's younger sister Maria is the Juliet of the story. She is newly arrived in New York to marry a Puerto Rican boy called Chino, whom her family have chosen for her.
But when Tony and Maria meet at a local dance ('The Dance At The Gym') they fall instantly in love. They can only meet in secret; Maria is kept under the close eye of Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita ('Tonight'). Anita is Maria's confidante, but thinks that Tony is just another worthless punk.
In fact Tony wants a different future, away from the gang ('Something's Coming'), but Riff has a rumble going down with the Sharks and needs Tony for one last time. Tony reluctantly agrees to support his friend, but Maria begs Tony to help stop the fight.
Down at the rumble, Tony tries to intervene. But Bernardo is furious that Tony has been making advances towards his sister and rejects Tony's efforts to make peace. In the ensuing fight ('The Rumble'), Tony's friend Riff is knifed by Bernardo. Enraged, Tony leaps in and knifes Bernardo in his turn. The gangs turn on each other until police whistles are heard and they flee, leaving behind the dead bodies of the gang leaders, Riff and Bernardo. And so Act One ends.
Act Two opens with Maria happily preparing to meet Tony ('I Feel Pretty'), when Chino turns up at the apartment with the news that Tony has killed Bernardo at the rumble. Chino grabs a gun and makes off to find Tony. Meanwhile, Tony has arrived at the apartment via the fire escape and, although Maria is distraught at her brother's death, she finds that she cannot send Tony away ('Somewhere'). But eventually Tony has to leave and go into hiding.
Maria begs Anita to find Tony and warn him that Chino is hunting for him. Eventually Anita agrees, convinced by Maria's genuine passion for Tony ('A Boy Like That'/'I Have A Love'). But when she finds the Jets, she is cruelly taunted by them for her race and almost raped. In revenge, she tells them that Chino has killed Maria to avenge Bernardo's death.
When this news reaches Tony he wanders the streets in despair, calling out for Chino to come and kill him too. Maria is also searching the streets for Tony, and all of a sudden they see each other. But before they can reach each other, Chino has appeared from around the corner and shoots Tony dead. The shocked gangs slowly appear on the scene, and then Jets and Sharks together come forward to lift Tony's body and carry it away.
East Side Story?
I choose whatever feels right, whatever seems heaven-sent, whatever has the right timing.
- Leonard Bernstein
Jerome Robbins originally contacted Bernstein and Arthur Laurents in 1949 with an idea for a Broadway show based on the Romeo and Juliet story. But the conflict Robbins envisioned was between a Jewish girl and an Italian Catholic boy, with the action set during the Easter/Passover festivals on the Lower East Side of New York City - hence the title might have been East Side Story.
But after roughing out a few scenes, the collaborators found that this idea wasn't quite right and dropped the project for a while.
Five years later, Bernstein and Laurents were working in Los Angeles and saw a headline about Mexican gangs fighting white gangs on the streets of LA. With the notion of a conflict being about race rather than religion, the idea finally felt 'right'. In his copy of the play of Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein has written at the head of the first page: 'An out-and-out plea for racial tolerance'. Instinctively, the collaborators had gone to the heart of the problems in post-war American society: the next few decades were to be characterised by race riots and violence in every major city in America.
It seems prophetic now, but at the time social commentary hadn't been at the forefront of Bernstein's mind. In fact, none of the collaborators wanted gritty realism, they wanted the piece to have a magical quality. The music and the dance would take people away from hard realities, transform street kids into lovers and fighters and sweep the audience up in its big themes. It was 'the bigger idea of making a musical that tells a tragic story in musical comedy terms, using only musical comedy techniques, never falling into the 'operatic' trap.'2
We're gonna rock it tonight,
We're gonna jazz it up and have us a ball!
- 'Tonight (Reprise)'
Bernstein is a composer truly inspired by different types of rhythm, and in West Side Story he really lets fly. The extensive use of syncopation gives the music a modern, jazzy feel, which Jerome Robbins echoed in the choreography, especially for 'Cool' and 'Jet Song', expressing the gang's arrogance and frustration. The trademark finger-clicking by the dancers underpins the jazz-smart rhythms of these set-pieces.
And, unsurprisingly, the musical is also full of Latin American flavour, in the rhumba rhythms of 'America' - a sarcastic comparison of life in Puerto Rico and Manhattan sung by the Shark girls - and the mambo from the 'Dance At The Gym', which begins with a burst of percussion (bongos, congas, maracas) before the brass comes in, accompanied by rhythmic clapping and shouts from the gangs.
Despite the desire to use only 'musical comedy terms', there's no doubt that at times Bernstein indulges in operatic techniques. The reprise of 'Tonight' towards the end of Act One employs complex counterpoint to convey the different emotions of the various protagonists about the upcoming battle. And the dream sequence following 'Somewhere' is almost a mini-ballet.
But the music that thrives beyond the musical itself are the melodic pieces such as Tony's solo about 'Maria' or the beautiful duet 'Tonight', sung in the musical's 'balcony scene'.
From Stage to Screen
It wasn't just the stage show that was innovative. The film version of West Side Story was also a breakthrough. Filmed on location in New York, with a young cast and exciting new styles of choreography and music, the film couldn't have been further from the technicolor star-driven Hollywood musicals of the previous decade.
United Artists brought Robert Wise on board to share the directing with Jerome Robbins (who had directed the stage version). The studio had a great deal of trouble with the perfectionist Robbins, who went over budget and over schedule. Robbins also greatly resisted any changes to the original stage show, but was overruled by the producers.
It was felt that the film needed to be pushed towards its tragic conclusion more forcefully than the stage show, as there was no interval in the film and a different storytelling pace was required. While this makes dramatic sense, it does lose the irony of the stage version which is conveyed so cleverly in the music.
For example, in the stage show, the darkly jazzy 'Cool' occurs before the rumble, and shows the Jets playing at being the tough guys in town, ruling the roost and staying cool. And in the second half of the show, the slapstick routine of 'Gee, Officer Krupke' sees the Jets regressing to a much more childish mode than that displayed in 'Cool', which is particularly poignant after the events of the night of the rumble.
However, in the film version, 'Gee, Officer Krupke' occurs before the rumble, and is a knockabout routine designed to show off the acrobatic prowess of Russ Tamblyn as Riff. 'Cool' occurs after the deaths of Riff and Bernardo, and shows the rest of the Jets in crisis, trying to keep cool under incredible pressure. 'Cool' is a brilliant piece of music, but in the film the original feel of the piece is somewhat hijacked by the emotional turmoil of the moment. The kids have become hoodlums with a heart, and there is a very strong sense that the tragedy has somehow redeemed them from their hopeless lives. In the stage version this is ambiguous.
Another difference is the location of 'I Feel Pretty', which kicks off the second half of the stage show. In the film version, this would have immediately followed the rumble, and since the producers wanted to maintain the sense of doom, they moved this piece to before the 'Dance At The Gym'.
This makes a subtle difference to the character of Maria. In the stage version, she sings this song after she has met Tony – it is this relationship that makes her 'feel pretty' and there is an undercurrent of sexual awakening in the song. But in the film, the song is sung when she is still in her state of innocence before she meets Tony and is therefore merely a bright and breezy interlude before the real drama starts.
These changes don't necessarily detract from the film, which had different dramatic requirements. The 'Cool' sequence, for example, is filmed in a dark underground car park with the camera low on the floor, giving the scene real menace3, and it remains one of the most memorable scenes. At this time, Broadway was more permissive than Hollywood in terms of what it would show to the public. Some of the language in the stage show had to be modified for the film version, and the stage show's more ambiguous and ironic moments are toned down in the film.
A Singular Achievement
May West Side Story mean as much to the theatre and to people who see it as it has to us.
- Stephen Sondheim to Leonard Bernstein on the day of the New York premiere
Another Bernstein 'operatic' musical, Candide, had opened on Broadway in 1956, less than a year before the opening of West Side Story. It had not been particularly well received and there was no indication that West Side Story would do much better. The two musicals were written side by side over several years, and some music was even interchanged between them. As Humphrey Burton explains in his 1994 biography of Bernstein:
Tony and Maria’s duet, 'One Hand, One Heart', was originally intended for Candide and Cunegonde. The music of the satirical number 'Gee, Officer Krupke' was annexed from the Venice scene in Candide...the traffic flowed both ways. The marriage duet in Candide - 'O Happy We' - started life as a song for Tony and Maria in a tea party scene that was dropped.
Bernstein himself was working like a demon - conducting and making television programmes, as well as supervising the orchestrations for West Side Story and rehearsing the cast.
But the show was an incredible success, and this is probably due in large part to the nature of the collaboration. Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim and Laurents all had a vision of what they wanted to achieve and drove each other to create something that had never been seen before on Broadway. All four of them were 'serious' artists who came together to write for the 'popular' stage. Into the violent and deprived world of the story they poured opera, poetry and ballet, with the ultimate aim of remaking the great American musical.
They didn't succeed. This collaboration of creative giants, so different from such longtime partnerships as Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, was never repeated. Bernstein as a composer had many more paths to explore and visions to fulfil, and West Side Story therefore stands as a unique achievement.
- Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins
- Book by Arthur Laurents
- Music by Leonard Bernstein
- Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
- Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins