Vol. 14, No. 1 Fall 2007
Sondheim101: The place of West Side Story
News & Notes
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SONDHEIM 101: West Side Story
Fifty years after its opening night and 50 years after Walter Kerr speculated the following morning in The New York Herald Tribune that "radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway" the first fully produced Broadway musical to bear the byline of Stephen Sondheim is indelibly part of the American cultural landscape, on a par with such landmark musicals as Show Boat and Oklahoma!, and Sondheim's own Company and Sweeney Todd. For this reason, historians, critics and audiences hardly need the occasion of the 50th anniversary of West Side Story to appreciate its timeless and enduring appeal, its breathtaking and matchless craft. Questions about those qualities were settled a long time ago.
But trying to find a place for West Side Story within the context of the Sondheim canon as a whole is a much thornier and more delicate matter. No, it doesn't quite seem so thorny or delicate when you first begin thinking about it you simply say, "Wasn't West Side Story fundamentally the singular collaboration between four of the great titans of the mid-20th-century American musical theatre: Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (choreography and direction) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)"?
Yes, of course it was. But speaking in strictly Sondheim terms, how many of us fail to notice, consciously or otherwise, that Sondheim's name is inevitably (and perhaps understandably) last on that list? The twentysomething budding composer-lyricist came to the writing process relatively late in the game. He was spared from sharing lyric-writing credit with Bernstein because the composer, in an act of magnanimity unprecedented in the history of art, relinquished his co-authorship in honor of Sondheim's contributions to the show. That act alone assured Sondheim's stature as part of the team.
What is even more extraordinary is just how close Sondheim came to never being a member of the quartet at all. Make no mistake, it was serendipity of the highest order: an improbable mixture of being in the right place at the right time (an opening night party to which Sondheim arrived before his friend and future collaborator Burt Shevelove); already being a mild acquaintance of Laurents (who had been in the audience when Sondheim played selections from Saturday Night for actor-producer Martin Gabel); and possessing the talent and personality type to function as an equal beside the other titans.
Consider how Sondheim relates the story in the Craig Zadan Sondheim & Co.:
... Sondheim turned up early one evening for an opening night party at the apartment of Ruth Ford and Zachary Scott. "I was invited by Burt Shevelove," Sondheim says, "and I didn't know anyone there since Burt hadn't arrived yet. Then in the corner I spotted Arthur Laurents. I went over to make small talk and I asked him what he was doing and he said that he was just about to begin a musical of Romeo and Juliet with Leonard Bernstein and Jerry Robbins. I asked, just idly, "Who's doing the lyrics?" and Arthur literally smote his forehead, which I think is the only time I've ever seen anyone literally smite his forehead, and he said, "I never thought of you and I liked your lyrics very much. I didn't like your music, but I did like your lyrics a lot." Arthur is nothing if not frank.
If Sondheim had never gone to that party; if his storied shyness had stopped him from making "small talk" with Laurents; if Laurents hadn't attended that party; if Laurents hadn't already heard Sondheim's songs if, if, if. Indeed, if you can remotely picture a scenario in which there would have been no Sondheim lyrics for West Side Story, you can extrapolate: Imagine there being no Gypsy, no Forum, and on and on, ad infinitum. West Side Story must, therefore, occupy a particularly important place in the Sondheim oeuvre because it was the first, because Sondheim's writing (despite his own criticisms, more of which shortly) was superlative. In her biography of Sondheim, Meryle Secrest puts it this way:
A plausible chain of circumstances had brought Sondheim to that post-theatre party, but it was mere chance that Laurents was the one person he knew in that room. It was luck that caused him to ask who was writing the lyrics, and sheer good fortune that Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Bernstein's collaborators for On the Town and Wonderful Town, who had been approached, decided to work on a film in California instead.
But beyond the serendipity that brought Sondheim to West Side Story, there are other means and measurements by which we can assess the musical's place within the Sondheim canon. For example, from the tone of their writing, the critics who made a mad dash out of the Winter Garden Theatre after opening night were no doubt searching their brains and scouring their thesauri for phrases to describe the innovative, edgy piece of theatre they had just seen.
"Leonard Bernstein has composed another one of his nervous, flaring scores that capture the shrill beat of life in the streets," wrote Brooks Atkinson in his New York Times review. In a phrase that sounds as much like a medical diagnosis as a critical compliment, Atkinson later called Bernstein's score "astringent ," noting its "moments of tranquility and rapture, and occasionally a touch of sardonic humor." For his part, the aforementioned Kerr who opined, "The show in general is not well sung" (so much for the unanimity of opinion) focused on other elements, such as Laurents' "curt and jarring" dialogue, and particularly the "spine-tingling velocity" of Robbins' electric and commanding choreography and direction.
Sondheim's formidable lyrical contributions as his biographers and even Sondheim himself have often said were, by contrast, something of an afterthought among the critics, if they were mentioned at all. History has a responsibility to rectify this omission, just as it must attempt to paint a picture of Sondheim moping about afterward, dolefully disillusioned for having been so egregiously overlooked. (If West Side Story was a person, it would have been ever more miserable: it won only two Tonys, for Oliver Smith's set and Robbins' choreography, and the score wasn't even nominated.)
Still, when those critical afterthoughts made it into print, it's evident that there was no shortage of reasons to give Sondheim his due. "Young Mr. Sondheim has gone all the way with the mood in his lyrics" read the endorsement of John McClain in The Journal American, who followed up by branding Sondheim's ballads "the lament of the sincere." West Side Story heralded the arrival of a major new talent on the Broadway scene, but the critics failed to properly recognize it.
How else can we take a measure of West Side Story in the Sondheim canon? Not to turn to something too dry, but if you search for doctoral theses on the show or on any of its various elements Sondheim's lyrics, say, or Bernstein's music it does seem as if there's always something coming, if you will. Look and you will find countless examples of mainstream cultural views of the show ("West Side Story"s: Changing Perspectives on an American Musical" by Elizabeth Anne Wells, the University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music, 2004) as well as miniaturist views ("The Use of the Saxophone in the Dramatic Music of Leonard Bernstein" by Wayne Eric Hargrave, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 2006) and esoteric views ("Advanced Marimba Techniques: An Analysis with Musical Approaches to Performance Problems in West Side Suite," by Warren Dean Gronemeier, University of Arizona, 1991).
Away from hallowed halls of the academy and back in actual theatres from coast to coast, West Side Story's Web site ( www.westsidestory.com) identifies more than 100 amateur productions of the show in high schools and colleges throughout 2007, including 46 in March alone. There are also 10 professional productions listed for this year, including the officially sanctioned 50th anniversary production, directed by Gerald Freedman, staged initially in May 2007 at the North Carolina School of the Arts and presented again on June 8, 2007, at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. (See TSR's review, p. 36) There continues to be tremendous interest and whispers once again beginning to circulate that the long-overdue, much -discussed Broadway revival of West Side Story, the first since 1980, might finally be back on track.
The current high production volume for West Side Story is no doubt driven by the 50th anniversary year. What has been equally consistent, however, is the score's enduring popularity in recorded music. Aside from the original cast recording and the soundtrack from the Oscar-winning 1961 film, the West Side Story Web site offers links to every conceivable kind of recording: the 1996 compilation with Selena delivering a hip-hop-inflected "A Boy Like That," and "I Feel Pretty" featuring Little Richard a-wailing; the sonically pure 1997 studio cast recording, billed as "the first complete recording of the work"; the 1993 original cast album of the London revival; the masterful, legendary 1985 recording, conducted by Bernstein, featuring Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras. Now consider all the songs from the show that artists have covered individually or have packaged by theme, and the idea of constructing a genuinely complete West Side Story discography is something of a ludicrous proposition, making the musical unique , in terms of the sheer multiplicity of recordings, in the Sondheim genre.
Sondheim, however, makes the process of trying to find an appropriate ranking for West Side Story in his canon all the more maddening because he has been so strongly on record for so long as being critical, if not hypercritical, of his own lyrics. You might even consider Sondheim's view of his writing to be astonishingly harsh consider when he famously opined that Maria, having thrillingly declared "it's alarming how charming I feel," would "not have been unwelcome in Noλl Coward's living room." In his Journal American review, critic McClain warmly lauded Sondheim's lyrics for "Gee, Officer Krupke" as a "plaint which should settle the problem of juvenile delinquency forever." Nevertheless, Sondheim has a history of attacking the youthful imprecision of his lyrics with unrelenting gusto. In Zadan's study, Sondheim seems determined to teach readers something about the craft of lyric-writing. Yet his stern-taskmaster phrasing could just as easily be interpreted as a matter of merciless self-excoriation:
You don't get a chance to hear the lyric twice and if it doesn't sit and bounce when the music bounces, and rise when the music rises it isn't just a question of mis-accents, which are bad enough, but if it is too crowded and doesn't flow, the audience becomes confused. "America" has twenty-seven words to the square inch. I had this wonderful quatrain that went, "I like to be in America/O.K. by me in America/Everything free in America/For a small fee in America." The "For a small fee" was my little zinger except that the "for" is accented and "small fee" is impossible to say that fast, so it went "For a smafee in America." Nobody knew what it meant!
Given additional opportunities to pick apart his West Side Story lyrics in Secrest's biography, Sondheim took advantage:
I had two street kids singing, "Today the world was just an address, a place for me to live in." Now, you know, excuse me, that's okay for Romeo and Juliet, that's a perfectly good line, but That was Lenny's idea of poetry, very purple
Finally, Sondheim turns his emphasis away from the lyrics for West Side Story, putting it back onto the contributions of Bernstein and Robbins:
What I like in West Side Story, and people disagree with me all the time, is the dance music. The songs strike me as very up-and-down indeed, both musically and lyrically The lyrics I like are 'Something's Coming' and most of 'Jet Song.' They have character and flavor, and I don't hear the writer at work. When you come to the so-called serious stuff, it's just extremely self-conscious.
Meanwhile and as with other Sondheim shows like Company the symbiosis, real or imagined, between the musical and the homosexual subculture is another way by which we can get a view on West Side Story, even if that view is controversial. In his 1997 book The Gay Metropolis, Charles Kaiser devotes considerable space to an analysis of West Side Story from the viewpoint of gay life in 1957 as well as the post-Stonewall period of gay liberation. To Kaiser's credit, it's an approach that proves irksome to both Sondheim and Laurents, and Kaiser gives the dispute a complete airing. Perhaps Kaiser should have thought about the kind of person he was dealing with when he retold this possibly apocryphal story:
The actor Alan Helms remembered announcing at a Christmas party shortly after West Side Story
opened that the person who obviously deserved the most credit for the show was Steve Sondheim.
Certainly this is a lighthearted way to introduce a discussion of West Side Story and its importance to homosexual subculture. Kaiser states:
Thousands of gay Americans fell in love with West Side Story when they were children in the fifties . And for legions of kids of all persuasions, the show provided them with their first concrete notion of romantic love. To many gay adults coming of age in the sixties, the romance, violence, danger and mystery so audible on the original cast album all felt like integral parts of the gay life they had embraced. The lyrics of 'Somewhere' in particular seemed to speak directly to the gay experience before the age of liberation."
The problem is, once you begin to think about West Side Story a musical update of Romeo and Juliet to dramatize inner-city gang warfare and rising ethnic tensions in the context of 1950s or even contemporary gay culture and politics, the musical becomes the inevitable pawn in a game between those offering such theories and what its creators think. Kaiser does note that "none of the collaborators (or their 1950s contemporaries) ever suspected there was anything gay about their very heterosexual love story." But take note of Laurents' typically provocative reply to the suggestion that "Somewhere" had special meaning to the gay community in the pre-Stonewall era:
There is one sensibility all four of us share which is much more important and really does inform the work We're all Jews. Think about it and what it means. Creative work is undoubtedly the sum of the creators, but certain elements take a bigger role than others at different times. West Side can be said to be informed by our political and sociological viewpoint; our Jewishness as the source of passion against prejudice; our theatrical vision, our aspiration, but not, I think, by our sexual orientation.
Not to be outdone, outranked or outguessed, Sondheim, according to Kaiser,
reacted angrily to the suggestion that there might be anything gay about the lyric of 'Somewhere.' He said, 'If you think that's a gay song, then all songs about getting away from the realities of life are gay songs.
So Kaiser ultimately split the difference between his view of West Side Story as a cultural talisman for the gay community, and its creators' views that it was really nothing of the kind, glumly concluding that the debate "simply highlights the similarities between the experiences of Jews and homosexuals in New York City: two oppressed minority groups who have struggled mightily, and very successfully, to travel out of invisibility and assimilation to proud self-declaration."
For us, the lesson is that few American musicals are able to provoke this kind of impassioned back and forth. Perhaps for this reason, too, West Side Story must occupy a special place in the Sondheim canon. Half a century later, even as Sondheim scholars and students continue to struggle to find a place for West Side Story within the immense totality of Sondheim's story, there is something about that brief and shimmering cross-pollination of four incandescent stars that stirs our minds and thrums our hearts. Whether we see West Side Story as a musical work of ongoing relevance to American life or a romanticized soupηon of 1950s values, it was unquestionably one of the milestones of Sondheim's nascent career. His involvement guarantees that it will always be seen as among his finest achievements.
LEONARD JACOBS is the national theatre editor of Back Stage.
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