West Side Story at 50: Why is it Still Heirless?

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened on Broadway September 26, 1957, one week before Sputnik. (Yes, we tend to say “Leonard Bernstein’s” even though it was conceptually the work of choreographer Jerome Robbins, and co-authored with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim.) Seventeen years after Bernstein’s death, professional performances of Bernstein’s concert works (and not just the Candide Overture) occur almost daily around the world, with as many as two dozen theater productions a month (both school and professional) of West Side Story alone. All the Cassandras who opined that, once Lenny wasn’t around to conduct his own music, it would fade, were obviously way off. He may be the most performed composer-conductor since Mahler.

Yet there are still unsettled discontinuities in the legacy of West Side Story. Enter Dr. Richard Kogan, perhaps himself a Leonard Bernstein among mental health professionals. Kogan, a Harvard and Juilliard-trained Manhattan-based psychiatrist, is also both a brilliant pianist and a Bernstein-like explicator extraordinaire of the psychopathology of the composer. He has previously given fascinating, avoid-the-obvious lecture-recitals on Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Gershwin, and Mozart (in which he played the Liszt Don Giovanni Fantasy with pyrotechnical aplomb), and at the Guggenheim Museum a couple weeks ago he extended his practice (pianistic and psychiatric) to Bernstein himself.

Bernstein, said Kogan, was not so much a bipolar as a hyperthymic personality type: someone with a genetic fund of overwhelming energy and enthusiasm (Bill Clinton is another, said Dr. Kogan) who although “born happy” can be vulnerable to sudden backdrafts of intense depression and guilt if not surrounded by constant love and adulation. Though such a person fits to a “T” the description of histrionic personality disorder, he does not so neatly fit a narcissist personality disorder, because he is also capable of extraordinary generosity and “I feel your pain” empathy, the kind that would enable a conductor like Bernstein to “become” the composer he is conducting and, perhaps, to adopt characteristics of who he “becomes” to the extent that his own composing identity might take on others’. Such a person does not enjoy extended solitude and therefore may find composing trying, though not technically difficult.

Kogan demonstrated a Bernstein borrowing by playing a section of the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto, whereupon the audience emitted a collective, “Ah, that’s ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story!”(That was first pointed out by Joan Peyser in her pathbreaking 1987 biography of Bernstein, and in fairness, Kogan’s ideas and anecdotes about Bernstein owe a strong debt to Peyser, which he has acknowledged.) He then played the three-note rising perfect fourth-tritone motif from the beginning of West Side Story and noted its similarity to the melody of the blowing of the shofar at Yom Kippur services. (For my part, I even hear echoes of the short motivic bursts of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements in West Side Story.) Then, the main course: Kogan’s magnificent performance of his own pianistic synthesis of West Side Story—loving, soulful, elegiac, rhythmically piquant while not pushing the tempos flashily, and thereby freshly disclosing that the music is both abstract and pictorial. Unlike the Symphonic Dances adaptation, Kogan’s version ends lively on “America,” suggesting an endless dance into eternity of the tunes.

Clearly Bernstein still matters, but does West Side Story, in today’s musical theater world? Broadway never really picked up his cue, that symphonic continuity could meld the gutbucket vernacular. Sondheim, for all his manifest marvels, is a dichter of brilliant particles, not a composer who thinks symphonically. No other Broadway composer has written truly through-composed dramatic ballets except the pre-West Side Story Jerome Moross, in Ballet Ballads (1948). Sure, Lenny stole, including from himself (as we all do): he recycled a tune from the On the Town dance episode “Times Square 1944″ into the “Tinkerbell lives!” underscoring cue in his incidental music for the 1950 Peter Pan(!).Yet suggestions of borrowings don’t alter my ear’s sense that he is anything but an original as a composer.

Bernstein may perhaps not be our greatest songwriter or opera composer, but he is arguably our greatest theater composer, if “theater composer” means the polymorphous compass embracing The Age of Anxiety (excerpts of which Kogan also played at the Guggenheim), On the Town‘s ballets, Trouble in Tahiti, Candide, Mass, et al. So far posterity seems to agree, but only in the concert hall. The Cameron MacKintoshes, Disneys, Nederlanders, and Shuberts have ensured that there is no room for this kind of composing in the commercial American theater today. They have nailed the coffin with a nail gun, guaranteeing that Bernstein’s West Side Story is the end of a line, without heir. That’s a scathing indictment of the entrenched philistinism of our marketing culture and the downtrend of 50 years of audience “development.”

6 thoughts on “West Side Story at 50: Why is it Still Heirless?

  1. mryan

    a tiring trend
    I find it extremely tiring to listen to all these anylists who find quotations of past music in everything. I sincerely doubt that most composers consciously borrow motifs or tunes from the past, unconsciously maybe . . . Anyway, I find it frankly anoying and do wish they’d just let people enjoy the music. Everytime I hear one of these quotation arguments (unless we’re talking about Ives, etc.) I just have to roll my eyes. It’s like when people pick apart a Beatles song and find this little motif and say, “Ah, they stole that from Mozart.” Please!

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  2. philmusic

    “He may be the most performed composer-conductor since Mahler. ”

    Um, as I remember studying, Mahler was not a very popular composer in his own day. Certainly not as popular as Bernstein during his life time. As to folks disparaging Bernstein’s music I believe that they were referring to his “serious” concert music and not his Broadway music. They could still be wrong at that. On the other hand one could argue that Bernstein’s “light music” survives and his “serious” does not, just as Arthur Sullivan’s serious music does not.

    As to Broadway the last time I was at a show I noticed that half the audience was full of foreign tourists who did not laugh or respond to the jokes. It seems that they did not understand the language being spoken. Legally Blond is the kind of show created for this kind of audience. Broadway Musicals today have much more in common with silent movies then older musicals–a silent movie -big visuals easy to understand tableaus -no need to know the language–with some familiar sounding songs thrown in!
    Phil’s Page

    Phil Fried

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  3. Colin Holter

    I find it extremely tiring to listen to all these anylists [sic] who find quotations of past music in everything.

    I know. When will all these analysts learn to stop examining music so closely? Damn their oily hides!

    Mark Grant makes an interesting point about West Side Story, a show for which I have boundless affection (I was the worst Tony in the entire WSS performance history back in 11th grade). My sense, however, is that the conditions for another West Side Story just aren’t right: The public doesn’t seem to be buying, for one thing, but I don’t get the impression that producing such a work is high up on the list of most composers who have the chops to do such a thing.

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  4. Matthew

    Are you really saying that Sweeney Todd has no classical-style governing structure behind its rather prodigious sweep? A flip through the score should convince otherwise—in fact, all of Sondheim’s subsequent musicals (with the exception of Bounce) show the same sort of leitmotif-driven material, often consciously mirrored or transformed between acts. In other words, small-scale continuity, large-scale continuity.

    Actually, there’s a lot of music theater out there that’s grabbing at Bernstein’s mantle—for starters, take the big three of the new serious composers, Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown, and Adam Guettel. I much prefer the one with two names to the guys with three, but I wouldn’t fault any of them on their ambitions for the genre, and I’d hardly call them in thrall to the almighty dollar.

    I don’t think the musical landscape today is that much more commerical or unadventurous than it was in 1957. West Side Story opened on the heels of such fare as My Fair Lady, Bells Are Ringing, and the musicalization of Lil’ Abner—good but hardly pathbreaking shows. And it was mostly boxed out of the ’58 Tonys by The Music Man. (And don’t forget, Candide was a flop.)

    Phil: from what I’ve read, Mahler was actually quite successful as a composer in his own time (at least from the Fourth Symphony on), but was also successful at advancing the notion that he wasn’t, because he was writing music for the future. Knowing Mahler, he probably fully believed both, right? I love that guy.

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  5. philmusic

    “Mahler … [was], widely reviled as a composer.”

    Thank you Mark. A change we can thank Bernstein for.

    I love to look at older history books. It is interesting to see how the Grove’s dictionary, published while Mahler was alive, treats him as a composer and how does it treats his contemporaries and rivals as well. Also the editions of the “Victor book of the Opera”-also published during Mahler’s lifetime which tells of composers, many who we have never heard of, having thousands of performances during the time of Mahler’s activity.

    Phil Fried

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  6. MarkNGrant

    Are you really saying that Sweeney Todd has no classical-style governing structure behind its rather prodigious sweep…. Actually, there’s a lot of music theater out there that’s grabbing at Bernstein’s mantle—for starters, take the big three of the new serious composers, Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown, and Adam Guettel….I don’t think the musical landscape today is that much more commerical or unadventurous than it was in 1957. West Side Story opened on the heels of such fare as My Fair Lady, Bells Are Ringing, and the musicalization of Lil’ Abner—good but hardly pathbreaking shows. And it was mostly boxed out of the ’58 Tonys by The Music Man.

    I have thoroughly addressed all of these questions in my book The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, which is available through online booksellers. I do hope you’ll have an opportunity to check out my book, although you may differ from my conclusions.

    BTW, my own view, contrary to received opinion, is that The Music Man is itself a pathbreaking show, although admittedly not on a level comparable to West Side Story. It shatters the Rodgers and Hammerstein/Lehman Engel template with a creep as its protagonist, sports the very musical motivic consistency you attribute to Sondheim, and its patter and lyrics for Harold Hill abound in incredibly deft, virtuoso turns of phrase. I think it’s a show thoroughly underrated by the punditry; critics misguidedly take its cornpone surface for its manufacture, which is actually quite sophisticated (and a one-man job: Meredith Willson wrote the book, music, and lyrics). Directors tend to miss its very dark subtext.

    Mahler, though he received a fair number of performances from conductors like Bruno Walter and Jascha Horenstein, was, before Leonard Bernstein’s championship of him really accelerated Mahler performance frequency, widely reviled as a composer. The New York Times’s chief music critic Olin Downes panned Mahler, calling his music “detestably bad” in a letter he wrote to Arnold Schoenberg. As late as 1952, the respected critic R.D. Darrell described the Eighth Symphony as “an hour of masochistic aural flagellation…a sublimely ridiculous minus-zero.” (This quote appears in Lexicon of Musical Invective.)

    Reply

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