Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Just Play it Cool Boy, Real Cool - Leonard Bernstein’s Birthday (August 25, 1918- October 14, 1990)

[Images via Jazz, Britannica,]

Today would have been the 91st birthday of one of the greatest American composers, Leonard Bernstein. He is noted for being one of the first composers born and educated in the United States to receive worldwide acclaim. In his long and storied career, Bernstein wrote three symphonies, two operas, and five musicals. One of his most memorable contributions to American history and culture was the score to West Side Story, which he composed.

West Side Story is an amazing text in American culture. In a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it explores the conflicts between teenage groups (the Jets and the Sharks) from different cultures, love, and the realities of street life set against the backdrop of New York City, which emerges as another living and breathing character in the musical. Bernstein’s sophisticated score along with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography combined to create one of the most memorable works in American musical history. Sondheim related the difficulty of making the musical in an interview in Rolling Stone in 1990:

…everybody told us that the show was an impossible project. Steve Sondheim [who wrote the lyrics] and I auditioned it like crazy, playing piano four-hands to convey a quintet or the twelve-tone “Cool” fugue. But no one, we were told, was going to be able to sing augmented fourths – as with “Ma-ri-a”. Also, they said the score was too “rangy” for pop music…Besides, who wanted to see a show in which the first-act curtain comes down on two dead bodies lying on stage? “That’s not a Broadway musical comedy.”

And then we had the really tough problem of casting it, because the characters had to be able not only to sing but to dance and act and be taken for teenagers…

Somehow it worked out.

The musical was a hit on Broadway when it debuted and was made into a film starring Natalie Wood in 1961. I once watched this film in a theater with other enthusiasts. At the end of the film, someone a few aisles up who had apparently not seen the film before said, “this film makes me want to join a New York street gang circa 1960.” I’m not sure that’s the reaction I had, especially considering the ending, but this is certainly one of the best musicals ever made and an important text in American history and culture. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, here are a few songs from the 1961 film:

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