Selections from West Side Story
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxes, tenor sax, baritone sax, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
notes by Katherine Baber
I. I feel pretty
III. Something's Coming
V. One Hand, One Heart
Composed 1956. First performance: September 26, 1957, Winter Garden Theatre, New York.
Although Broadway is a long way from the symphony hall, Bernstein’s basic impulses in both arenas were the same. In the preface to The Age of Anxiety, he declared: “If the charge of ‘theatricality’ in a symphonic work is a valid one, I am willing to plead guilty.” And guilty he certainly was throughout 1956 and 1957 as he simultaneously worked on adapting Voltaire’s Candide and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the Broadway stage. Together, Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim created a modern parable about love as a force capable of transcending differences of all kinds. The musical began as East Side Story, with the rival gangs made up of Jewish and Catholic youth. For his own part, Bernstein saw Shakespeare’s play as “an out and out plea for racial tolerance.” It was Robbins who proposed focusing on two issues in the news at the time—anxieties about Latin American immigrants and juvenile delinquency—but as a group, they were also motivated to create a story that could address prejudice writ large. Our ability to see ourselves—the best and the worst of us—in the Sharks and the Jets, in Tony and Maria, makes this work an enduring American masterpiece.
“Maria” is both the best-known song of the musical and the most important. Its opening line, with the dissonant tritone at the center of her name, is the key to Bernstein’s score. He liked to challenge listeners to see all the places they could find this unusual interval. This evening, you will hear the tritone in “Cool” and “Tonight”, as both gangs careen toward the rumble that will decide their fates. “I Feel Pretty” might seem a simple bit of fluff, but the most recent Broadway production (2009) chose to make a point by translating this, and other moments within the Puerto Rican community, into Spanish. The result is a song that reaches across another barrier, as Maria’s youthful joy and naïvete are clear in any language. That Tony, too, is young and restless is apparent in “Something’s Coming,” a number that was added to the show very late in its development. As he soars over the taut, syncopated groove, the eagerness and optimism that define Tony are palpable. “Tonight” is Bernstein at his most operatic, a tendency that had him at odds with his collaborators. With a quartet of soloists (Anita, Tony, Riff, and Maria), both gangs singing over one another, and counterpoint from the orchestra, this number could be the finale to the most overwrought of operatic acts.
“One Hand, One Heart” goes straight to the core of the musical—the love that transcends difference even as it drives conflict. As it unfolds, this simple hymn-like melody also reveals the patterns that unify the score for the whole musical. The first tentative half-step up, the perfect fifth of “one hand, one heart,” and the distinctive tritone from “Maria” are all present in this moment. The central role of dance in West Side Story is most apparent in “Cool” and “America.” As the Jets try to steady themselves in “Cool,” a boppish ostinato based on the tritone introduced in “Maria” forms the solid ground beneath their emotional outbursts. The central portion of the number is a long dance break over a complex twelve-tone fugue, plus a winding countermelody with the contour and tone colors of the cool jazz style. Eventually, the tension breaks with an outburst from the orchestra, topped by a “screamer” trumpet in the mode of Dizzy Gillespie, as the Jets release their anxiety and aggression. On the other hand, the irresistible rhythms drawn from the Puerto Rican _seis _and other Latin American dances popular in the 1950s make “America,” alongside “Mambo,” one of the most memorable dance numbers on Broadway. The song begins as an argument between the Shark girls, some of whom want to go home and others who are more sanguine about the opportunities the mainland offers. The terribly irony, of course, is that Anita is touting the advantages of the country whose prejudice will kill the boy she loves. In the end, the creators of _West Side Story _departed from Shakespeare’s text in one crucial way. Maria, as Juliet, is allowed to live and deliver her message: that hate kills by blinding us to the reality that we are all more alike than we are different. To Bernstein, “Somewhere” is America… just not yet.