Is West Side Story the greatest musical ever written?
Premiering on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story brought to full maturity the style of musical theater that had been pioneered by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in the early 1940s with such works as Oklahoma! and Carousel. Together they created a new kind of musical drama in which every song advanced the story and every dance was done in character. The line between music and drama was so magnificently blurred that you never knew when dialogue might turn into song or when action would turn into dance. Rodgers and Hammerstein developed a unique musical/literary style that for decades set the template for the Broadway musical: West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by Arthur Laurents and direction/choreography by Jerome Robbins, is that template’s grandest expression.
After its hit run on Broadway, the musical came to the screen in 1961. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Newman, will perform the score live for two screenings of the film version on July 17-18 at Ravinia.
The idea for West Side Story came from Robbins, who, as far back as the late 1940s, had conceived of a contemporary update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that would play out on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he grew up, against a Catholic/Jewish backdrop. At that point the working title was East Side Story.
Bernstein, who had collaborated with Robbins on Our Town, suggested a crucial plot change: Puerto Ricans vs. the children of European immigrants on Manhattan’s West Side. He wanted to incorporate the Latin rhythms and tritone harmonies of the bebop revolution à la Dizzy Gillespie. The slang language and speech patterns of the movement (“cool,” “Daddio”) were used by the whites, and mambo rhythms and spicy Latin syncopations were trademarks of the Hispanics in the musical.
The contributions of a then-unknown lyricist and Hammerstein protégé by the name of Stephen Sondheim did much to inspire Bernstein, and Sondheim wrote brilliant lyrics for the songs of West Side Story that perfectly reflected the powerful emotions and various colors of Bernstein’s music. In fact, though Sondheim would later go on to write his own music as well as lyrics in a string of hit shows that continues to this day, West Side Story arguably contains the best music ever composed to Sondheim lyrics.
For the complete feature, written for Ravinia’s magazine, go to ravinia.org.
PHOTO: Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as the star-crossed lovers in the film version of West Side Story.