The intention of Leonard Bernstein was to have the musical begin without an overture. The rather stark and, at the time, unconventional idea has provided enormous dramatic value to productions that go this route. Mr. Bernstein’s feelings on this matter are clearly demonstrated by the absence of an overture in the otherwise comprehensive Deutsche Grammophon recording of the work under his baton. Also in accord with the composer’s wishes is the absence of an overture in the painstakingly thorough and magnificent Conductor’s Score published by Boosey & Hawkes (though B&H has whispered the existence of a separate book containing an overture, presumably available in plain brown wrapper.)
Leonard Bernstein at the podium of the
Winter Garden Theater
Broadway Return Engagement
April 27, 1960
The Overture in question was prepared by the orchestrators and not by the composer and has been played in a number of important productions, though not, by several reliable accounts, in the original. With a graciousness that almost matches his genius, Mr. Bernstein put aside his disapproval of the piece and agreed to conduct the Overture for the premiere of the triumphal Return Engagement on Broadway in April of 1960. Prolonged applause greeted his entrance and was enthusiastically repeated at the conclusion of the piece. How much more special could the evening have been than by having the proceedings kicked off by the work's gifted composer?
To those of us blessed with both 20/20 hindsight and a dedicated confidence in the skills of the creators, it comes as a surprise that the innovative concept of opening the show with an extended, stylized dance sequence was an idea that came to them late in the process. As originally conceived, the musical was to begin with a conventional song-and-dialogue scene. Some of the earlier drafts indicate the gathering of the Jets in their "clubhouse" before the proceedings were transferred to "The Street." Several of the songs written and then rejected for this scene still have portions of their melodies residing in the Prologue. The ultimate agreement to have the entire opening sequence presented in movement and dance was not an original concept—it has Carousel, for one, as a forebear—but its breathtaking presentation is one of a kind.
The Jets in flight
Jamie Gustis as Riff [far right]
and the Jets
The now-emblematic introduction
of the Sharks.
[l-r] Byron Easley, Vincent Zamora and Lucio Fernandez
The Jets line up in Scene One to make the proud and confident declaration to defend their threatened territorial and ethnic birthrights. This scene was most likely posed for the camera—the original staging indeed calls for the Jets to line up this way during the second chorus of the Jet Song, but Riff would have already departed by that time ("Walk tall!") and Anybodys would be long gone even before the number is sung. The photo was taken near the end of the New York run, probably some time between March and June of 1959. Still walking tall from opening night are Al De Sio (now in a different role), Lee Becker and Frank Green.
[l-r] Stan Papich, Richard Corrigan, Al De Sio, Gus Trikonis, Thomas Hasson, Frank Green, Jerry Norman, Lee Becker, Gary Scharff, Tracy Everitt, and Tucker Smith.
"Something"s Coming" is said to be the last song that was written for the score, as late as August 7 or some twelve days prior to the opening in Washington DC. The earliest drafts of Scene Two call for an extended speech by Tony, in which he describes his longing for some unseen, unknown, yet-to-be-discovered prospect in his life. Leonard Bernstein saw the need to place a song in the spot instead, expeditiously demonstrating Tony's buoyant and hopeful character with a buoyant and hopeful song, rather than start him off slower and later with the more sedate "Maria," at the end of Scene Four. The "new song for Tony," to use Mr. Bernstein's happy phrase from a letter to his wife, is a testament to the success of the collaboration, as much of the song's phrases and imagery comes directly from Mr. Laurents' libretto, especially the peerless "whistling down the river." It is also a testament to the songwriters' skills, as by several accounts the song was completed in one day. The soaring voice of Larry Kert as heard on the Broadway cast recording, building on this phrase from "around the corner," is re-assuring proof that the love story did not take a back seat to the gang warfare in the initial production.
The incomparable Larry Kert
Broadway Original Cast
THE DANCE AT THE GYM
The ubiquitous tritone and a shower of now-historic party streamers introduce the extended suite of music that, except for the duration of Glad Hand's speech, occupies every bit of Scene Four. The streamers gained prominence thanks to a backstage accident that happened to catch the eye of Jerome Robbins. The pulsating music, presumably, was intentional, and every bit as colorful. The six diverse pieces—Blues, Promenade, Mambo, Cha-cha, Meeting Scene, and Jump—are quintessential demonstrations of the composer's extraordinary skill at creating work that is exactly typical of the music of its day while remaining utterly and uncannily original. The Dance music represents the best of Broadway in every sense, serving as the background to a rare cast-wide exhibition ("Blues" and the start of "Mambo") as well as driving both the love story ("Cha-cha") and the gang rivalry ("Mambo" challenge). Much of the story turns on this powerfully packed scene, and the music delivers all that is demanded of it and more.
Riff and Anybodys
Mickey Calin and Lee Becker,
with Jet boys and girls
Anita and Bernardo
Chita Rivera and Ken Le Roy,
with Shark boys and girls
The reliable tritone makes its most memorable appearance in the score, beginning the powerful vocal ascent of the lovestruck boy as he repeatedly and ardently invokes the name of his new love. "Maria" was arguably the most popular piece taken outside the work, thanks to the efforts of various recording artists such as Perry Como, Roger Williams, Johnny Mathis, and no less noteworthy a later contributor as George Chakiris. During the creation of the musical, the director found himself frustrated by the utter simplicity of the situation and sentiment produced by this song, and was hard-pressed to stage it to his satisfaction. Stephen Sondheim has stated that working on "Maria" with Jerome Robbins was a valuable and thorough early lesson in the wisdom that theater music must be written to be staged and choreographed as well as sung.
Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert
as Maria and Tony
The well-known and much admired Balcony Scene is supported by what many feel to be the best song in the show. The tireless efforts of Leonard Bernstein seem to reach something of a pinnacle at this point, with the orchestra having been playing continuously, even through applause, from the Mambo, Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene and Hop segments of The Dance at the Gym, right through "Maria" to the unforgettable rendezvous at the fire escape. The number ends (and the orchestra stops, finally, for a well-deserved breather) with a passage that is satisfactory in its own right: even, placid and unthreatening. For a first viewing the moment is serene; only theatergoers already familiar with the score are aware that the music is a reference to the still unheard "Somewhere," foreshadowing with deft expertise the abrupt end of the doomed romance that the happy and unsuspecting lovers have barely begun.
Don McKay and Marlys Watters
London Original Cast
The romantic mood established by “Maria” and “Tonight” is shattered in first-class musical comedy style by the presentation of “America.” All the key elements that make up the character of Anita—her fiery, no-nonsense temperament, her humor, and especially her carefree love of life—are neatly packaged in this song and in the scene in which it resides. Originally a three-way argument between Anita, Bernardo and Rosalia, the existing point/counterpoint between the two women strikes the average film-fan as something of a disappointment compared with the dramatic upgrade the song received in the screen version. Whatever the merits of the Hollywood presentation—and they are many—the song and especially the dance as originally conceived is a gem to be treasured in a live rendition, a literal show-stopper. The light-hearted respite from the romance, and from the in-fighting between Anita and Bernardo, is adeptly achieved. The remarkable Chita Rivera, along with Peter Gennaro, joined forces with the Master and helped create a theater classic.
Anita and the Shark girls.
Broadway Revival Cast
Debbie Allen and company