Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story




Using this Guide

Music: Leonard Bernstein
Book: Arthur Laurents
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Choreography: Jerome Robbins

Original Cast (1957)
Maria: Carol Lawrence
Tony: Larry Kert
Anita: Chita Rivera
Bernardo: Ken LeRoy
Riff: Mickey Calin
Film Cast (United Artists, 1961)
Maria: Natalie Wood (songs dubbed by Marni Nixon)
Richard Beymer (songs dubbed by Jim Bryant)
Anita: Rita Moreno (some songs dubbed by Betty Wand & Marni Nixon)
Bernardo: George Chakiris
Riff: Russ Tamblyn

Tony Mardente, who played A-rab on the stage, was Action in the film.

Of all the contributions of American culture to the arts, the Broadway musical is one of the most significant. Its predecessor, the European operetta (a play with spoken dialogue but abundant singing in operatic style), typically featured exotic settings, aristocratic characters, and wildly improbable plots. Although the musical's roots were in England, it quickly evolved in the hands of such geniuses as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart and the incomparable George and Ira Gershwin into a distinctively American form featuring popular songs, many of which were to become "standards," still widely performed and loved today.

Leonard Bernstein took the musical to new heights of seriousness in his 1957 production, West Side Story, based loosely on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Its true subject was the growing menace of gang warfare (or "juvenile delinquency" as it was known then) in the context of racial tensions created by clashes between whites and Puerto Rican immigrants. Consciousness of racism was very much on the rise in the U.S. of the late fifties; and Bernstein, a life-long liberal, wanted to portray the issue in an uncompromising fashion.

The subject is treated in a fairly complex fashion. Note especially "I Want to Live in America," which expresses the ambiguous feelings of the immigrants about their homeland while forthrightly condemning American white racism. Some people feel this number reinforces stereotypes about Latinos, and the musical has been the target of protests in some areas on that grounds.

Note that the Jets display their ignorance and/or hostility by consistently mispronouncing "Puerto Rico" as "Porto Rico." The Sharks always pronounce it properly.

This is also an extrarordinarily sophisticated musical work. Notice the complex layering in the reprise of "Tonight" with each individual or group voicing its own anticipations for the evening.

Originally the script was to have dealt with a Christian/Jewish romance (called "East Side Story"), but Bernstein decided to choose a more immediately relevant theme. Ironically, neither Broadway nor Hollywood was able to rise above its own institutionalized racism to cast a Latina actress as Maria.

The gangs of that time were much less well armed than today's, and the exigencies of stage and film production in the fifties forced the libretto to use somewhat censored language (somewhat dated now, but fairly hip then), so that the modern viewer may be tempted to look at this story of gang warfare as somewhat innocent and naive. But at a deeper level, the hatreds and frustrations articulated here are authentic reflections of an ongoing American tragedy.

West Side Story features classic dances by Jerome Robbins, especially in the hyper-athletic masculine style pioneered by choreographer Agnes de Mille in Rodeo and Oklahoma , and several extraordinarily beautiful songs, many of which have become classics. Bernstein, at this time the most famous conductor in the world, leading the New York Philharmonic, and exponent of a wide range of classical and popular music, had the skills to write music considerably more complex that contained in most musicals.

The musical style is based on hard-hitting big band jazz and Latin-beat music like the mambo. Popular dance music had not settled exclusively on rock and roll yet when this work was being written.

If a musical is not an opera, neither is it a play. It is necessary to accept the fact that characters are constantly bursting into either song or dance. It is in these songs and dances that the very essence of the musical exists.

A few definitions:

JD's are juvenile delinquents
DT's are delirium tremens, symptoms of extreme alcoholism
"Tea" is marijuana.
"Social Disease" is a polite term for a sexually transmitted disease.
A "zip gun" was a home-made device for shooting projectiles, powered by strong rubber bands. It could be lethal under the right conditions. Actual guns were much harder to get hold of in the fifties than they became later.

Your assignment:

Discuss some aspect of this production, writing at least 50 words. Be sure to specify scenes and characters, using this study guide.

How does the musical reflect the same values as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet? In what ways is it different?

Describe the dancing in this production. How is the choreography different from that you saw in the Prokofiev ballet? How about the vocal technique? What makes it different from the techniques used in La Traviata? How are gestures, camera angles, and lighting used to convey ideas and feelings? What kinds of melodies are used? How does the music change to convey different emotions? Discuss how Bernstein sometimes layers one kind of music on another, or creates abrupt contrasts.

What aspects of the action seem to relate specifically to gangs in the 50s and which seem relevant to today gang violence and racism?

When you consider the ending of the musical, keep the following in mind. The 1950s marked a new phenomenon: a youth culture largely independent of adult influence. In Shakespeare's day the Prince could stand for the sanctioned authority of the state (in his case, Queen Elizabeth, who detested duelling). The end of the play resolves the conflict by reimposing traditional authority. But Sondheim, Bernstein, and the rest identified more with the developing youth culture in its rebellion against adult society. Notice how parents are kept offstage, with only one good but powerless adult--Doc--anywhere to be seen. The recreation center leader is a clueless idiot and the cops are corrupt racist thugs. In the world of West Side Story hope for the future can reside only in the next generation. It can't end like Shakespeare's play because its creators don't share his values. The conclusion is meant to place responsibility for ending the conflict squarely in the laps of its young viewers.

Comment on these and other matters, then respond to what someone else has said, going beyond merely agreeing or disagreeing--try to engage them in conversation by addressing their ideas with ideas of your own.

Please note that this production, though it is being shown to you from a DVD, is not a "video." Refer to it as a "film" or "movie."

Lots more information at the West Side Story Web Site.

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Last revised November 28, 2005.