The Importance of West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein’s timeless musical story of love and gang violence is and always will be a landmark piece of musical theatre and art.
The 1957 Musical groundbreaker West Side Story is a crucial milestone in the history of music and musical theatre. Brought to fruition by a sea of names including (in no particular order!) Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins- all giants in the world of music and musical theatre- it is a story that despite a seemingly archaic plot continues to inspire and be an ideological food-for-thought in 21st Century America. But why?
The West Side sound embodies everything that we now think of as “the American sound”. Bernstein’s work with Aaron Copland and study of George Gershwin is largely evident in his score for West Side. Take, for instance the whimsical Tonight from Act I, and compare it to something like Gershwin’s An American in Paris or Copland’s Billy the Kid. As a composer, Bernstein is a perfect centre between the likes of Copland and Gershwin; embodying the grittier, jazzier Gershwin elements as well as the traditional, masterful orchestrations of Copland to make a biting contemporary score that conveys mood and character, as well as pushing the boundaries of performance ability and compositional technique. Take America, for instance. The whole piece is centered around the 3/4 / 6/8 figure that actually makes up the melody and whole body of the piece. In most productions, America is about 5 minutes long, but the listener is hooked by the 2 bar quaver/crotchet figure:
Now, America works really well for several reasons. The reason above, that the double time signature is infectious, but also the use of complex rhythms. Where the piece basically uses 2 distinct rhythms, the audience is constantly unsure of what direction the next line is going to take. The rhythmic offbeats flood the piece with a latin flare, naturally instilling the Puerto Rican feel upon the piece. Furthermore, Bernstein uses the voice as a percussive instrument, which adds more complex rhythms, as well as a further instrumental dimension. It is worth noting here the overlapping of the musical/lyrical/dance/acting that arguably provides much of the shows staying power. This can be seen vividly in this clip from the 1961 film version, whereas in other works there are strict “this is a sing and dance” numbers, West Side constantly uses music as a dramatic tool, dance as a cinematic technique to drive the plot forward in a fluid way. I believe that this is one of the shows greatest achievements. Whilst it makes it inevitably more complex, it provides this beautiful crossover between drama, music, dance and plot that consistently maintains the pace of the show, as well as unifying every single part of the show, stage and cast.
The lyrical content of the show is arguably another place where West Side really excels. As well as being musically complex, Sondheim’s witty, at times biting lyrics (although he says he now doesn’t like them) give the show a fire and character that is often dodged in other works. Again, take a look at America, and its discussion of the cultural issues for the Puerto Rican’s living in America:
Puerto Rico . . .
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!
Now not only do these lyrics add character and humour, as well as an almost too-close-to-home edge, they are particularly relevant today, in the weird 21st Century American Dystopia that we live in. Take early works like Gilbert and Sullivan, and the cultural messages like this simply do not translate to the modern day like this.
The lyrics aren’t just political though. Sondheim and Bernstein beautifully convey love and adoration through their slower, romantic numbers:
Balcony Scene (Tonight), Bernstein/Sondheim
Only you, you’re the only thing I’ll see, forever.
In my eyes, in my words and in everything I do,
Nothing else but you,
Always you, every thought I’ll ever know,
Everywhere I go,
The depth of emotion in the lovesongs is consistent throughout the show, and combined with the humorous and political numbers gives the show its wholesomeness as a piece of musical theatre.
West Side Story stands out compared to other shows because of its consistent intricacies throughout all of its aspects. One of the most memorable parts of the show is the use of ballet and dance. Obviously the show is going to contain dance-it’s a musical- but the way that dance is used to represent all of the important acts on the stage is majorly important, and again, introduces elements of other art to the Broadway stage. That the dancing has been parodied in such media as Family Guy is only testament to its success and instant recognisability. This technique does extend further than just the dancing, though. The dramatic use of percussive elements, and the percussive use of harmonic elements are always used as dramatic devices- everything that happens in the score, script and choreography has purpose. Where a production like Les Miserables relies on over-lyricising to convey the plot, West Side Story uses simple techniques coupled with complex musicality and choreography to portray everything in the most pure way for the audience, and that is what makes West Side Story so important.
Sam Marshall is a freelance musician, writer and reviewer based in SW UK.