West Side Story Documented

Professor Nigel Simeone on his new study of Leonard Bernstein's classic musical

11 January 2010

West Side Story by Nigel SimeoneWhy write a book on West Side Story? For me, this question answered itself while I was on a research trip to Washington DC a few years ago – during a blisteringly hot August – when I was able to look at the West Side Story manuscripts in the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress. This collection contains a wealth of fascinating material related to the show: numerous earlier versions of familiar songs, several numbers that were completely cut, others that were extensively revised, and a great deal of other documentary evidence including correspondence, working notes and drafts by rest of the creative team that made the show: Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. Other collections in the Library included letters from the producers, box-office receipts, still photographs, set designs, programmes and much else besides.

With this documentation, it was possible to construct a much more detailed picture of how the show developed than had been attempted before, and my book sets out to explore how this extraordinary collaboration evolved. Since it was a commission for the series Landmarks in Music Since 1950 there is inevitably a heavier emphasis on the music than on other aspects of the show (such as the choreography), but Laurents' book and Sondheim's lyrics are so closely interwoven with the score that these, too, became a major focus of my attention.

West Side Story was composed, like any Broadway show, a number at a time. Thus, there is no such thing as the autograph manuscript of the show, but instead three large boxes containing piano-vocal versions of single numbers in various stages of development. The manuscripts demonstrate the piecemeal approach to composition very clearly, and suggestions of over-arching motifs were all made in the light of what Bernstein wrote, rather than being part of a compositional plan. Indeed, it seems not to have been Bernstein who first noticed the most striking of these motivic features – the frequent presence of the tritones (augmented fourths) in the score: that honour falls to Stephen Sondheim who pointed it out to Bernstein while they were working on the show. For Bernstein this later became something of an obsession, and he even wrote out a page of motifs that all contain tritones, but this apparent coherence was a happy accident rather than a deliberate composing strategy. As Sondheim told me: 'It was actually I who pointed out to Lenny that there were a number of tritones in the songs. I even suggested that he include some in the songs where they didn't exist, such as 'I Feel Pretty.' Lenny later claimed that the score was built around the tritone, which is nonsense since half the score was taken from other shows and ballets.'

West Side Story by Nigel SimeoneIt could hardly be otherwise given how musicals are composed, or given Bernstein's own propensity for self-borrowing from earlier works. For West Side Story these borrowings stretched back to an unfinished ballet from 1941 (written during the same working vacation at Key West in Florida as the Clarinet Sonata). Called Conch Town, this ballet score (which exists as an almost complete manuscript for piano four hands) turned out to be a particularly useful source, since it contains not only the tune of 'America' but also the music used for 'Puerto Rico, You lovely island' and even its violent reworking as the instrumental number that accompanies Anita's rape near the end of the show. That same 'Puerto Rico' tune was intended to be reused in Candide (on which Bernstein was working just before West Side Story), but that number was cut.

Candide itself provided another familiar tune for West Side Story: 'One Hand, One Heart' began life as a duet for Candide and Cunegonde, composed for Act 2, Scene 3, but subsequently cut. . Intriguingly – given its eventual destination – this was to have been followed by a marriage ceremony that was also cut. In the marriage ceremony itself, scored for chorus, with lines spoken by Candide and Cunegonde, the 'One Hand, One Heart' theme serves as the main idea – first in unison, then in four-part harmony – for a rather learned number that Bernstein describes on the manuscript as a 'Chorale prelude on the theme of the Love duet.' This, too, was cut.

In the Candide manuscripts, the 'Love duet' theme is written in steady dotted minims, and after its relocation in West Side Story it was to stay like that until very late in rehearsals – after it had shifted from the Balcony Scene to the Marriage Scene, and after the cast had moved to Washington for the tryouts that started on 19 August 1957. Even the orchestral score in the Sid Ramin collection has the dotted minim version, with the revision added in coloured pencil. It was Sondheim who urged Bernstein to make the change to three crotchets in the first and third bars, in order to accommodate some more intelligent lyrics. As he told Craig Zadan, 'I remember that the tune of 'One Hand, One Heart,' which Bernstein originally wrote for Candide, had only a dotted half note to each bar. I realized I couldn't set any two-syllable words to the song, it had to be all one-syllable words. I was stifled, and down in Washington, after my endless pleas, Lenny put in two little quarter notes so that I could put 'make of our' as in 'Make of our hearts one heart.' Not a great deal, but at least a little better.' The original version of this song was the first music from West Side Story to be recorded: Jo Stafford made a single of it that has the tune in steady dotted minims. Coincidentally, she recorded it in New York on 19 August 1957 – the very same day as the show's opening in Washington.

It was Mark Eden Horowitz, Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress and curator of the Leonard Bernstein Collection who showed me an amazingly vivid account of the making of the original Broadway cast recording of the show. Straight after the Broadway opening, Bernstein had to fly to Israel (to conduct the opening concert in the Mann Auditorium), so he wasn't present at the sessions a few days later. Stephen Sondheim was, and his long and detailed letter to Bernstein is gripping. So, too, is a letter from Goddard Lieberson to Bernstein. Since this cast recording is how most people first came to know the show, and since there was such fascinating eyewitness testimony, I decided to end my book with a chapter about the original cast recording, something that was especially apt as the Landmarks series includes a CD of the work, and we were able to use this historic version.

I decided not to discuss the film version in any detail: it's a very different kind of experience, it's completely reorchestrated (albeit by Ramin and Kostal, who won Oscars for their work on it), and some those involved in the show have expressed their dislike for the film adaptation (notably Arthur Laurents, who thought is was 'appalling'). More importantly from my own perspective, I wanted to write about West Side Story as a stage work, which is how it was conceived.

One exciting practical outcome of my work on West Side Story was a series of private workshops with my students at Sheffield University, several of whom subsequently contributed to the project in other ways, not least because they shared my excitement at performing hitherto unheard numbers for the first time, and being able to compare radically different versions of very familiar songs, or to help me complete, and play through, the score of Conch Town that was such an important source for Bernstein. The following are a few examples.

Among the cut numbers, 'Mix!' and 'This Turf Is Ours' were both originally written for the Jets to sing in Scene I of West Side Story. The first is an uncompromisingly violent song that was subsequently tried out as music for the Rumble at the end of Act I, before being dropped completely. As well as Sondheim's blood-curdling lyrics, the music itself is extremely interesting for what it became. While all trace of it vanished from West Side Story, Bernstein recycled it a few years later. Never one to waste a good idea, Bernstein used almost all of this number in the second movement of the Chichester Psalms (1965). His eventual recycling of the 'Mix!' music had uncanny parallels with the idea of conflict in the original song: 'Lamah rag'shu goyim' ('Why do the nations rage') is a passage from Psalm 2 about the futility of nation fighting nation. When Walter Hussey first wrote to Bernstein commission the Chichester Psalms, he asked particularly that Bernstein 'might consider a setting of Psalm 2', adding 'we should not mind if it had a touch of the idiom of West Side Story.' Little did Hussey realize that Bernstein gave him rather more than just a touch of the show.

West Side Story by Nigel Simeone'This Turf Is Ours!' was written as a possible late replacement for the 'Jet Song'; on one sketch the start of the number is described as 'Prologue variant' and so it is: the tune starts with the familiar rising figure C-F-F-B. A little later in the song, the music used in the 'Jet Song' for 'You're never alone, / You're never disconnected' is set to the words 'We're stakin' a claim / The boundaries are set out. / The foreigners came, / Well now they're gonna get out!' Sondheim told Craig Zadan about the reasons for writing the song, and its subsequent rejection: 'We wrote a new opening because everyone felt the opening wasn't violent enough. The new opening, 'This Turf is Ours!', was really violent and everyone thought it was too violent, so we went back to the 'Jet Song.' '

A delicious trio, 'Like Everybody Else' was written during the Washington tryouts. Sometimes referred to as 'Kids Ain't' or 'Kid Stuff', this is a sharp, witty number in which Anybodys sings about how she wishes she was a boy too ('I swear and I smoke and I inhale. / Why can't I be male / Like everybody else?') It was never heard in the show, nor was it orchestrated at the time. As Sondheim recalls, 'we were busy in Washington for a while because Jerry [Robbins] had a strong feeling that there was a sag in the middle of the first act, so we wrote a number for the three young kids – Anybodys, A-rab, and Baby John. It was called 'Kids Ain't' and was a terrific trio that we all loved.' Why, then, was it never used? Sondheim provided the answer to Craig Zadan: 'Arthur gave a most eloquent speech about how he loved it also but that we shouldn't use it, because it would be a crowd-pleaser.' Laurents confirms this: 'Another song, 'Kid stuff' [i.e. 'Like  Everybody Else'], which might have been … successful with the audience, was written in Washington immediately after we opened there. Steve and Lenny played it for Jerry, me and the producers. We all agreed it was terrific and it was. Then, regretfully, I pointed out it would tip the show over into musical comedy … the song was out before it went in.'

West Side Story by Nigel SimeoneThe extensively revised songs included three that proved to be especially interesting when we performed them in our private workshops. After its rescue from Candide, 'One Hand, One Heart' was originally intended for the Balcony Scene, with different lyrics and slightly different music. The 'Tonight' duet that replaced it was a late addition, though this, too, was much revised up to the last moment, and Bernstein's manuscript fair copy has numerous differences from the familiar version. (Incidentally, though this duet was added late in the show's genesis, the 'Tonight' Ensemble from which it was derived appears on what is almost certainly the earliest musical sketch-leaf for West Side Story.) 'A Boy Like That' was very much revised, not only being shortened to something that is barely half the length of the original, but also involving one fewer singer – 'I have a love' is reprised at the end of the original version by Tony. There are other changes too – ones that make for fascinating comparisons, but in every single case the revision is tighter, more dramatic and more immediate. Bernstein often grumbled in letters to his wife that his music was being massacred by his collaborators insisting on changes – but this was no different from the process that goes on in any Broadway show. Again, Sondheim put things in perspective in an email to me: 'Lenny's endless complaint that his score was getting eviscerated because it was too 'operatic' – none of us (Arthur, Jerry and me) said that, so who made him change things? The record company? Hal [Prince] and Bobby [Griffith]? Never. The songs were changed for the reasons songs should be changed: they were too clumsy, too long-winded, too monotonous, not theatrical, whatever.' Having performed several of the songs in their earlier versions, there's no doubt in my mind that Sondheim is completely right about this: every single one of them is more effective in the final versions.

Nowhere in the Bernstein Collection is there a single page of orchestral score for West Side Story in Bernstein's hand. As usual with Broadway shows  – with the notable exceptions of Victor Herbert and Kurt Weill – orchestrations were not done by the composers themselves. There are obvious practical reasons for this: with songs often being written at the last moment, or transpositions being made, one person could not do it all in time. The orchestration credits for West Side Story mention three names: Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, but the division of labour here was not equal. While Bernstein oversaw the work, it was executed by Ramin and Kostal, with immense skill, and several flashes of brilliant imagination (like the sound of three bass clarinets at the start of 'A Boy Like That').  The most important copy of the full orchestral score of West Side Story is in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia University in New York. This is Sid Ramin's own annotated copy: a large folio blueprint score marked up with revisions in three colours of pencil (Ramin, Kostal and Bernstein himself), and incorporating changes that were made right up to the opening in September 1957. The orchestration process was something Ramin explained to me in an interview, and that Kostal wrote about in his (as yet unpublished) memoirs.

West Side Story has been described by Stephen Schwartz as 'the best score ever written for musical theatre' While the plot was motivated by contemporary social problems, the result is a piece of theatre, not a documentary; Robbins, Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim aspired to move, to shock and to thrill, not to preach a sociological tract. This is perhaps the reason for the show's continuing success today: half a century later, the precise circumstances that inspired it may have changed, but the value of human life – and the simple power of love – have not.

By Nigel Simeone

Nigel Simeone's Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story is published by Ashgate. For more information, see:


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