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Transplanting the feud between Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets to rival Puerto Rican and white gangs in New York may seem obvious in hindsight. After all, as Leonard Bernstein recalled: “In New York we had the Puerto Ricans, and at that time the papers were full of stories about juvenile delinquents and gangs.” The story goes, though, that Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents had been toying with a Catholic/Jewish scenario until a chance meeting in southern California and a Los Angeles Times headline about gang violence between Mexicans and whites suddenly convinced them that this hot-button issue had greater creative potential. Their collaboration with Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins took shape quickly, as Bernstein recorded in his diary: “Suddenly it all springs to life. I heard rhythms and pulses and – most of all – I can sort of feel the form.” West Side Story’s “rhythms and pulses” toss together everything from Tin Pan Alley to cool jazz to Latin dances in an eclectic postwar urban soundscape. Bernstein’s deep empathy for the universal human element in any particular musical style (it is what made him so effective a teacher) found no better outlet; the historically specific musical clichés in West Side Story only throw the classic nature of its plot and characters into greater relief.

Plans were quickly made for a film version of the musical, which in turn was adapted for these Symphonic Dances. As Skitch Henderson described, “By the time MGM got around to doing the picture, everybody had a hand in arranging or, should I say, re-arranging the original stage version. These dances are the product of many different orchestrators with a thorough editing job by the composer.” Most prominent among these was Sid Ramin, to whom Bernstein dedicated the work. The crucial role of dance in West Side Story added to the challenge of adapting the music for the concert platform. Bernstein and his orchestrators use vibrant instrumental combinations and a huge percussion section (not to mention the vocal talents of the orchestra members!) to enhance the kinetic quality of the rhythms. More deeply, they tilt the narrative weight from a love story to gang confict. We hear first the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, then the utopian opposite; their juxtaposition creates a dramatic tension that shapes the entire work. The printed score includes the following description:

Prologue (Allegro moderato) – The growing rivalry between two teenage street gangs, the Jets and Sharks.

“Somewhere” (Adagio) – In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.

Scherzo (Vivace leggiero) – In the same dream, they break through the city walls and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air, and sun.

Mambo (Presto) – Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs.

Cha-cha (Andantino con grazia) – The star-crossed lovers [Tony and Maria] see each other for the first time and dance together.

Meeting Scene (Meno mosso) – Music accompanies their first spoken words.

“Cool” Fugue (Allegretto) – An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.

Rumble (Molto allegro) – Climactic gang battle during which the two gangleaders are killed.

Finale (Adagio) – Love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of “Somewhere.”

Susan Key