How West Side Story’s score became basic American vocabulary

For West Side Story, the score’s the thing. Even a first exposure to the 1957 original Broadway cast album or the 1961 Academy Award-winning movie soundtrack reveals this music to be the peak of the golden, pre-rock age of American song.

Leonard Bernstein’s melodies are immediately catchy and unforgettable, yet on further listening are ever more complex and interconnected. Stephen Sondheim’s hard, sharp, wry yet openhearted lyrics are the perfect match. The story’s drama—love denied, à la Shakespeare—gains emotion and context from the indissoluble fusion of words and tunes. Dance, thanks to the daring Jerome Robbins, springs from and reiterates the songs’ jagged, jazzy rhythms.

Characters are defined by their tunes, moods are crystallized, incidents foretold. The effect is immediate and modern, though today we recognize the sounds as from a distant time, another place. There’s no big beat, ear candy or overt production. People sing without winking about how people in real life don’t sing.

But remember—or imagine—leaving Broadway’s Winter Garden in ’57 or a movie palace anywhere in ’61, melodies and snatches of lyrics from “The Jet Song,” “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” “Cool,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” “Gee, Officer Krupke” or “A Boy Like That” resounding with the noise and speech of the street. Such tense, tough, vernacular compressions of narrative were new on stage and screen.

Frankness in song was known in the blues, cloaked in R&B, circled in rockabilly and countrypolitan, alluded to by Sinatra and had some precedence in earlier musicals including Showboat, South Pacific, Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls. But the barely repressed angst of West Side Story and its sudden flare-ups into murderous violence were the stuff of opera, not Broadway or Hollywood.

Though just a kid then, and a clumsy one at that, I recall being inspired by the pent-up energy of Bernstein’s instrumental prologue set in the gang-dominated playground to try to float while walking like finger-snapping Russ “Riff” Tamblyn. My brothers, friends and I acted out the tragic role of Tony, all innocent expectation, raising voices with syncopated emphasis, “I don’t know/ What it is/But it is/Coming my way.” We hissed like the Jets, “Boy, boy, crazy boy, play it cool, boy,” though we might not have understood the truth of the mob appeal captured in Sondheim’s couplet “Little boy, you’re a man/ Little man, you’re a king.”

We tried out incongruous flamenco moves in imitation of the sharp-suited Sharks and took on the tongue-rolling accent of Anita satirizing “Amer-EEE-kah.” We might have even draped ourselves in flimsy drag and pranced around, asking, “Who’s that pretty girl in the mirror, there?/ Who can that attractive girl be?/ Such a pretty face/ Such a pretty dress/ Such a pretty smile/ Such a pretty me!”

The sheer lyricism Bernstein tapped for the love songs “Maria” and “Tonight” were impossible for us kids to spoof, and since then we’ve rarely encountered such outright idealism regarding romance (compare “Maria” to “Wild Thing,” “Tonight” to “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night”).

The movie’s purely instrumental episodes—the playground prologue, the dance in the gym, the rumble under the highway—were electrically exciting and remain so in the “Symphonic Dances” Bernstein forged from them for concert performance. Yet his dissonant intervals, slashing interjections, driving counterpoint and luminous, deceptively simple lines have generally resisted others’ interpretations—the jazz versions by Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Sarah Vaughan, André Previn, Dave Grusin and Buddy Rich add little to the originals.

I think the West Side Story score fails in the resolution. Neither “One Hand, One Heart” nor “Somewhere” heal the Jets-Sharks feud or master the work’s underlying themes of miscegenation and assimilation. But all of these songs, from their moment of emergence, have made undeniable claims on our consciousness. When America heard West Side Story, the play’s way of expressing conflict, anticipation, romantic awe, flirtation, sarcasm, bravado and hope became our own, which is why, more than 50 years after its debut, it is continuously revisited in high school and community productions, in ads and jingles, as shorthand for states of being.

The sentiments of West Side Story’s music reflected or became basic American vocabulary. There’s not much like it anymore, but this music is with us still.

Reach Howard Mandel at jazzmandel@gmail.com.


Borden Auditorium at Manhattan School of Music: The MSM Jazz Orchestra celebrates the 50th anniversary of the film version of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” with jazz arrangements of the award-winning score. Nov. 11, 120 Claremont Ave., 917-493-4428, msmnyc.edu; 7:30, $10.

The Moldy Fig Jazz Club: Wade Barnes & The Bottom Line Ensemble perform. Every Mon., 178 Stanton St., moldyfigjazzclub.com; 8, $5.

Rose Theater: Pablo Ziegler, Pipi Piazzolla, Paquito D’Rivera, Pablo Aslan & others perform the music of Astor Piazzolla. Nov. 11–12, Broadway at 60th St., 212-721-6500, jalc.org; 8 (with pre-concert discussion at 7), $10+.