Tonight in 1957 one of the all-time great Broadway musicals made its debut: West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein (left, in 1947), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography by Jerome Robbins.
The show translated Romeo and Juliet into a Broadway show -- but with a tragic soul and a socially-conscious purpose absent from the most notable previous instance of Shakespeare transmuted into musical comedy: Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, which took as its text The Taming of the Shrew. This is not to denigrate Porter's wonderful show, with its immortal "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," its superb blend of lyricism and humor ("Always True to You, Darling, in My Fashion"), and its crazy witty backstage plot blending the antics of inept gangsters and a troupe of players in and out of costume.
What made West Side Story unusual was that it took to the furthest extreme the strand in musical theater that begins in Showboat (1927), continues with Porgy and Bess in the 1930s and in the postwar South Pacific (1949). In each case, elements of seriousness and melancholy, of defeat even unto death, coexist with the singing and dancing, sometimes joyous, always life-aiffrming. In each, too, there is a spark of serious indignation -- a moral insistence on right and wrong.
West Side Story brings this theme home. It takes place not on a Mississippi River barge in the nineteenth century, or in a segregated African-American community in the deep South, or on a south Pacific island in World War II. West Side Story takes place in the very city synonymous with Broadway -- only about six miles to the north on the edge of Washington Heights.The fights between Jets and Sharks, whites and Puerto Ricans, are as pointless as they are homocidal. And the fault lies not in our laws or the authorities (clueless and indifferent though they be) but in our selves.
Musically, Bernstein in West Side Story produces a score that in its sheer variety and sublime lyricism appears not only to define its genre but somehow to transcend it. It is a quality that perhaps only Kern, Gershwin, and Rodgers possessed. This places Bernstein in the highest company of Broadway composers. But he had a complicating predicament. Lenny (everyone who knew him called him Lenny) had a second career, even a third. Skills lead to imperatives. Bernstein was an inspired conductor, and he was a composer of quote serious unquote music at a time when high art and low dwelled in places where border patrol was tight -- a time when a major composer was expected to write masses and symphonies, not just a divertimento or two. You weren't supposed to be satisfied with the likes of On the Town, Candide, and West Side Story. At the same time Bernstein felt an equal and opposite pressure. There were aways people saying to him, "Why don't you run upstairs and write a nice Gershwin tune?"
Most of the critics liked West Side Story. Brooks Atkinson, the dean of New York theater reviewers, said he was "profoundly" moved by this "organic work of art." Kenneth Tynan aired a more ambiguous note. He felt that the music "sounds as if Puccini and Stravinsky had gone on a roller-coaster ride into the precincts of modern jazz," a grand simile that makes you wonder whether the writer knew much about either jazz or amusement park rides. Howard Taubman, who (if memory serves) succeeded Brooks Atkinson as the NY Times chief drama critic, said that Bernstein's score fell short on "melodic invention." Ha! The songs thus indicted include "America," "Tonight," "Maria," "Something's Coming," "There's a Place for Us," "Gee, Officer Krupke," "Cool," "I Feel Pretty," and the Jets' song.
But the cake was taken by Harold Clurman, the widely respected critic for The Nation, who questioned the authors' sincerity. West Side Story was, said Clurman, "phony," the appropriation of "the pain of a real problem" for the sake of "popular showmanship." Furthermore, Bernstein and company were guilty of "intellectually slumming." The worst of their sins was to combine the goal of being "progressive" in their views with the objective of attracting "several million playgoers" as if it might be wiser to aim at being reactionary and closing after two performances.
Not that this sort of treatment is unprecedented. Earlier shows containing immortal scores by Kern (with "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") and Berlin (with "No Business Like Show Business") were polly toed by reviewers with a tin ear and a close deadline. So if your poems or your novel or your play or your songs get denounced by a compulsive loud-mouth or practitioner of critical dummheit, take heart. You have distinguished company.
For more on this score, in two senses, read Allen Shawn's new book, Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician, just out from Yale UP. -- DL