The West Side Story: A Guide and Commentary by Jack Gottlieb

Story Sources

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (R&J) is directly based on West Side Story (WSS).Despite its prominence, Shakespeare's play (1594) also draws heavily from other material, most notably a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke entitled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562).In Western legend, however, the theme of two lovers stymied by circumstances beyond their control was long established: Troilus and Cressida, Tristan and Isolde, to name just two examples.In more recent times, American folklore has assimilated the myth into the Hatfields-McCoys feud.It is clear Brooke thinks R&J are a "vnfortunate coople" with a strict Puritanical streak:

A lover thrills herself to vnhonest desire, ignoring the authority and advice of her parents and friends."

Despite abundant borrowing from Brooke's poem, Shakespeare transcended the issue of morality, replicating at least three times the words of Brooke.Compared to Shakespeare, Brooke is entirely irrelevant.Shakespeare produced a searing expansion of the soliloquies, and created new personae, enduing them with a high degree of dignity.

WSS borrows many plots and content from R&J, but Arthur Laurents did not verbally borrow from Shakespeare."Drunken myths, superstitious friers, the shame of slave contracts hasting to more happy deaths" are all transformed by Brook, and Laurents does the same for the second half of Shakespeare's play. When he tells us only this, "Romeo swallows a magic potion, which would occur in a modern play."

In the book (why are the spoken words for a musical show called this?) . . . the dialogue is adapted from adolescent street talk: it may sound real, but it isn't."

As his partner-in-arms Alan Jay Lerner attests, he succeeded brilliantly:

A triumph of style and model of its genre, Arthur Laurent's re-telling of Romeo and Juliet is filled with deep admiration as a fellow tradesman."

Romeo was initially intended as an Italian Catholic and Juliet as a Jewish girl by Jerome Robbins.It was set during the Easter and Passover celebrations on the Lower East Side of New York City.Perhaps the title would have been East Side Story.(Another working title was Gangway.).Several years later, Laurents and Leonard Bernstein met up in Hollywood to discuss the aborted project.Los Angeles newspapers were full of articles about street riots by Chicano Americans.

Headlines like those turned the trick, frightening the collaborators.In 1957, WSS exploded onto the American scene from New York's West Side.In recent decades, WSS has become a contemporary classic.

The Operatic Trap

The show's conception and birth were prolonged, as Bernstein wrote after its premiere: "all that peering, agony, postponement, and re-re-rewriting turned out to be worthwhile." Part of the agony was the decision not to cast singers: "anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and that suddenly isn't the kid's voice anymore."

Bernstein expressed apprehensions about creating a musical that tells a tragedy in musical terms so as not to fall into the 'operatic' trap, which is the pure enjoyment of vocal pyrotechnics without considering how they advance a narrative.

WSS does avoid that trap.A duet between Anita and Maria: A Boy Like That/I Have a Love, for example, is one of the most operatic moments.From here the rest of the drama emerges from Anita's fateful change of loyalties, which Bernstein accomplishes through a kind of musical legerdemain.We thus hear the same pitch and almost the same rhythm in Anita's rant against the killings that we will hear in Maria's speech.Seeds have grown substantially since they were planted.

There is hope within WSS, but there is also despair, and this is reflected through its music.In the entire score, the tritone interval is prominently displayed.Diabolus in musica has been dubbed the "Devil in music" by some theorists of the past.The interval was considered to be the most "dangerous" interval.It's unstable, rootless quality (for example, changing C to F# is three half-steps, something known as a tritone) was the perfect musical expression of Tony and Maria's unstable relationship, and of the Jet and Shark gangs' ruthlessness.


Hundreds of young hopefuls auditioned for the original production, as Bernstein said the production could not "rely on stars.".For those forty 'kids' who landed jobs - their Broadway debut for most, - a wide variety of shows business (or related) activities followed.While not all their paths led to greater fame and glory, their careers would have developed considerably slower without WSS.In addition, some of them remained in contact with their former colleagues through professional relationships or other means.

The WSS opening account launched the career of its lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, considered to be one of the most significant composer-lyricists of the 20th century.The standard-bearer of the indigenous American operatic style in America today must be Sondheim.The operatic innovations introduced by the WSS creative quartet: broader song dimensions, simultaneities in complex counterpoint, etc. became grist for Sondheim's mill.

The New York Philharmonic premiered Symphonic Dances From West Side Story on February 13, 1961, with Lukas Foss conducting.A year after the opening of WSS, Bernstein was named Music Director of the Philharmonic, and although he later performed and recorded the Dances with the orchestra, prior to the 1985 recording he had never conducted the show.In one of the early Broadway revivals, he conducted another composer's Overture, a compilation of tunes not composed by him).Yet why should someone whose career has been so diverse concentrate on one all-consuming project, a Broadway run?

In addition to three of the original cast members, the recording of his show On The Town, made long after its premiere, is the first show album ever recorded on disc by its composer.Nevertheless, we have yet to see a historic first in recorded Broadway musicals: a full cast album conducted by the composer.

The Film

West Side Story won ten Oscars in 1961 for its movie version of the Broadway hit.

Even though Bernstein did not suffer the same mayhem as the movie On The Town did to his score, the movie West Side Story did make some minor changes.We transferred "I Feel Pretty" to an earlier scene, the bridal shop.The location of "Gee, Officer Krupke" was replaced with "Cool".As well, Sondheim revised the lyrics for "America", a piece that is presented by the entire Sharks and their girls (on stage it is only presented by four girls).

According to them, these changes were necessary in order to maintain an on-rushing sense of doom.After all, the danced Rumble devastate the movie without an intermission during which an audience could recover.The bubbly "I Feel Pretty", at the beginning of Act II, was an extension of the intermission banter.

The Dubbers

Richard Beymer (Tony) has a singing voice that is that of Jim Bryant, a Hollywood jazz arranger and fiddler who was an example of a singer that matched Beymer's speaking timbre.The mezzo-soprano Betty Wand also sang some of Rita Moreno's pieces, but not all of them.Wand later sued to collect a percentage of movie-album sales, but the case was settled out of court.Natalie Wood (Maria) had the most complicated dubbing problems.

Until Nixon's contract was signed, she was employed on a day-to-day basis (no contract was signed) to capture the high notes that Wood's less disciplined voice was incapable of handling.Indeed, the songs were recorded in that manner, with Wood being constantly told how "beautiful" she was.While this was going on, Nixon was told that she would do the entire soundtrack, which was difficult to believe given the circumstances.But Wood was carefully pawned so there wouldn't be a clash between director and star until he completed his visuals.Afterward, Wood found out Nixon had been elected.The response Wood had was understandable anger, and when she filmed her role as a singer in Gypsy, her singing voice wasn't changed.

The difficulty of Nixon's task in dubbing Kerr in The King and I became apparent after the filming of The King and I.Nixon had physically joined Kerr for all music rehearsals, as everything had been worked out in rehearsal.As Wood already contained many musical inaccuracies, Nixon was bound to compensate for them.She had no problem with long shots, but had to hedge close-up shots one way or another.Nixon dubs Wood's speaking voice at the very end: "Don't touch him!" I adore you Anton."

Nixon felt she deserved to receive a cut of the movie-album royalties due to the network of deceptions.The producers of neither the movie nor the record refused to give her what she wanted.Eventually, Bernstein broke the tie by volunteering a percentage of his earnings, a gesture of loyalty and support since Nixon was a performer-colleague of his at New York Philharmonic concerts.


Leonard Bernstein's iconic play West Side Story was performed over 1300 times in 25 States and 24 countries during the Leonard Bernstein Centennial.In addition to Opera Australia"s Handa Opera in Sydney, Takarazuka Revue's all-female production in Japan, the Fugard Theater's production in South Africa, the Guthrie Theatre's production in Minneapolis, the Komische Opera in Berlin, and SOM Productions' production in Spain, to mention just a few, the Centennial presented several captivating new productions.As part of the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards Ceremony, the GRAMMY Awards honored the composer by featuring a performance of "Somewhere" from West Side Story by TONY and GRAMMY award-winning artist Ben Platt.A new generation of young audiences and performers was also introduced to Leonard Bernstein during the Centennial.Programs inspired by El Sistema throughout the country performed the song "Somewhere" from West Side Story.The Google Doodle featured an animated cartoon of LB set to a West Side Story Prologue.

West Side Story, The Film with Live OrchestraSymphonic Dances From West Side Story