Oh, those Sharks ...

What gives the music of "West Wide Story" its timeless appeal?


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Rebecca Bailey

Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story," October 20

Mention the name "Leonard Bernstein," and what music comes to mind? Chances are it's the fantastic music of the stage and film musical West Side Story. Whether it's high-octane cha-cha at a dance, edgy jazz in a street fight, or heartbreaking love songs on the fire escape, Bernstein's incredible melodies and turn-on-a-dime rhythms still grab our ears and won't let go.

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Get a wonderful earful of that music Saturday, October 20, 8 pm with the Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble's Bernstein@100 - part of a series of events at the Hop fall celebrating Bernstein in the centennial of his birth.

Along with two works inspired by Bernstein, the wind ensemble performs Bernstein's Symphonic Dances From West Side Story - the composer's thrilling distillation of the musical themes from the musical/film. Below, hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the work in 2007 at the BBC Proms:

Wind Ensemble Interim Director Daniel Buchner tells about Bernstein, West Side Story and Symphonic Dances in his program notes for the concert:

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein was schooled at Harvard (where he graduated in 1939) and, following advanced work at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, returned to his home state. There he worked at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and was taken under the wing of Serge Koussevitzky, musical director of the Boston Symphony. In 1943, he moved to New York, the city with which he would become most famously associated. While working as assistant conductor to Arthur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein stepped in at short notice—on November 14, 1943—to substitute for an ailing conductor (Bruno Walter) at a Philharmonic concert and, as they say, the rest is history. In 1958, he began a decade-long tenure as that orchestra’s music director.

Them Jets ain't bad, neither ...

As early as 1949, Bernstein and his friends Jerome Robbins (the choreographer) and Arthur Laurents (the librettist) batted around the idea of creating a musical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set amid the tensions of rival social groups in modern New York City. The project took a long time to find its eventual form. An early version tentatively titled East Side Story, involving the doomed love affair between a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy on New York’s Lower East Side, was altered to reflect the more up-to-date social issue of gang conflict. Much of the composition was carried out more-or-less concurrently with Bernstein’s work on his opera Candide, with music flowing in both directions between the two scores.

As the production of West Side Story moved into the home stretch it was beset with several crises. Cheryl Crawford, the producer, got cold feet about what she termed “a show full of hatefulness and ugliness,” but her partner Roger Stevens jumped in to ensure that the project would continue; and the young Stephen Sondheim, who had been brought on as lyricist, snagged the interest of his friend Harold Prince to be involved as a producer. To everyone’s amazement, Robbins announced at the eleventh hour that he would rather spend his time directing than choreographing the show, thereby jeopardizing Prince’s participation; in the end, Robbins was persuaded to stay on as choreographer and was granted an unusually long rehearsal period as an inducement.

On August 19, 1957, West Side Story opened in a try-out run in Washington, DC, with a host of government luminaries in attendance. (During the intermission, Bernstein ran into Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was in tears.) It proved a very firm hit when it reached Broadway, running for 772 performances, just short of two years. After that it embarked on a national tour and eventually made its way back to New York in 1960 for another 253 performances, after which it was released as a feature film in 1961. “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr, critic of the Herald Tribune, in the wake of the opening in New York, and one might argue that his assumption remains true six decades later. West Side Story stands as an essential, influential chapter in the history of American theater, and its engrossing tale of young love against a background of spectacularly choreographed gang warfare has found a place at the core of Americans’ common culture.

Rita Moreno, who originated the role on stage and owned it completely on film.

In the opening weeks of 1961, Bernstein revisited his score for West Side Story and extracted nine sections to assemble into what he called the Symphonic Dances. The impetus was a gala fundraising concert for the New York Philharmonic’s pension fund, to be held the evening before Valentine’s Day. The event was styled as an overt love-fest, celebrating not only his involvement with the orchestra up to that time but also the fact that he had agreed that month to a new contract that would ensure his presence for another seven years. In the interest of efficiency, Bernstein’s colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had just completed the orchestration of West Side Story for its film version, suggested appropriate sections of the score to Bernstein, who placed them not in the order in which they occur in the musical but instead in a new, uninterrupted sequence derived from a strictly musical rationale. Two of the most popular favorites of the musical’s songs are found in the pages of the Symphonic Dances: “Somewhere” and “Maria” (in the Cha-Cha section), though not the also-beloved “America,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” or “Tonight.”

The late Jack Gottlieb, who for many years served as Bernstein’s amanuensis, provided this summary of the sections of the Symphonic Dances and how they relate to the action in the well-known musical:

Prologue: The growing rivalry between two teenage gangs, the Jets and Sharks.
“Somewhere”: In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.
Scherzo: In the same dream, they break through the city walls, and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air and sun.
Mambo: Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs.
Cha-Cha: The star-crossed lovers see each other for the first time and dance together.
Meeting Scene: Music accompanies their first spoken words.
“Cool” Fugue: An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.
Rumble: Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.
Finale: Love music developing into a processional, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of “Somewhere.”

Originally set to orchestra, it was later transcribed for band by Paul Lavender and premiered by the United States Marine Band in 2006. This arrangement is an exact copy of the orchestral version with the only difference being the omission of violin, viola, and cello.

"There's a place for us..."

 


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