West Side Story appeared on Broadway (50 years ago this year) as something new, fresh, and more than a little disturbing: a musical as romantic as any in the content of its love songs for the Romeo and Juliet-like principals, and at the same time grittier than any of its forebears in terms of the songs' context: racial strife and gang battles (choreographed by Jerome Robbins), perhaps not as realistic as their creators intended, but "un-Broadway musical" nonetheless.
What made the story and action of West Side Story particularly compelling was that the play was dance-driven - bodies in motion, relating to each other, rather than bodies at rest singing into a void. "Instead of glamour," Brooks Atkinson, the none-too-hip theater critic of The New York Times, wrote some years after the premiere (which he had reviewed appreciatively, if rather passionlessly), "it offered the poverty-stricken life of Puerto Rican street gangs, and it did not conclude with romance and the cliché of living happily ever after. It concluded with the violent death of the chief male character. Although it was deliberately patterned after Romeo and Juliet, it dispensed with the wit, gentility, and ceremoniousness of Shakespearean drama… It was sui generis - a harsh ballad of the city, taut, nervous, and flaring, the melodies choked apprehensively, the rhythms wild, swift, and deadly. Since Jerome Robbins, the director, had been trained in ballet, the staging had a breathtaking pace, and the ballets were explosive… West Side Story dispensed with the familiar charms of musical theater and relied solely on talent and artistic conviction."
Since its initial Broadway run, West Side Story had led a shadowy life. The film version of 1961 was considerably sanitized and less than perfectly cast (too many actors, too few dancers, and dubbed singing voices), its brightly-lit outdoor settings mitigating the tension and sense of danger of the original. Ironically, the film version won a host of Academy Awards (including Best Picture), although not one for Bernstein as composer, since the score was "adapted from another medium." In stage revivals the story has lost a good deal of its shock value, the "romance" of the street gang having fled along with our greater familiarity with its evils. Nor has West Side Story profited from being cast, on recordings at any rate, with operatic voices. What remains above all is Leonard Bernstein's music - jazzy, Latin American, symphonic, balletic by turns.
I recommend to the reader an "official" Leonard Bernstein website, www.leonardbernstein.com/studio, which includes portions of his illuminating "West Side Log," from which a few extracts follow:
New York, 6 Jan. 1949. 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 running high between Jews and Catholics; former: Capulets, latter: Montagues, Juliet is Jewish. Friar Laurence is a neighborhood druggist, street brawls, double death - it all fits. But it's all much less important than 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…
Columbus, Ohio, 15 April 1949. Just received draft of first four scenes [by playwright Arthur Laurents, who had come on board shortly after the Robbins letter cited above] much good stuff. But this is no way to work. Me on this long conducting tour, Arthur between New York and Hollywood. Maybe we'd better wait until I can find a continuous hunk of time… Obviously, this show can't depend on stars, so it will have to live and die by the success of its collaboration; and this remote-control collaboration isn't right. Maybe they can wait and find the right composer who isn't always slipping off to conduct somewhere…
New York, 7 June 1955. Jerry hasn't given up. Six years of postponement are as nothing to him. I'm still excited, too. So is Arthur. Maybe I can plan to give this year to Romeo - if Candide [Bernstein's collaboration with Lillian Hellman and Richard Wilbur, then nearing completion] gets on in time.
Beverly Hills, 25 August 1955. Had a fine long session with Arthur [Laurents] today… We're fired again by the Romeo notion, only now we've abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: Two teen-age gangs as the warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled "Americans". Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses and - most of all - I can sort of feel the form.
[A few months later, Stephen Sondheim joined the team as lyricist. - HG]
New York, 17 March 1956. Candide is on again… So again Romeo is postponed for a year. Maybe it's all for the best… It's such a problematical work anyway that it should benefit by as much sitting-time as it can get. Chief problem: to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and "just dancing" abstract and representational. Avoid being messagy….
New York, 8 July 1957. I can't believe it - 40 kids are actually doing it up there on the stage. Forty kids singing five-part counterpoint who never sang before - and sounding like heaven. I guess we were right not to cast "singers": anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and then the "kid" quality would be gone. A perfect example of a disadvantage turned into a virtue.
Washington, D.C., 20 Aug. 1957. The opening last night was just as we dreamed it… There's a work there; and whether it finally succeeds or not in Broadway terms, I am now convinced that what we dreamed all those years is possible, because there stands that tragic story, with a theme as profound as love versus hate, with all the theatrical risks of death and racial issues and young performers and "serious" music and complicated balletics - and it all added up for audiences and critics…
- Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.