By Jack Gottlieb, The West Side Story Guide and Commentary

Story Sources

It is well known that West Side Story (WSS) is based on Romeo and Juliet (R&J).The play (1594) was based on other materials, particularly a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke entitled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562).But western legend had long before established the theme of two lovers whose love is undermined by circumstances outside their control, such as Troilus and Cressida or Tristan and Isolde.More recently, American folklore has incorporated the story into the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.The way Brooke describes the couple as an "unfortunate union" displays a puritanical streak:

Liars, enamoring themselves to their own vnhonest lust, disregarding the authority and advice of their parents and families."

Though Shakespeare borrowed freely from the earlier poem, he replicated Brooke's words at least three times in his play.But Brooke is a pale imitation.Shakespeare crafted new personages that are infused with noble characters, which he expanded the soliloquies to encompass.

Despite a lot of plot and content borrowing from R&J to WSS, Arthur Laurents, author of the book for the musical, doesn't verbally borrow from Shakespeare.

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."

Alan Jay Lerner, his partner of arms, attested to his success as well as his brilliance:

.Set during the Easter-Passover season, the action was set in lower East Side, New York City.The title would therefore have been South Side Story.That project had another working title, Gangway.In 1965, Leonard Bernstein and Laurents were working independently in Hollywood, where they discussed the aborted project.A number of newspapers carried articles about street riots in Los Angeles involving Chicano Americans.

The headlines managed to trigger the imagination of the collaborators.A shift in location ushered in the WSS explosion onto the American state in 1957.WSS is now considered a contemporary classic.

The Operatic Trap

Nevertheless, Bernstein expressed preoccupation with writing a story that tells a tragic story on a comic stage without falling into the operatic trap. That trap consists of vocal pyrotechnics for its own sake, without advancing the story.

WSS does avoid that trap.An example would be the duet between Anita and Maria: A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.In Stearns' words: "Anita's fateful change of loyalties, by which the drama unfolds." Bernstein progresses from song to song in a methodical way.In Anita's rage against the killings, we hear what will become Maria's eloquence using similar pitches and a similar rhythm.Growing taller than the ground in which it was planted, the seed towers over it.

The music in WSS reflects the hope as well as the despair depicted.On almost every page of the score, the tritone interval is prominently displayed.(The tritone was nicknamed Diabolus in musica (Devil in music) by the ancient Greeks.The interval was considered to be the most "dangerous" interval.


Since the show was about kids, Bernstein claimed it could not rely on stars. Hundreds of young actors and actresses auditioned for the original production.Of the forty kids who landed the jobs - many debuting on Broadway - many went on to pursue a variety of show business careers (or related ones).Perhaps not all their paths led to glory, but it is likely that without WSS they would have taken longer to achieve success.

A remarkable career was launched from the WSS pad by its lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, who is regarded as one of the greatest composer-lyricists of our time.The standard-bearer of the indigenous American operatic style in America today must be Sondheim.The WSS creative quartet introduced operatic innovations, such as broader dimensions in song, and simultaneous counterpoints, that took on a life of their own in Sondheim's works.

On February 13, 1961, the New York Philharmonic premiered the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, with Lukas Foss as conductor.Bernstein was appointed music director of the Philharmonic one year after the show opened, and although he later recorded and performed the Dances with the orchestra, he had never conducted a performance of the show before the 1985 recording.For one of the early Broadway revivals, he conducted the so-called Overture - a collection of songs that were not his own.Why would someone with a career as diverse as hers devote all her energy to one single venture, such as Broadway?

A recording of On The Town made by the composer long after its premiere, with, among others, three of its original cast members, is the first show recording ever to be released on disc.Nonetheless, there has been no recording of a full original cast album conducted by its composer in the annals of Broadway musicals.

The Film

The movie version of West Side Story won ten Oscars, including Best Picture.

.It was transferred to an earlier scene, the bridal shop."Cool" was exchanged for "Gee, Officer Krupke".Additionally, Sondheim wrote new lyrics for "America", a song performed by all the Sharks and their girls (in the stage version, it is presented by four girls only).

According to them, these changes were necessary in order to maintain an on-rushing sense of doom.Despite the devastation caused by the danced Rumble, there was no intermission during which the audience could prepare for the next scene.During Act II, the bubbly "I Feel Pretty" served as sort of an extension of intermission babble.

The Dubbers

Tony's singing voice was performed by Jim Bryant, a Hollywood arranger and bass fiddler, chosen because his singing tone matched Richard Beymer's spoken voice.As well, mezzo-soprano Betty Wand was hired to sing at least part of Rita (Anita) Moreno's concerts.Afterward, Wand sued for a share of movie-album sales, a dispute that was settled outside of court.Nevertheless, Natalie Wood's voice (Maria) posed the most complicated dubbing problems.

Wood's less disciplined voice was unable to sing the high notes or sustain notes that Nixon's voice could. Nixon worked day-to-day (no contract was signed).In fact, Wood was continually told how wonderful she was throughout the recording of her songs.At the same time, Nixon was told she would do the whole soundtrack, which was hard to believe under the circumstances.Yet, this delicate game of musical pawns was played to ensure that no clashes would occur between Wood and the studio until after Wood's visuals were finished.She learned Nixon had been elected once she was "in the can.".During the Gypsy production, Wood's voice was not substituted for when she was singing, and her anger was understandable.

The difficulty of Nixon's task in dubbing Kerr in The King and I became apparent after the filming of The King and I.The rehearsal process had been carefully worked out there, with Nixon physically present beside Kerr at all music rehearsals.Nixon compensated for the inaccuracies present in Wood, however.For long shots, she had no problem, but for close-ups, she had to hedge one way or another.Nixon even dubbed Wood's speaking voice at the end, saying, "Don't you touch him!" I adore you Anton."

As a result of the web of deception, Nixon felt she deserved a share of the movie-album royalties.But neither the movie producers nor the record producers would budge.By pledging a percentage of his income, Bernstein broke the stalemate, since Nixon had been a performer-colleague of his at New York Philharmonic concerts.


. .During the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards Ceremony, GRAMMY Award-winning artist Ben Platt performed "Somewhere" from West Side Story.Leonard Bernstein was given the rare opportunity to introduce himself to a new generation of audiences and performers through the Centennial.Around the country, El Sistema influenced music programs arranged a special arrangement of "Somewhere" from West Side Story.A delightful Google Doodle set to the West Side Story Prologue celebrated LB's birthday.

West Side Story, film with live orchestraSymphonic Dances from West Side Story