petzipellepingo (petzipellepingo) wrote in westsidestory,

Wonders in the Dark

by Sam Juliano

The film of West Side Story produces the same brilliant effect as the play. This does not mean that the stage show has merely been duplicated; on the contrary, to get the same effect, it had to be effectively translated into a second medium. Because of the quality of the original materials and of the translation, the result is the best film musical ever made. -Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

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West Side Story, a cultural institution with a legacy to match any American film in the musical genre or otherwise, is also a curiosity. ... Though it originally ran for 732 performances on Broadway starting in 1957 -an impressive number by any barometer – it did not reach the zenith of theatrical and musical fulfillment until it was transferred to the screen four year later. The original show is now seen as much more than a classic musical, indeed one of the very few works that fundamentally changed the form of the musical. One of the greatest of the influences was in the theatricality of its presentation – the seamlessness and cinematic flow of its staging and the integration of script, song, dance and set. The operatic score by Leonard Bernstein, with book and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim is arguably one of the two greatest ever written for the musical theater – the other is Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat, which also represented a radical departure in musical storytelling. Almost every song from that score is now considered a standard and most of them are regularly performed in concerts, nightclubs and updated recordings. Cast albums have been produced all over the world in places like the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Sweden and Italy among others, and in various styles, instrumentation and interpretations. The play continues to be mounted frequently in high schools, universities, community and regional theaters, and in successful revivals around the globe. The libretto has been translated in over 26 languages, and in high school English classes it has been taught as a companion piece to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the timeless romantic work upon which it was based.

West Side Story is one of those exceedingly rare entertainment enterprises that much like those moments we recall that remain always frozen in time (JFK’s assassination; the destruction of the Twin Towers during 9-11; USA astronauts touching down on the moon) that we frame in terms of the question “Where were we when we first heard the news?” My first introduction to this monumental film came by way of the equally iconic soundtrack album. My now 84 year-old father, a moderate opera fan, bought the vinyl record in early 1962 with the now famous red cover displaying the striking black words of the title that are connected on the right by the configurations of an apartment building fire escape, and the two lead characters suspended in dance. I found myself falling in love with the score, and singing myself to sleep on many evenings, though never in the company of a single other person. I was only eight and very much stage shy. Inevitably the record broke, and the replacement met the same fate. At least a half dozen times a new record was purchased over the years. In those days my favorite song was “Maria” though “Tonight” was a close second. The makings of a lifetime appreciation of opera were in place, as the songs with the soaring lyrical melodies were the ones that had me enraptured most of all. Years later I came to regard the achingly beautiful “Somewhere” as the score’s masterpiece, with the sublime “One Hand One Heart” a supreme favorite.

I first saw the film at the now defunct Capital Theater in Union City, New Jersey during a re-release during the summer of 1962 on a Sunday afternoon with two older cousins. The experience at such an impressionable age was wholly cathartic, though it also yielded a incident that my family has talked about for decades, whenever they are in the mood to laugh with abandon. Unbeknownst to my cousins and I, a mutual uncle (my father’s brother, and my cousins’ mother’s brother) was in attendance in the packed movie palace, sitting as close as four rows in front of us in the orchestra section. Watching the film with his wife, he stood up near the end when Maria sang to a mortally wounded Tony, and screamed out to the top of his lungs at the packed audience “It’s the singing that killed him!’ Reportedly the audience burst out in laughter, while said uncle angrily left the theater, in obvious disgust with the “anytime, anywhere’ nature of the musical form. To be sure there are many theater goers out there then and now who are pretty much just as exasperated with the manner in which realism is suspended regularly in this genre, and as a result some avoid musicals. In any case the story always has us in stitches when recalled. I grew fond of singing the songs of the score while taking a shower, driving in the car or virtually any place where I was alone. I eventually opened up to family members. The four I loved the most are the operatic ones: “Somewhere,” “Tonight,” “Maria” and “One Hand, One Heart” though I have also been exceedingly fond of “Something’s Coming” and “I Have a Love.” I took in many community and school productions every chance I got over the years. I have seen few films as much as I have seen West Side Story over the years – immersing myself in numerous television broadcasts, theatrical re-issues and then the onslaught of home video which perpetrated purchases of the film on Beta, VHS, laserdisc, DVD and blu-ray, with a few of these incarnations in several upgrades. I brought my entire family to the much-ballyhooed 50th anniversary presentation in area theaters three years ago, and was tickled pink with enjoying the pleasure of introducing my kids to this timeless classic on the big screen. My two daughters, musical fans both, have become very fond of the film and the score, and two of my sons – one high school band saxophonist, and the other a member of the chorus, have performed a few of the songs in spring recitals.

The play was nominated for a bunch of Tony Awards, but ironically lost the Best Musical prize to Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, a great score for sure, but not in a league with the Bernstein-Sondheim mega-masterpiece. West Side Story the film is one of the most honored in history. It won a then record-tying 10 Academy Awards (of the 11 it was nominated for) including Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) and supporting actor Oscars for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. It also won Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle, and was the second biggest moneymaker in 1961 behind only Disney’s 101 Dalmatians.

West Side Story boasts one of the most spectacular openings in movie history (one that was remarkably matched four years later in another musical super hit directed by Robert Wise, The Sound of Music). Presented in Super Panavision 70, and yielding a 2:20 aspect ratio, the first images taken by Wise and cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp that are seen on the screen are part of an abstract design that changes color and then morphs into a breathtaking aerial view of Manhattan. Next up is footage shot from a helicopter that slowly glides atop the west side of Manhattan, capturing the intimidation of such a specious and imposing landscape more than any film before or since. A grand and extended zoom moves right from the urban sky down to a deserted slum street and the snapping fingers of the Jets, the white street gang who are shortly thereafter revealed to be at odds with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican horde with just as much fevered animosity as their counterparts. When their tensions break into dance even the most accepting of us must wonder how that tenuous balance between realism and fantasy can be maintained for two-and-a-half-hours, not to even mentioned how these macho ruffians could possibly be doing ballet steps on a New York City street. This part of the film was shot in an area that back in the day was soon to be torn down for the building of Lincoln Center, and the eventual home of the New York City Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.The gangs are a contemporary rendition of the Montagues and the Capulets, two warring families from Verona in Romeo and Juliet. The major difference is that they are not “alike in dignity” as per the Bard’s prologue, as the groups are racially variant and a bigoted cop instinctively stands with the Jets, planning to employ them for some ethnic house cleansing in the West Side neighborhood they both reside in. But the narrative parallels far accede the differences.

After a brawl erupts between the two gangs, Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke arrive to break it up, though the Jets challenge the Sharks to a rumble at an upcoming dance for control of the neighborhood. Riff urges his best friend Tony (think Mercutio prodding Romeo) who recently left the group he co-founded to fight, beckoning the undying bond of friendship and group loyalty in the perky, sing-song and completely irresistible “Jet Song” (partial lyrics):

When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette till your last dyin’ day
When you’re a Jet if the spit hits the fan
You got brothers around, you’re a family man

You’re never alone, you’re never disconnected
You’re home with your own when company’s expected
You’re well protected

Then you are set with a capital J
Which you’ll never forget till they cart you away
When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet…..

Tony, who is all but disillusioned with gang warfare, expresses no interest at all, but breaks out into song – “Something’s Coming”, to which Riff replies hopefully may have something profound to do with the dance. The song shifts in mood and tempo and reflects a real sense of hope. Bernstein gives full credit for the song to the outline by Authur Laurents, though reportedly Laurents was remarkably gracious, telling Bernstein “Go ahead – take it – and make a song out of it.” (partial lyrics):

Could be, who knows? There’s something due any day
I would know right away soon as it shows
It may come cannon balling down through the sky
Gleam in its eye, bright as a rose

Who knows? It’s only just out of reach
Down the block on a beach under a tree
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due
Gonna come true, coming to me

Could it be? Yes, it could
Something’s coming, something good if I can wait
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is
But it is gonna be great.

Maria tells her best friend (and Bernardo’s girlfriend) Anita that she is really excited to attend the dance, and after a brief interlude she makes eye contact with Tony, whom she immediately falls in love with. (In Romeo and Juliet of course the lovers met at the Capulet ball). Tony is so smitten that he self-engages in a euphoric and celebratory song in honor of his new love. “Maria” is one of the most beloved songs in the score, exhibiting operatic heft and striking melodic felicity. The original charges of corn when it was first heard in the play has now yielded to genuine admiration for how it intimately encapsulates the work’s romantic essence in an aria in which the name Maria is sung or spoken 27 times. Once heard the melody of this song will haunt the listener for days afterwards, indeed of a permanent variety. It is a quintessential ballad of young love and a depiction of the indescribable moment when one is struck by Cupid’s bow (Directors Wise and Robbins chose to film this by having Tony in the foreground of the dance hall, and then as the song progressed on a triumphant starstruck walking tour through the neighborhood)

The most beautiful sound I ever heard
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria
All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria

I’ve just met a girl named Maria
And suddenly that name will never be the same to me
Maria, I’ve just kissed a girl named Maria
And suddenly I’ve found how wonderful a sound can be

Maria, say it loud and there’s music playing
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying
Maria, I’ll never stop saying Maria
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria

Maria, say it loud and there’s music playing
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying
Maria, I’ll never stop saying Maria
The most beautiful sound I ever heard

An angry Bernardo orders Tony to stay clear of Maria, who is sent home. Anita contends that Bernardo is too over-protective of Maria, which leads into a song that compares and contrasts the United States and Puerto Rico – “America.” Anita stands by her adopted country, while Bernardo provides sarcastic commentary on its racist underpinnings. The bouncy number features appealing Latin percussion and Spanish guitar and some intricate cross-rhythms (partial lyrics):

Puerto Rico,
You lovely island . . .
Island of tropical breezes.
Always the pineapples growing,
Always the coffee blossoms blowing . . .

Puerto Rico . . .
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev’rything free in America
For a small fee in America!

Shortly thereafter Tony and Maria reaffirm their love on the fire escape and join together in one of the greatest duets in the history of the musical theater, as part of what is arguably the trademark number in West Side Story: “Tonight.” No doubt Puccini’s rapturous “O Sauve Fanciulla” from La Boheme was an inspiration to Bernstein, but the duet’s structure and melodic felicity is strictly Bernstein: (partial lyrics):

Tonight, tonight,
It all began tonight,
I saw you and the world went away.

Tonight, tonight,
There’s only you tonight,
What you are, what you do, what you say.

Today, all day I had the feeling
A miracle would happen —
I know now I was right.

For here you are
And what was just a world is a star

Police Officer Krupke suspects a rumble is forthcoming and visits the Jets to warn them to stay clear. The gang then engage in the score’s most comical number “Gee, Officer Krupke” which shifts the blame of their juvenile delinquency to their dysfunctional families. The number serves as a humorous segue into a series of tragic events. After he leaves the Sharks arrive, and both gangs agree to clash the following night under the highway, by way of a one-on-one duel. The gangs briefly feign friendship when Schank arrives, though the investigator attempts -unsuccessfully- to learn information of what is being plotted.

The very next day at the bridal shop Maria and her friends Consuela, Rosalita and Francisca sing the utterly delightful “I Feel Pretty,” which is about being happy and feeling beautiful because she’s in love. Then Anita by accident tells Maria about the upcoming rumble. Anita is subsequently shocked to see Tony enter and profess his love for Maria, who responds in kind. Anita offers a strong warning to Maria as to the grave consequences if Bernardo were to learn of their relationship but the love is rock solid. Maria and Tony then fantasize about their wedding in one of the most delicately beautiful songs in the whole of the musical theater, “One Hand, One Heart.” Considering that the song and enactment represent a social impossibility (this contrasts with Romeo and Juliet, in which the lovers are actually married) this symbolic sequence and the exceedingly poignant song that inhabits it is one of the most cathartic moments in musical history and certainly in West Side Story. The operatic duet is perfectly harmonized, with the union of the voices representing a oneness in keeping with the film’s romantic, albeit tragic theme. the very end of the song segues into the energy-infused “Quintet” in what is surely the most drastic change in musical mood from one scene to another in the film.

I Anton take thee Marie
I Maria take thee, Anton
For richer, for poorer
In sickness and in health

To love and to honor
To hold and to keep
From each sun to each moon
From tomorrow to tomorrow

From now to forever
Till death do us part
With this ring I thee wed
With this ring I thee wed

Make of our hands one hand
Make of our hearts one heart
Make of our vows one last vow
Only death will part us now

Make of our lives one life
Day after day one life
Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart
Even death won’t part us now

Make of our lives one life
Day after day one life
Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart
Even death won’t part us now

The most defining musical passage in West Side Story, the “Tonight Quintet” is also it’s most harmonically complex number and the one that provides Wise and Robbins with the material for what is unquestionably one of the most cinematically electrifying sequences ever made for any musical film. A masterpiece of ensemble singing it certainly rivals such venerated operatic compositions like the Donizetti’s “Sextet from Lucia Di Lamamoor and the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto in melodic appeal and invention. The sequence combines the pep-rally sentiments of the warring gangs with unadulterated individual declarations of love by Tony and Maria (the former at work in the luncheonette, the latter getting ready in her apartment) both of whom sing altered lyrics to the most musically powerful codas of “Tonight.” Superbly edited, and coming full circle it features all of the protagonists in operatic coordination right up to the unified high note that leads into the work’s tragic climax. This sequence is usually held up to anyone who tries to offer an argument that West Side Story did not fully escape its stage origins:

The jets are gonna have their day
The Jets are gonna have their way
The Puerto Ricans grumble,
Fair fight.
But if they start a rumble,
We’ll rumble em right.

We are gonna hand em a surprise
We are gonna cut em down to size
We said okay, no rumpus,
No tricks.
But just in case they jump us,
We are ready to mix

We are gonna rock it tonight,
We are gonna jazz it up and have us
A ball.

They are gonna get it tonight;
The more they turn it on, the
Harder they will fall!

Well, they began it —

Well, they began it —

And we are the ones to stop em
Once and for all.

Anita’s gonna get her kicks
We’ll have our private little mix
He’ll walk in hot and tired,
Poor dear.
Don’t matter if he’s tired,
As long as he’s here

Tonight, tonight
Won’t be just any night
Tonight there will be no morning star.
Tonight, tonight
I’ll see my love tonight,
And for us, stars will stop
Where they are.

The minutes seem like hours,
The hours go so slowly,
And still the sky is light.
Oh moon, grow bright,
And make this endless day endless night!

(During the remainder of the number, Tony and Maria will be heard singing together a reprise of the chorus they have just sung individually.)

The Jets are comin out on top
We’re gonna watch Bernardo drop
That Puerto Rican punk’ll
Go down
And when he’s hollered Uncle
We’ll tear up the town!

RIFF (to Ice)
We’ll be in back of you, boy.


You’re gonna flatten him good.


(with proper punch)

(with proper punch)

And then we’ll have us a ball

We’re gonna jazz it tonight
They’re gonna get it tonight —
They began it — they began it
And we’re the ones
To stop em once and for all!
The Sharks are gonna have their way,
The Sharks are gonna have their day,
We’re gonna rock it tonight —

They began it.
They began it.
We’ll stop em once and for all
The Jets are gonna have their day,
The Jets are gonna have their way,
We’re gonna rock it tonight.

The brilliantly choreographed rumble ensues and after Riff initiates a knife fight he is killed by Bernardo as a result of Tony attempting to intervene. Instinctively, Tony retaliates and kills Bernardo. Police sirens blare, scattering the gangs, all of whom flee, leaving behind two dead bodies. Meanwhile, Maria is waiting for her lover on the room of her apartment building, when Chino arrives to give her the tragic news about her brother. Maria is horrified, but seems to be more interested in Tony, imploring Chino to divulge his whereabouts. Chino angrily replies that it was Tony who killed her brother. When Tony arrives, Maria first pounds away at him, calling him a killer, but they soon enough fall into an embrace. Tony explains what happens and asks for forgiveness. Then they collaborate on one of the most ravishingly beautiful songs written in the twentieth-century: “Somewhere” after Maria in dialogue address the sorry state of affairs to her lover: “Then it’s not us….it’s everything around us” to which Tony replies “Then I’ll take you away, where nothing can get to us.” Covered by many artists this poetic duet of hope has long fascinated artists in all styles of music, with some of the more renowned versions of the song performed and recorded by Barbara Streisand, Michael Crawford, Phil Collins and the Pet Shop Boys. The song’s opening melodic line is taken from Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto,” while a longer phrase is patterned after the melodic flow of the main theme of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The vocal departure with Tony’s sublime couplet “We’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving” achieves an operatic epiphany:

There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

There’s a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
Some day!

We’ll find a new way of living,
We’ll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .

There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Some day,

Maria then dispatches an unhappy Anita to arrange for a rendezvous for Tony and herself after declaring her love in another lovely song of considerable emotional power. The song “I Have a Love” is a response to Anita’s “A Boy Like That,” which assails Maria for standing by the man who killed her brother. But at Doc’s store Anita is crassly insulted and physically mauled by Jet members, causing her to spitefully lie that Maria was killed by Chino in a fit of rage. Tony is soon told the terrible news, and throwing caution to the wind runs out into the streets yelling for Chino to kill him too. A shot rings out shortly after Tony sees that Maria is still alive as they near each other on opposite sides of a basketball court. Maria cradles Tony in her arms and the first lines are a partial encore of “Somewhere.” Maria waves Chino’s gun, telling both gangs “Now I can kill too, because now I have hate!, but drops the gun in grief. Gradually both gangs assemble on either side of Tony’s body, showing that the feud is over. The Jets and Sharks form a procession, and together carry Tony away, with Maria holding up the rear. (The major difference between West Side Story and its Romeo and Juliet source is that in Shakespeare’s play both lovers die, while in the Bernstein-Sondheim collaboration the female lover lives).

Containing an overture, prologue, intermission and Finale, West Side Story maintains in good measure the theatrical experience of the full orchestra in the pit. The instrumental music rehashes the themes in bold arrangements, and in some instances introduces musical lines via abstract sounds and partial melodies.

West Side Story is without question the finest dance musical since Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, though the earlier classic’s score is light years behind West Side Story’s soaring operatic lyricism and iconic melodies. Reprised from the stage version, the principal dance numbers remain enthralling set pieces: the rooftop dance by the Puerto Rican boys and girls between the choruses of the witty and cutting “America”, the volatile dance in the school gymnasium, and the choreographed horror of the gang fight that leaves both Bernardo and Riff dead ahead of the police sirens. But West Side Story is not all big moments – some of the “smaller” ones, many which are expressed in dance are just as unforgettable. For one, the propulsive gesticulations of Riff and the Jets are in sharp contrast with the sinuous movements of Bernardo and the Sharks. Maria’s enchanting rooftop dance on the roof just moments before she learns the shattering news that her beloved Tony has killed her brother, or when Maria pounds at Tony calling him a killer, before she embraces him and joins him in a duet that is surely the film’s most unbearably poignant and rapturously poetic passage.

Aside from the brilliant opening, most of the film was shot on sound stages in Hollywood. Still that lengthy on location segment was high maintenance. Dancers were injured on the hard pavement and were accosted by locales dropping rocks and objects from buildings, necessitating the formation of an actual street gang to maintain security. The stories connected to the casting of the film have always fascinated film buffs and fans of the movie. Immediate controversy greeted the decision by the film’s producers to bypass the hugely successful leads from the play: Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence in favor of performers who looked more like teenagers. They wound up with two 23-year olds in the lead, though most of the other principals were closer to 30. Elvis Presley was approached to play Tony, but his agent turned the offer down, purportedly to keep the King of Rock n Roll from wielding a switchblade. ironically enough, Elvis had already portrayed a violence-prone street kid in both Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. This was a decision Elvis regretted for the rest of his life, even with his level of unparalleled success and universal adoration. Marlon Brando expressed acute interest in the role, but the general sentiment was that he was too old at 34. Other actors in the running were Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Richard Chamberlain, Keir Dullea, Dennis Hopper and Bobby Darin. The latter might have won the role had he not concluded that he was just too busy, while some of the others were just seen as too old. Russ Tamblyn, who eventually won the role of Riff, was also interested in the lead, and director Wise’s first choice was Warren Beatty, who co-starred with Natalie Wood around that time in Splendor in the Grass. Among the actresses considered for Maria were Audrey Hepburn, Diane Baker, Suzanne Pleshette, Jill St. John, and Barbara Luna. Hepburn was nearly hired, but was forced to pull out when she became pregnant.

When everything was sorted out the roles were handed over to Richard Beymer as Tony (a surprise choice), Natalie Wood as Maria, Rito Moreno as Anita, George Chakiris as Bernardo, Russ Tamblyn as Riff, Simon Oakland as Lieutenant Schrank, Ned Glass as Doc, Susan Oakes as Anybodys, and William Bramley as Officer Krumpke. Critics and audiences to this day, usually point to Beymer as the one weak link in the cast -quite a weak link too, when you consider he portrayed one of the two leads- but as the male star-crossed lover he only needs to appear smitten and dazed. Beymer is good-looking (yeah some complain about his teeth) and a fine physical embodiment of the Caucasian who is conquered by love. Beymer does not sing of course – his voice was dubbed by the superlative Jimmy Bryant – but for the most past the lip-syncing is very successful. Natalie Wood -who actually did have a very fine voice – was nonetheless dubbed to her disappointment by Marni Nixon, a legendary singer who also sang for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Mother Superior in The Sound of Music after West Side Story and back in the 50’s for The King and I. Her work for Maria is magnificent. Both Moreno and Chakiris sing for themselves and are most effective.

The scope of the project was so immense that the studio decided to split the directing workload between Wise and Robbins. Robbins was fired midway through the shoot, as there were complaints about his penchant to re-shoot endlessly in an effort to achieve perfection. His intricate dance direction was picked up by assistants and in the end Wise insisted that his colleague be given 50% of the directorial credit. The original studio plans were to entrust the veteran Wise with all the scenes that weren’t fueled by dancing. When the Oscars were handed out, the Academy recognized Robbins, given both directors the statuettes in compliance with Wise’s dictates. In any event, the film’s dancing sequences are first-rate, wholly exhilarating, and among the finest ever (permanently) captured for the film medium. Said Kauffmann, referring to the choreographers work in both the play and film in his wildly-enthusiastic The New Republic film review published on October 23, 1961:

Readers who saw this show will, I hope, be impatient with me by now for not having mentioned Jerome Robbins. I have saved him until last because, as exceptional as Sondheim’s lyrics are, as lovely as Bernstein’s score is, Robbins’ contribution is the keystone. Everything else exists within his conception. It is essentially Robbins’ alchemy that uses Bernstein’s score, uses the drama and color, and transmutes the fine components into an even finer art.

Later in the review: But it is Robbins’ vision–of city life expressed in stylized movement that sometimes flowers into dance and song–that lifts this picture high. If a time capsule is about to be buried anywhere, this film ought to be included, so that possible future generations can know how an artist of ours (Robbins) made our most congenial theatrical form respond to some of the beauty in our time and to the humanity in some of its ugliness.

Certainly Kauffmann offers up a sound and persuasive argument that is hard to counter, not that too many who are avid fans of both incarnations would seriously want to take up the gauntlet. My own position remains that it is Bernstein’s achievement that ultimately elevates West Side Story into the stratosphere of cultural achievement. The specters of Tchaikovsky, Puccini and Richard Rogers were no doubt in the room as he worked on his rapturously operatic score – in fact the most beautiful music ever written by an American composer, and worthy of favorable comparison with any music written by European composers of any era. Bernstein’s music is that beautiful. Thus my contention is that without this rare inspiration from our nation’s finest twentieth century composer (yeah I know all about Copland, Gershwin, Floyd, Barber and Kern) the spirit generated by Robbins’ tenacious attentiveness to balletic grace and stylized movement could never achieve the emotional nirvana that operatic music can attain. That music paired with the inherent emotionality of one of the Bard’s most deeply-felt creations adds up to high art.

When everything is figured into the West Side Story equation we have one of the most extraordinary works of art produced in Western culture over the last hundred years. I wager time will extend those boundaries, but laying that aside the 1961 film is surely one of the cinema’s finest hours.

When West Side Story Was Romeo

The most fascinating letter replicated in the recently published The Leonard Bernstein Letters isn’t one solely by Leonard Bernstein.

The undated letter – suspected by editor Nigel Simeone to have been written shortly before Oct. 18, 1955 – was a collaboration between Bernstein and Arthur Laurents. We can infer that the latter, the eventual bookwriter of West Side Story, did most of the writing, for the letter, sent to Jerome Robbins, is an outline for their new musical.

West Side Story began its pre-Broadway tryout on August 19, 1957 at the National Theatre in Washington, so what we read here is what its librettist and composer had in mind at this point in time. (Lyricist Stephen Sondheim hadn’t yet joined the project.) What’s astonishing is how much the musical would change in only twenty-two months.

Although West Side Story’s title page, window cards and recordings have never acknowledged that the adaptors took their plot from Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespearean tragedy was obviously on their minds. The two characters we came to know as Tony and Riff were still Romeo and Mercutio. In fact, at this point the show was to be called Romeo.
Tags: 1961 film, jerome robbins, leonard bernstein, music, musical sources, reviews, robert wise
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