Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a musical drama with a plot based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, joined symphonic techniques with Latin American and jazz elements to translate the story to a contemporary urban setting.

Summary of Event

It is generally agreed that the original idea for West Side Story (1957) belonged to Jerome Robbins, a noted director-choreographer. It was Robbins who suggested using William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596) story in a musical with a contemporary setting. The original idea was quite different from what eventually arrived on Broadway in 1957. The first meeting of West Side Story’s creators took place in 1949 and involved Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and playwright Arthur Laurents. What Robbins proposed was a musical using Romeo and Juliet as a foundation. Rather than Shakespeare’s setting of Verona with its warring Montagues and Capulets, Robbins wanted to use the East Side neighborhoods of New York during Easter-Passover. The drama would focus on Catholic-Jewish or Irish-Jewish conflicts. West Side Story (Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents) Theater;musicals Musical theater Jazz;in West Side Story[West Side Story] [kw]Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story (Sept. 26, 1957) [kw]Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story, Bernstein Joins (Sept. 26, 1957) [kw]Jazz Elements in West Side Story, Bernstein Joins Symphonic and (Sept. 26, 1957) [kw]West Side Story, Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in (Sept. 26, 1957) West Side Story (Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents) Theater;musicals Musical theater Jazz;in West Side Story[West Side Story] [g]North America;Sept. 26, 1957: Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story[05600] [g]United States;Sept. 26, 1957: Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story[05600] [c]Theater;Sept. 26, 1957: Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story[05600] [c]Music;Sept. 26, 1957: Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story[05600] [c]Dance;Sept. 26, 1957: Bernstein Joins Symphonic and Jazz Elements in West Side Story[05600] Bernstein, Leonard Sondheim, Stephen Laurents, Arthur Robbins, Jerome

While such a conflict had at one time been a viable issue for drama, it was decided that the original idea would not work. The world had changed too much. The East Side was not what it had been, and Bernstein felt that the recent influx of Latin Americans to the area presented a more contemporary backdrop for the show. Another problem that arose at that first meeting was a problem present in most musical collaborations: Laurents made it very clear that he had no intention of creating a libretto for a “Bernstein opera.” Laurents’s was a perfectly understandable objection, and Bernstein and Robbins were immediately sympathetic.

The tradition in opera was to recognize the composer and ignore the librettist; everyone knew that Giuseppe Verdi wrote the music for Aida (1871) and Otello (1887), for example, but who knew who wrote the words? The tradition continued even in musical theater; Show Boat (1927) was considered by many to be “Jerome Kern’s Show Boat,” seemingly ignoring the work of Oscar Hammerstein II. It was, in fact, the advent of the songwriting teams such as Richard Rodgers Rodgers, Richard and Lorenz Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe that brought librettists the attention they deserved. In some cases, admittedly, the librettists’ anonymity was a chicken-and-egg problem; some books for musicals were simply forgettable. On the other hand, many first-rate playwrights understandably objected to participating in projects in which their best ideas would be turned into ballads and for which they would get little credit and would have to share any financial reward.

Bernstein and Robbins realized that, in Laurents, they had a first-rate talent. Laurents was well known for the drama Home of the Brave (1945), and following West Side Story, he went on to write other musicals, including Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and the very successful Gypsy (1959). Bernstein was able to convince Laurents how indispensable he would be to the process. As an accomplished playwright, Laurents understood structure and, in fact, created many scenes for musicalization. The problem was not the collaborators; it was the material. After a little work, they all agreed that an Irish-Jewish “East Side Story” was not going to work.

Work on the project did not resume until 1954; artists of such high caliber as Robbins and Bernstein were naturally drawn to other projects. In addition to his work in ballet, Robbins directed the musical Bells Are Ringing (1956). It is essential to remember the mark that Robbins made in musical theater. Besides working on the physical production of his works as the director-choreographer, Robbins was often deeply involved in the writing process. In 1964, for example, Robbins was brought in to work on what would become Fiddler on the Roof Fiddler on the Roof (Bock, Harnick, and Stein) (1964). During the writing process, the authors (Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick) told Robbins that they were writing a charming little story concerning a Russian milkman and his daughters. Robbins was not interested; day after day, he asked the authors what the show was about. One day, one of the writers responded to Robbins’s badgering with the one-word reply, “Tradition.” From that word, and from Robbins’s pushing, Fiddler on the Roof went from a charming little story to a musical of universal import.

Leonard Bernstein’s career was even more varied. He was, to begin with, the young conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He had also written the opera Trouble in Tahiti (1952) and the score and some of the lyrics for On the Town (1944), and he was beginning to work on a musical version of Candide (1956). At the same time, Bernstein worked on a series of “Young People’s Concerts” and Omnibus Omnibus (television program) television programs that introduced the American public to classical, jazz, and show music. His Omnibus lectures were later published as The Joy of Music Joy of Music, The (Bernstein) (1959). As talk of the “Romeo project” began, Bernstein had envisioned himself writing the lyrics, but he realized, as the project began to take shape, that the task was too big. There were other projects, and this one had a great deal of music.

As the Robbins-Bernstein team came back together in 1954, therefore, they needed to find a lyricist; by that time, though, the idea for the project had begun to take a definite shape. While working in Hollywood on the 1954 film On the Waterfront, Bernstein ran into Laurents. As they talked, they noticed a news article about increased gang violence between Latin Americans and whites. The article’s subject was topical, and it would fit into the “Romeo model.” On their return to New York, they presented the idea and the article to Robbins, who agreed that this was the approach to take.

The search for a lyricist began and ended with Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim was a composer and lyricist whose one unproduced score, for Saturday Night (pr. 1997), had been played for Laurents. While chatting at a party, Laurents told Sondheim about the project and then arranged a meeting between Sondheim and Bernstein. For a young man yet to make his mark, a meeting with Bernstein to discuss a collaboration would seem like an answered prayer, but Sondheim was not sure he wanted to undertake the West Side Story assignment. Sondheim saw himself as primarily a composer, and he did not wish to be typed as a lyricist. (He later gained great success as both.)

Sondheim came very close to rejecting the position, but finally his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein Hammerstein, Oscar, II II, discussed the matter with him. Hammerstein had known Sondheim since Sondheim was a teenager and had encouraged the younger composer in his work. In fact, Hammerstein had set up a curriculum for Sondheim. When Sondheim told his teacher that he did not wish to accept the West Side Story job, Hammerstein convinced him it would be a wonderful learning experience and a chance to work with real professionals.

Hammerstein was right. West Side Story was a chance to work with real professionals at the top of their form. The show opened in Washington, D.C., and very few changes had to be made. On September 26, 1957, the “Romeo project,” now called West Side Story, opened in New York.


West Side Story was not an instant hit. The reviews were generally good, but that year the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical of the season went to The Music Man. The show went on tour and, four years after the opening, a highly successful film of West Side Story was made. At this point, the show became a hit. The show’s producers learned several lessons from this experience. Though the show was well constructed, it was not the “happy” musical that audiences were expecting. Of course, the source material was a tragedy, but the production team became very aware of the education required for the audience.

In subsequent revivals and in the film, audiences were given a better idea of the story’s tragic ending. (None of the male leads are left alive, for example, and the production ends with the funeral of the romantic lead.) Death had been used in musicals before (specifically in the major works of Rodgers and Hammerstein), but it had rarely been used to this degree.

The music also became an issue in audience acceptance. One of the common complaints about Bernstein’s tunes was that they were not “hummable.” Oddly enough, the same complaint resurfaced in the criticism of many of Sondheim’s later musicals. There are some important similarities between Bernstein’s score and Sondheim’s later work; for example, West Side Story did not have a conventional overture and made very little use of reprises, and it took some time for the score to get radio airplay.

In his later work, Sondheim, too, used few conventional overtures and made little use of reprises, and the only Sondheim song that proved popular on the radio was “Send in the Clowns.” A Little Night Music Little Night Music, A (Sondheim and Wheeler) (1973), which featured “Send in the Clowns,” was considered Sondheim’s most “hummable” score; interestingly, every song in that show is written in waltz time. What was learned from West Side Story was that certain criticism will be endured if the audience is not made familiar with the score. This knowledge became especially important as show music appeared less frequently on radio playlists.

Bernstein’s music was essential to the artistic and popular success of West Side Story. His knowledge and use of different styles of music helped create a score that was diverse yet correct. Latin rhythms associated with the show’s Puerto Rican characters were heard in “America” and “Dance at the Gym.” Show ballads were used for “Tonight” and “Maria.” Jazz forms were used in “Cool,” and opera stylings were used in the wonderfully complicated “Quintet.”

West Side Story, though, is considered a milestone in musical theater largely because of its use of dance. Choreography;musical theater Dance had been a major part of musicals since The Black Crook in 1866 and had been used in different ways throughout the years. Oklahoma! (1943), by Rodgers and Hammerstein, made important progress by integrating dance into the story through the production’s “dream ballet.” This device was widely copied and, in fact, was used to great effect in the “Somewhere Ballet” in West Side Story. Robbins and Bernstein, however, took the use of dance even further. Not only did dance help underscore the story, but in such numbers as “Prologue,” “Dance at the Gym,” and “The Rumble,” dance also became the story. Important plot elements were left totally to dance. Robbins had to create the choreography for this, and Bernstein had to create the music the dancers would use.

What was the final impact of West Side Story? After the audience caught its breath, the show became a success. The movie won eleven Academy Awards, including the Best Picture Award Academy Awards;Best Picture for 1961. Several young talents were discovered or encouraged, including Stephen Sondheim. The producer, Harold Prince Prince, Harold , later worked with Robbins on Fiddler on the Roof and was the driving force on most of the productions that earned Sondheim his reputation. For Bernstein, West Side Story was his Broadway masterpiece. He did earlier shows and would do later shows, but this was the musical that would be remembered. West Side Story would be remembered for wonderful artistry, but it also would be remembered for using music and dance to show an unapologetic, deeply moving view of contemporary America. West Side Story (Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents) Theater;musicals Musical theater Jazz;in West Side Story[West Side Story]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Leonard. The Joy of Music. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959. Adapted from the music series Bernstein did for Omnibus, this book is highly accessible. The drawback is that some sort of sound track is required but not provided. Bernstein covers opera, jazz, classical music, and musical theater. He makes little reference to his own work, but he discusses the work that influenced him. Good for research on Bernstein and for a layperson’s study of music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denkert, Darcie. A Fine Romance: Hollywood and Broadway. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2005. Study of musicals that either were adapted to the screen or were based on films. Includes a chapter on the stage and screen versions of West Side Story, as well as one on Gypsy. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engel, Lehman. The American Musical Theater. New York: Macmillan, 1975. One of the most useful sourcebooks for the study of musical theater. Engel looks at the genre’s history, but he is more interested in the structure of the shows that he believes are successful. He writes a structural synopsis of West Side Story that demonstrates the strength of the libretto and compares it to other musicals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guernsey, Otis L., Jr., ed. Playwrights, Lyricists, and Composers on Theater. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1974. A significant contribution to the study of musical theater by the people who made it happen. Though Bernstein is not included, there are insightful edited talks given by Sondheim and Laurents. Sondheim, in a section on “Theatre Lyrics,” discusses the flaw in “I Feel Pretty”; the section shows the lyricist’s mind at work. His discussion of the use of humor in “Officer Krupke” is also valuable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laufe, Abe. Broadway’s Greatest Musicals. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1977. A standard history and one of the usual places to start. Laufe gives a good, if basic, chronological study of the growth of musical theater. The pictures are quite good, and Laufe tells his story well. An excellent foundation for further research. Includes a helpful appendix that gives vital statistics on long-running musicals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Mary E., ed. Readings on “West Side Story.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001. Anthology of essays on the creation, history, and import of West Side Story. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Company. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. A large book written and designed for popular consumption. For research on Sondheim, this is clearly the starting point. Notes on his early career, an abundance of photos, and countless interviews are all helpful. A very positive and thorough book. Zadan is especially interested in the process that gets a show to the stage.

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Categories: History