Leonard Bernstein

West Side Story, musical

    Description by Rovi Staff

    On January 9, 1949, Leonard Bernstein entered this into his log: "Jerry R. [Robbins] called today with a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics. Former: Capulets; latter: Montagues. Juliet is Jewish." The newly formed State of Israel and the resultant war made the idea topical, and Bernstein, of Jewish descent, was familiar with Catholicism.

    From the beginning, Robbins suggested that Arthur Laurents write the book, which was to be called East Side Story. However, other projects forced them to put off work until 1955. In the late summer of that year, while in Los Angeles with Laurents, Bernstein saw a newspaper article about fights between Mexican and Anglo gangs on Olivera Street. The two decided that recently arrived Puerto Ricans and first-generation Americans born of European immigrants would be a more accessible alternative to the Capulets and Montagues than would Jews and Catholics, and Latin American rhythms began to take shape in Bernstein's head. Neither Laurents nor Bernstein wanted to compose the lyrics for the songs, and they enlisted the 26-year-old Stephen Sondheim in October 1955. The title was changed to West Side Story when the creators realized that gang warfare in New York had moved from the East Side to the West. West Side Story opened at New York's Winter Garden Theater on September 26, 1957, and has remained in the repertory ever since. The film version of 1961 was a smashing success, earning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. West Side Story is one of Bernstein's most impressive achievements in any style of composition. Its mixture of Latin American rhythms, big band jazz harmonies and instrumentation, contrapuntal writing, and colloquial language is handled with such skill and sensitivity that the result makes it seem as though these elements had always coexisted.

    Arthur Laurents' book for West Side Story is not really a retelling or paraphrase of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but rather uses the play as a point of departure. Feuding families become rival gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, and Tony (Romeo) kills Maria's (Juliet) brother, but the "star-crossed" lovers do not have the chance to commit suicide. The most powerful and musically complex moment in the show occurs at about the midpoint, as Tony and Maria sing of their love in a reprise of "Tonight," Anita anticipates her upcoming date with Bernardo, and Riff and Bernardo, with their respective gangs, prepare for the rumble that evening. The result is a quintet with moments of dense rhythmic and melodic polyphony, conveying musically the meaning of the simultaneous but unrelated lines of text. Other highlights include the energetic "America," with its alternating 6/8 and 3/4 time signatures, while "Tonight" and "Maria" boast some of the most memorable melodies from the American stage. "Somewhere," in its opening phrase, features a melodic line borrowed from the slow movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73.

    Another factor contributing to the musical's success was its strong dance element, evident in songs such as "America" as well as in confrontations between the rival gangs. The setting for the gangs' "neutral turf" negotiations, for example, is a gymnasium dance at which a distinctive mambo serves as the musical backdrop. Bernstein, even as he broke new ground, drew on a tradition of Broadway choreography that was reaching its high point as the work took shape, and the result was a work that combined rhythmic energy, kinetic appeal, romance, and compositional sophistication. The action on-stage may seem a bit dated in this day of the modern gangster, but the work's virtues are undimmed. It may well be a strong candidate for an innovatively updated production.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Prologue
    2. Jet Song
    3. Something's Coming
    4. The Dance at the Gym (Blues, Promenade, Mambo, Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Jump)
    5. Maria
    6. America
    7. Cool
    8. One Hand, One Heart
    9. Tonight
    10. The Rumble
    11. I Feel Pretty
    12. Ballet Sequence (Scherzo, Somewhere, Procession and Nightmare)
    13. Gee, Officer Krupke
    14. A Boy Like That - I Have a Love
    15. Taunting Scene
    16. Finale

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Razor & Tie 83680
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon 4795448
    2014 Piano 21 P 21052 N
    2014 San Francisco Symphony SFS 0059
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon 4793433
    2012 Masterworks Broadway 88725416952
    2012 Masterworks / Masterworks Broadway 88691948412
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon 4778853
    2010 Naxos 8572244
    2010 Naïve 1663
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 Hallmark / Hallmark Recordings 70978
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon 4778167
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon
    2009 BR Klassik 403571900300
    2009 Documents 232777
    2009 Sony Classics / Sony Music Distribution 750534
    2009 Masterworks Broadway 8869753085
    2009 Masterworks Broadway 752391
    2008 Stage Stars Records 517
    2007 Deutsche Grammophon
    2007 Deutsche Grammophon 471631
    2007 UMVD / Universal Distribution 1733909
    2006 Fineline 72403
    2003 Warner Classics 60423
    1998 Deutsche Grammophon / PolyGram 4571992
    1998 Columbia 60724
    1998 Sony Classical / Sony Music Distribution 60724
    1998 Columbia / Sony Classical 60724
    1997 Jay Records 1261
    1995 Deutsche Grammophon 4479582
    1994 Sony Music Distribution 64419
    1992 Sony Music Distribution 53152
    1990 Deutsche Grammophon 415253
    1990 Columbia 32603