Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an erudite, passionate musician whose exceptional talents and expressive gifts earned him a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers. His rose to instant national fame in 1943, at age 25, when he filled in for the suddenly ill Bruno Walter as conductor of a nationally televised New York Philharmonic performance. He went on to become the Philharmonic’s music director until 1969, and remained a frequent guest conductor there until his death. With the Philharmonic, he presented a series of 53 educational Young People’s Concerts which were broadcast on CBS, making him a familiar face around the nation. He also composed music, crossing from academic classical music into Broadway musicals, including West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide.
The Broadway musical West Side Story first came into being in 1957 as a collaboration between Bernstein (as composer), choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthuer Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Its story is based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Set in the 1950s on Manhattan’s West Side, it tells the tragic tale of Tony and Maria, whose rival gangs doom their young love. The musical became a film in 1961, winning 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Bernstein’s music was often a character itself, giving the film psychological direction in many long dance sequences. Originally written in English, West Side Story was recently revived on Broadway in a bilingual version, with the Puerto Rican Sharks speaking and singing mostly in Spanish while the white Jets retain their English.
This set of West Side Story Selections comprises sort of a greatest hits collection from the musical. It is a single movement that transitions smoothly from one tune to the next, focusing on the most popular melodies from the musical. Here it is in full:
While the playing on that recording is excellent, some of those tempos are flatly bizarre, so do not take that recording as gospel. Instead, take a listen to the songs as they appear in the film version. The medley starts with “I Feel Pretty”, Maria’s crazy-in-love song:
Next up is “Maria”, which Tony sings after meeting her for the first time:
This segues to “Something’s Coming”, Tony’s song from early in the film in which he expresses his feelings of endless, unknowable possibilities in front of him:
This is followed by another song of anticipation, “Tonight”, in which Tony and Maria sing of the excitement of their newly discovered feelings:
It is used again later in the climactic number leading up to the Jets’ and Sharks’ big confrontation:
Maria and Tony play at getting married (and it gets rather serious), and they sing “One Hand, One Heart”:
After the rumble, in which each gang has lost a member, the Jets regroup and sing “Cool”, reminding each other to play it cool despite their intense anxiety and anger:
The medley ends with “America”, in which the Puerto Ricans sing of the promise (and pitfalls) of their new life in New York (the song proper starts about 3 minutes in):
There is much material about both Bernstein and West Side Story on the web. The survey below only scratches the surface.
Leonardbernstein.com – a true treasure trove of everything Bernstein, including many personal reflections by friends, relatives, and colleagues.
Leonard Bernstein on Wikipedia.
The Leonard Bernstein Collection at the US Library of Congress.
A lengthy and heartfelt essay on Bernstein and his influence at classicalnotes.net.
West Side Story main website. Includes information on performances all over the world, lyrics to the songs, and other information.
West Side Story the musical on Wikipedia.
West Side Story new Broadway production website.
Preview of West Side Story book (for the musical) on Google Books.