Music By LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)

Lyrics By STEPHEN SONDHEIM (b.1930)

West Side Story, Selections for Orchestra (1957), 10 minutes 

Arranged by Jack Mason 

Leonard (Louis) Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts and died on October 14, 1990 in New York City. The first Broadway production of West Side Story opened on September 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre. This arrangement is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and english horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, harp and strings.

The genesis of West Side Story is famously framed as being an East Side Story, and was the brain child of director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. He pitched the idea of a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet to Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents in 1947, with an Irish Catholic and Jewish rivalry set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Laurents would pen the book East Side Story, his first, but the project would linger in development hell. Nearly a decade would lapse, and the emerging headlines of rising juvenile delinquency in Los Angeles and the Chicano turf wars would shift the East Side Story, westward. Bernstein would remark, “Suddenly it all springs to life. I can hear the rhythms and pulses, and -- most of all -- I can feel the form.” At the urging of Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim would join the team to pen the lyrics.

 

The marriage of Bernstein’s iconic music of New York’s cityscape, and Sondheim’s eloquent and aching lyrics, is a match only the Big Apple could produce. The thread of William Shakespeare once again holds fast as the inspirational muse, weaving a new tragedy in a New-Verona, with new households, gangs of Jets and Sharks, and a pair of new lovers, Maria and Tony.

 

Set contemporaneously in the 1950s, the plot explores tensions in the Upper West Side. Where Shakespeare scrutinized a wealthy class rivalry,  West Side Story tackles a more complicated and still highly relevant issues of racial and ethnic tensions. From this rivalry of the Puerto Rican Sharks and the White American Jets, teenage street gangs, a young multi-racial love emerges in Maria and Tony. The gang culture and prejudices will set familial vendettas mirroring the killings of Mercutio and Tybalt, ultimately leading to Tony’s downfall, and Maria’s loss of innocence.

 

Jack Mason’s arrangement will feature the songs, I Feel Pretty, Maria, Something’s Coming Tonight, One Hand, One Heart, Cool and America. For maximum dramatic effect, the songs occur out of show order, and so the context for how each song arises in the musical, follows.

 

It’s the night of the neighborhood dance and Tony, a former Jets member, is filled with anticipation, a gleeful optimism, a feeling, “Something’s Coming Tonight.” Of course that something is someone, Maria, recently arrived from Puerto Rico, she is arranged to marry someone she does not love. At the dance, Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight. Infatuated, Tony serenades “Maria” at her window-side, with the opening lovestruck tritone. With the rhythms of the huapanga, the girls of the Sharks sing of living Puerto Rican in “America,” and as the gangs prepare for a rumble, the leader of the Jets, Riff, “Cools” the tension with Jazz. Maria urges Tony to stop the fight and they duet with a tender yet melancholy-tinged, “One Hand, One Heart,” singing of their wedding that will only ever be a dream. Despite Tony’s efforts, the rumbles goes down, Riff is killed and Tony kills Maria’s brother Bernardo in retaliation. Ignorant of the events, Maria is giddy at having found love in the waltzy, “I Feel Pretty.” © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on July 9-11, 2021.