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.”