West Side Story was first proposed fully a decade before its first production. The 1957 Broadway musical was an enormous commercial and critical accomplishment but its success was hardly the result of sudden inspiration.
Broadway producer Jerome Robbins conceived the story (originally East Side Story) as a timeless cultural conflict, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents wrote a first draft. This is why he is credited in show business terms with “The Book,” although the actual book from which the story was derived would be a volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Laurent wrote a first draft of Robbins’ plan for an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet which recast the Capulets and the Montagues as Catholics and Jews, and Leonard Bernstein was on board to compose the score, but the project was pushed to the back burner.
Laurent and Bernstein mulled over the idea five years later, and the maestro suggested it be re-set in Los Angeles as a conflict between Mexican gangs. Laurent didn’t like the idea, but he did like the latin direction it took the story, and rewrote the book in New York City as a conflict between working class whites and Puerto Rican immigrants. When Laurent dropped out of the project to work on another project, he was replaced by a then-unknown composer and lyricist, not initially enthusiastic, named Stephen Sondheim, who was being mentored at the time by none less than Oscar Hammerstein II. It would turn out to a pretty good move on his part.
West Side Story went into production with an previously unprecedented eight weeks’ dance rehearsals. Bernstein composed concurrently with Candide, his critically panned operetta (which we kind of love and would like to encourage listeners to revisit) — not surprisingly, he’d originally wanted West Side Story to be an opera, and never really let go of his plans. You can hear Bernstein’s operatic aspirations throughout the finished score, which is part musical, part ballet, and also part opera.
After its awesome run — and all the drama over its production and credits — West Side Story was adapted to an epically successfully film, which won an unprecedented ten Academy Awards. The big-selling soundtrack album remains today a staple in the collections folks bring into the shop, but its so damn good we’re always glad to see another copy.
One secret to the story’s success is that it doesn’t shy away from its subjects. The plight of the Puerto Rican gang is portrayed through “In America,” a clever back-and-forth about the benefits and challenges experienced by immigrant communities.
Bernstein adapted the musical’s addictively awesome score into a symphonic suite soon after and recorded it with the New York Philharmonic. This shorter score condenses the music in very much the same way many ballets are shortened into similar suites, and maybe that’s why Bernstein chose to title it “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.”
Of course, the musical’s memorable melodies quickly became jazz standards. Ramsey Lewis recorded an entire side based on them, as did a variety of pianists. We recently posted a tribute to our favorite female jazz pianists and included tracks from Marian McPartland’s version of the score, which is a favorite trio album of ours. Here she plays “Tonight” and “Cool” with a great rhythm section of Ben Tucker and Jake Hanna:
One of the biggest West Side Story jazz tributes was Kenton’s West Side Story, an album which will always be a favorite of Kenton fans but leaves the emotion of the story somewhere far from the west side. Kenton’s explosive arrangements are undeniably appealing, but lose us somewhere in their bombast. Even his own piano introduction to “Maria” seems without the same passion Marian McPartland brought to the song. Still, we can’t deny it’s a helluva big band track, even if it lacks the passion Jimmy Bryant put into singing the song for Tony off screen in the movie.
“Somewhere” was the first cover on a Tom Waits album when it appeared on Blue Valentine in 1978 (this fact is mostly true: a couple Foreign Affairs tracks are a little involved). Perhaps no other recording so aptly demonstrates Waits’ penchants for wistful schmaltz.
The only full-length album by the enormously inventive (although heavily derivative) 90s punk rock band Schlong was a complete cover of West Side Story. Although they shared a sound with bay area punks like Kamala and the Karnivores, Crimpshrine and Operation Ivy, Schlong’s Punk Side Story was a loving interpretation rather than an exercise in irony. We were pleased to read in Pop Matters (here) that when Bernstein’s daughter Nina was presented with a copy of Punk Side Story, “She was surprised that someone of our generation knew her father’s score so well, and said she wouldn’t sue us.”
We think “Lenny” (as he is credited on Punk Side Story) himself would be very pleased with the inventive pistache of Schlong’s “Dance at the Gym,” if not their surprising devotion to his original score. This was, afterall, the guy who composed Candide and lived to see it come into some reknown.
And the band of misfits were perfectly suited to perform the Jets’ hypothetical, subversive response to authority in “Gee Officer Krupke” (a number which, incidentally, borrowed some music from Candide). This song is one of the gems of middle 90s bay area punk rock.
In 1985, Bernstein was finally able to realize the operatic West Side Story of his dreams. Although this recording for Deutsche-Grammophon was not produced for the stage, its stunningly theatrical. Fans of the film are likely to find it alienating, but this triple-album is well worth a second (and third and fourth) listen.
Bernstein’s casting choices were confounding, especially the choice of José Carreras as Tony. This was several years before he became an enormous star outside of opera as one of the Three Tenors — at the time there was some controversy as to whether his accent was fit for the role (Carreras is the second-most-awesome Catalan in any good record collection). In his defense, his duet with Kiri Te Kanawa (as Maria) on “One Hand, One Heart” would captivate anyone who has ever been in love. Bernstein gets a magnificent performance out of the strangely anonymous symphony orchestra, making the action sequences especially exciting.
This West Side Story fell somewhere in between the opera house and the Broadway theater, and maybe never sat well with either audience. We feel its an essential Bernstein recording, if only for the insight it provides into his most enduring work.