Choreographer Jerome Robbins originally conceived of West Side Story in 1949, to be loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. Arthur Laurents was brought in to write the book. Bernstein kept a log over a period of eight years while the West Side Story concept gestated, through rehearsals and opening night.
Bernstein annotated a copy of the Shakespeare play with the comment: “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.” (wikipedia) He also commented in his log: “two juvenile gangs for ‘both your houses!’” (Bernstein-WSL)
Nora Kaye, a friend of the trio, had serious doubts about the collaboration: "Your three temperaments in one room, and the walls will come down." (Laurents) In 1949, Laurents and Robbins envisioned the two gangs as Jews and Catholics, but by the time serious creative work had begun, all three of the creators felt the religious underpinnings were too dated. Based on a newspaper article in 1955, they changed the major players to Puerto Ricans and “self-styled Americans.” (Bernstein-WSL)
“ The street gang serves as a perfect metaphor for the follies of …racial fanaticism.” (Bernstein) Turf disputes tend to lead to violence; there are endless historical examples. “The Jets were born to their New York streets, and now they feel they "own" them.” (Bernstein) The themes of oppression, poverty and fearful insularity run deep in West Side Story’s plot and “How convenient it is when the lower [opposing] class is a different color.”
The show was extremely ambitious musically—“ ballet music, symphonic music, developmental music.” (Bernstein) The load was too great for Bernstein to serve as lyricist. So Stephen Sondheim was hired in 1955, despite the fact that he had never written for Broadway.
Murderous gangs do not naturally lend themselves to soaring lyricism. Laurents, Robbins and Bernstein knew what they did not want West Side Story to convey. “Avoid being messagy” (Bernstein-WSL) was one of their imperatives, and “neither opera nor split-level musical comedy numbers” (Bernstein-WSL) for the score was another. They wanted to depict a stylized gang war—a “lyrically and theatrically sharpened illusion of reality.” (Bernstein-WSL)
As Bernstein began to write, he felt the music come alive: “I hear rhythms and pulses, and -- most of all -- I can sort of feel the form.” (Whiting)
Bernstein had written a bold and difficult score, and he knew it. “Everyone told us that [West Side Story] was an impossible project... no one, we were told, was going to be able to sing augmented fourths, as with "Ma-ri-a.“ (wikipedia) Columbia actually refused to produce the cast recording at first because of its downbeat and challenging nature.
Bernstein’s daughter describes her father’s overall sound for the score as a “musical portrait of ambiguity.” The composer used a trio of notes (G-C-F#) to “evoke the discord of the street gangs and the harmony of the lovers.” (Bernstein)
Ms. Bernstein thought that her father might not even have been aware that he had created this magical triumvurate of notes, calling them a “distorted triad.
” The three notes are used as the Jets’ whistle signal in the first scene, and are rearranged to form the word ‘Maria’ later in the show.
The notes change back and forth between a minor (dark tone) and major (hopeful tone) key throughout. “this tritone chord, acts as the fulcrum on which all these intensely opposing forces are perfectly balanced.” (Bernstein)
Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence were cast as the leads. “The Jets danced to the cool American sounds of bebop jazz, while the Sharks danced to the [hot], syncopated Latin rhythms of the mambo.” (Bernstein) As he watched a rehearsal, Bernstein proclaimed: “Forty kids singing five-part counterpoint who never sang before -- and sounding like heaven.” (Bernstein-WSL) The demands on the orchestra and the cast were staggering. Bernstein’s orchestration called for the woodwinds to double up on multiple instruments.
As opening night drew closer, his collaborators pled with him to cut out the more sweeping aria-like sections. But he battled for his score, just as the Jets and Sharks battled onstage. Would the public ever get to hear his “poor little marked-up score…all the things I love most in it are slowly being dropped.” (Bernstein)
The music combines contemporary pop music and Latino rhythms, “but the expression is pure Bernstein.” (Laurents) The producer, Cheryl Crawford pulled out of West Side Story pre-production. The show was called “too rangy for pop music.” (wikipedia)
No one involved with the show knew if it was any good, or if it would have its intended effect. It turned out to be “an incredible hello… at intermission I remember Justice Felix Frankfurther, the most distinguished man in Washington…in tears.” (Bernstein)
Walter Kerr, an influential critic of the day, wrote: “the show rides with a catastrophic roar over the spider-web fire-escapes.” The New York Daily News called it “fascinatingly tricky and melodically beguiling.” (wikipedia)
There have been innumerable revivals of West Side Story. “Leonard Bernstein’s iconic urban opera West Side Story is as much a part of the American pop subconscious as Muzak.” (Mikulan) In fact, there is a website that tracks every production playing in the world at any given time. Dan Schlong has done a parody called “Punk Side Story.” (cduniverse) Cher has even performed a truncated solo version, which does justice to the melodramatic tone. (youtube)