Bernstein’s West Side Story revolutionised musical theatre, says Christopher Morley.
Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story hit the world stage in New York’s Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957. Its impact was astonishing.
With audiences brought up on the cosy, chocolate-box happy-ever-after operetta and musical – even the brutal Carousel ends with a redemption in Heaven – the show hit hard in its depiction of inner-city gang warfare and racial tension.
Though it ends in reconciliation between rival tribes, we remain wondering how fragile this truce is. And, of course, its subject-matter remains painfully relevant today.
Its Romeo and Juliet story-line had occurred to the choreographer Jerome Robbins as far back as 1949, when he conceived an East Side Story depicting a love-story between members of the Catholic and Jewish faiths in an America where anti-Semitic feelings were running high.
But tensions between young Los Angeleans and Mexican immigrants during the early 1950s sparked the idea of Latin-American dance-rhythms in Bernstein’s mind and the action was shifted to New York with its element of proud, sassy Puerto Ricans among its population. Amazingly and brilliantly, Robbins kept the casts of the rival Jets and Sharks gangs apart during rehearsals for the show’s opening run, raising the simmering rivalry to boiling-point by the time they met onstage.
The Shakespearean background to the subject-matter has become almost a cliché, as expressed in John Godber’s hilarious play Teechers, written for Hull Truck Theatre Company in 1987:
NIXON (drama teacher): I think it would be a very good thing for us to start with a very important person in the world of drama. Mr William Shakespeare. And in particular a play that you’ve probably seen but don’t realize it. Romeo and Juliet.
(GAIL and HOBBY groan.)
Which is a tragedy.
GAIL: And it’s the basis for West Side Story, and it’s about neighbours arguing.
HOBBY: We’ve done it...
But never mind such dismissiveness, West Side Story remains one of the most important works ever written for the stage. It opened the doors for musicals which dealt with the most serious of subjects, from the Passion of Jesus Christ to the Vietnam War, from the French Revolution to the Cold War.
And to achieve this stature it needed a composer of the utmost integrity and versatility, one who could turn his hand to a variety of styles but who could also boast intimate involvement with the greatest examples of “classical music”.
That man was Leonard Bernstein, already an acclaimed composer of symphonic music and a world-renowned orchestral and operatic conductor (he had conducted the American premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes at Tanglewood in 1946 and the world premiere of Messiaen’s immense Turangalila-Symphonie in Boston in 1948). He later became music director of the famous New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a successor down the line to the mighty Gustav Mahler who had held the position in the early 1900s.
On the most unforgettable evening of my life, one August night in 1968, I stood backstage in the wings at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice to hear and watch Bernstein conducting his NYPO in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Afterwards, in such a gracious and kind meeting, Bernstein told me how, had he been born 50 years earlier, he was sure he would have composed a work in exactly the same vein (Mahler and he were both composer-conductors, both Jewish, both exiles from their homeland).
So Bernstein’s musical pedigree was immaculate, and it certainly shows in West Side Story with ensembles of operatic vibrancy, such as A Boy Like That and the wonderful Balcony Scene in which Tony and Maria express their new young love across the racial divide.
Later on in the action, the Tonight which they have sung to each other becomes the core of an amazing five-part ensemble in which different characters express vastly differing emotions, as brilliantly built as any of the great set-pieces by Mozart or Verdi.
Bernstein uses his “classical” experience in such subtle ways, one example being the fugue he introduces into Cool, the musical material here derived from Beethoven’s awesome Grosse Fuge. Godber’s Mr Nixon might well have told his unruly pupils that they’d been listening to late-period Beethoven without realising it.
But there are several kinds of “American” music in the score, too, with the many famous examples of various Latin-American dance rhythms, the ballet sequence depicting a Somewhere as wide-eyed and innocent as Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and the uproarious vaudeville of Gee, Officer Krupke with its brazenly witty lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Bernstein and Sondheim were present for the European premiere of West Side Story at the Manchester Opera House in December 1958. As was Bert Hackett, until recently the much-loved cartoonist Gemini on the Birmingham Post, and at that time working for the Manchester Evening News.
“In those days I used to read Time and Life magazines, to keep up with what was happening in America,” he remembers. “The show got rave reviews, so when I learned it was coming to Manchester, I booked up for it.
“I was really excited about it, and found it electrifying. It was a grand gala occasion, and both Lenny Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were there.
“The reaction of the audience was interesting. There were a lot of elderly blue-rinse women, who at first expressed disappointment, and then anger. They’d been expecting to see something along the lines of The Sound of Music, the traditional American musical coming over to England, which had been a big success.
“But the younger elements in the audience were so excited and so moved by the energy and relevance of the show.”
Just a little postscript. Before I was appointed classical music correspondent of the Birmingham Post on April Fool’s Day 1988, I used to do a lot of conducting. I was persuaded out of retirement in 1992 to wield the baton in a week-long run of West Side Story at Dudley Castle.
It rained every night. To protect the instruments, they put the orchestra into a dungeon with banks of closed-circuit television screens, with a camera upon me; I insisted upon staying in full contact with the stage, protected by a little tented kiosk like an ice-cream-seller’s.
The dancers risked their limbs on that rain-sodden staging, the audience shivered in their cagoules. But Lenny, I’m sure, was up there, blessing and smiling, and I felt I was paying him back for that magical evening 24 years earlier.
* The 50th anniversary international touring production of West Side Story comes to Birmingham Hippodrome from April 21-May 2 (Box office: 0844 338 5000).