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By Jason Sundram

Overture to West Side Story (1957)



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Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990)

Leonard Bernstein admitted that the subject of West Side Story was “less important than the bigger idea of making a musical that tells a tragic story in musical-comedy terms.” The all-star team of Jerome Robbins (choreography), a young Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Arthur Laurent (libretto) worked closely together to make such a musical.

Bernstein was very conscious of creating an American musical idiom when he composed West Side Story. Originally titled East Side Story, the musical was conceived as a contemporary retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story by choreographer/director Robbins in 1949. Created in the spirit of the Broadway musical comedy, West Side Story represented a conceptual change in the genre. West Side Story is not the sunny stuff of musicals; it is a bleakly tragic story. Along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, it pointed the way to American musical theater, a genre more diverse than mere musical comedy.

In West Side Story, dance is as important as the word; the energy of the characters’ movements expresses what they are unable to say. The musical score is rife with nervous energy; it both speaks for the characters and frames the dance sequences. Bernstein composed music from a variety of genres with equal fluency in West Side Story: opera ("Tonight” ensemble), jazz ("Cool", “Jet Song"), Broadway ("I Feel Pretty", “Gee, Officer Krupke"), and Latin ("Maria", “America"). Bernstein, though he created an American idiom, used Wagner’s conception of gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork": a perfect synthesis of music, dance, poetry) and music-drama in the score. Although the potpourri-style overture gives a thematic overview of the show, it is as integral to the drama as Wagner’s preludes. Rather than a cheery curtain raiser, we have grim music foretelling the tragedy to come.