Landmarks in Music since 1950 - Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story by Nigel Simeone.
Ashgate Publishing, Farnham & Burlington 2009.
177 pages including appendices, index, selective discography and track index of accompanying CD
Stephen Schwartz rather steals my thunder – the book opens with his quote “West Side Story is the best score ever written for musical theatre and still sounds ahead of its time”. Few with anything like an objective and informed knowledge of that theatrical world would choose to argue against his assertion. For sure there are many other truly great musicals too but they all have to match up to the standard set by West Side Story. So it is a commendable choice by the publishers Ashgate to include it in one of their series of books collected together under the title Landmarks in music since 1950. Other composers included in the series so far include Olivier Messiaen, Louis Andriessen and György Kurtág. This study is the first of its kind to focus with academic rigour on a piece of musical theatre and as such has to be welcomed by anyone who feels that musical theatre as a genre is all too often dismissed or belittled as trivial and purely commercial.
Simeone is fortunate in that so many prime sources are still available to him. Most of the protagonists bequeathed substantial documentary collections to various institutions and full scores from manuscripts to printed are available. Additionally he has clearly benefited from fascinating personal insights offered by the likes of (then) lyricist Stephen Sondheim and orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. Sondheim in particular offers some wonderfully direct and clear-headed opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the work. Simeone’s approach is to divide this fairly modest (150 pages of text excluding appendices) book into six chapters. They follow a broad arc of creation from Bernstein on Broadway pre-West Side to the critical reception of the work and the recording of the cast album just three days after its opening. Curiously there is not a single photograph included. Given the wealth of publicity material - let alone private pictures – a production like this would have generated I find this surprising and can only assume copyright or cost was a factor. The musical examples provided are cleanly set and interesting – particularly those taken from earlier works or cut songs. The choice of these examples seems somewhat arbitrary though.
The positives here are simple; Simeone has created an excellent reference for future researchers or musical aficionados in terms of listing sources, collating information, creating an overall sense of order out of the potential chaos of so much diverse material. Where he fails, and quite badly I feel, is the academic dryness with which he writes. As noted above, he relates why Stephen Schwartz thinks West Side is great but I don’t recall him elaborating on that from his own perspective. I’m sure that in the world of the academic this kind of cool appraisal is highly to be commended – in a book for general consumption it results in a narrative that steadfastly refuses to take wing. The great skill of say a Michael Kennedy writing on Elgar or Vaughan Williams for example is the balance he finds between factual accuracy and a journalist’s ability to tell a story so both the narrative and the style of its telling draw the reader on.
That being said there will be a wealth of details here that fascinate anyone who is even slightly interested in Leonard Bernstein and his work. For example it is pointed out that when the Dean of Chichester Cathedral commissioned the work that became Chichester Psalms he asked particularly for a setting of Psalm 2 and that he would not mind if it included “a touch of the idiom of West Side Story”. Unbeknownst to him what he got was music that was an early version of the show’s opening original called Mix! Simeone makes great play of the way Bernstein reworked early music. Although interesting in terms of musical genealogy it is the norm in musical theatre not the exception. It just so happens that with Bernstein his early music was as likely to be for a ballet or symphony as a show. It has to be remembered that in the weeks leading up to a production there is never enough time. The recycling of material that already exists is a pragmatic and practical solution. Also songs of great artistic merit are often cut (hence the phrase “Lost in Boston”) for the simple fact that they no longer work dramatically in the place they are. What is exceptional about West Side Story is the remarkable quality of each of the elements that make it a whole. What is not exceptional is the mechanism in which those elements came together. Simeone is quite right when he states (also on the first page just after the Schwartz quote) that it is wrong to call this “Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story”. The great joy of musical theatre is its collaborative nature and has there ever been a team, top to bottom, to equal that on West Side Story? Clearly, Bernstein – particularly at this time in his life – was a musical force of nature – but without the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim the likelihood is the music would have had a fraction of its focus and power. Don’t forget, the essentially theatrical Bernstein almost always needed the input of a lyric or image to produce his best work. Not that the songs would have worked without the dramatic framework of Arthur Laurents’ book. A good point Simeone makes is that West Side has one of the shortest books – in terms of spoken lines of dialogue – of any of the major musicals that are not through sung. But even then it would not have worked without the directorial and choreographic vision of Jerome Robbins. Reminiscences from the original Maria – Carol Lawrence – underwrite the obsessive striving for perfection that drove Robbins to insist that the actors always remained in character even away from the theatre. But Robbins’ main contribution was the telling of the narrative through choreographic movement and extended dance sequence. Sondheim again in interview nailed the essence of the success as being down to the quasi-cinematic staging. Heightened movement – dance – allows sequences to flow together and be cross-cut in a way traditional scenes do not allow. Also the music allied to the movement tells more of the story than any other show. Many other interesting details emerge – it was in the Music Director’s contract that Bernstein was not allowed to conduct the show at all. Unusually the original scoring includes a fifth reed chair which is just a bassoon - because Bernstein had an old college friend who played just that. There are four cello parts and no violas because the contracted players at the Broadway theatre the show opened in had no good violas and two weak cellos! Simeone duly notes – a fact often forgotten in shows to this day – the stellar quality of many of the pit players including one Frederick Vogelgesang as sub-leader who in 1964 made a recording of the Brahms Horn Trio where he played all the parts.
The mechanics of the creation of the show are well detailed – again nothing unusual in the way the positioning of numbers was debated here or indeed added - Something’s Coming being the last song written for the show to establish Tony’s idealist character early in the show. I was interested to read that the duet of Tonight evolved out of the later positioned quintet version. There is some discussion about Bernstein’s extended use of the tritone in the score both harmonically and melodically. Again this was unusual for a show but I think all parties (except Bernstein!) are right to play down its significance – the truth being surely that that device happened to be an active part of Bernstein’s compositional vocabulary at the time of the work’s composition. For me the great joy of musical theatre is how every element serves the greater good/God of dramatic relevance. So to this day Sondheim understands why I feel pretty ‘works’ and why it is there but it doesn’t make him like his own lyric any more! Likewise Gee Officer Krupke still jars some of the creative by presenting a vaudeville number in the midst of tragedy. The film solution was to swap this number with Cool. Krupke is one of those odd numbers – self contained it is a proverbial show-stopper – in the context of the show I have always felt it jars, but the rationale of the time was that without it Act II is unremittingly dark and was 1950s Broadway ready for that.
The later chapters on the critical reaction and the recording of the cast album are interesting in the extreme. To this day I marvel at the fact that The Music Man won best musical over West Side Story that year in just about every category it was up against it in. Music Man is a traditional feel-good show with some very subtly crafted songs by Meredith Wilson; tongue twisting and toe-tapping by turns but with none of the emotional heft and theatricality of West Side. Fascinating to read some po-faced reviews – how could anyone (in the New York World-Telegram and Sun) write; “…Bernstein’s undistinguished score…. there is nothing to sing from it.” Conversely many reviewers clearly did pick up on the sea-change in musical theatre the work represents. As someone who has been involved in recording several cast albums I found this final chapter very interesting – recording the entire album in one day in four three hour sessions must have been totally shattering – and on a Sunday after two shows the day before. Because Bernstein was not present Sondheim sent him a detailed exposition on how the day went. Again, I feel Simeone reads too much into some of the changes – these are practical fixes that every show does in the studio. I am surprised that the album’s producer was able to exercise artistic control to change some tempi – doing the final verse of Krupke at a kick-line tempo for example. Conversely upping the speed of the dance breaks to simulate the energy of the theatre without the visuals is nothing new. The book includes a CD of this original recording - together with the famously fine Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recording of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story as a filler. The original cast recording is still definitive and magnificently moving as a dramatic listening experience. The relative fragility of the voices of Tony and Maria adds a truth to the performance that carries it a million miles from the frankly embarrassing self-congratulatory studio version with the abjectly mis-cast Carreras and Te Kanawa. But I have to ask myself why include the disc here? Purchasers of this book are by definition interested in the show, therefore the strong likelihood is that they will own a recording and in all probability it will be the original cast. Simeone is also wrong to avoid discussing the film. Ironically this won all the Oscars when the show won none of the Tonys. Yet most are agreed it is a very flawed version. Most of the edge of the stage show is lost. However, as with My Fair Lady (the Audrey Hepburn effect!) many if not most people know – or think they know – the show from the ubiquitous film version. The number of compromises - right down to using the show overture for a title sequence - would have made for a fascinating ‘compare and contrast’ and I can only think time or financial restrictions prevented it here. For those interested in following that through I would strongly recommend they purchase the 2 DVD set of the movie. Whatever one feels about the film there are a fascinating set of extras and narratives included that show what a struggle it was to bring the show to the screen.
I have to put my hand up here and say I have a particular interest in this field because for much of the last thirty years my professional career as a performer has been in musical theatre both as a player in pits and as Musical Director of major productions both in London’s West End and abroad. I have been involved in the creation of musicals from the ground up and I think Simeone misjudges the significance of some of the detail he has uncovered. As a source of information this is wonderful, the analysis I find less sound. The appendices, bibliography and discography are extensive and interesting – why no list of the orchestra though? At £35.00 I think this is quite an expensive book beautifully presented though it is. I love the picture of Bernstein on the cover – capturing the sheer joy of the moment superbly.
For me the greatness of this show is the fusion of music, narrative and dance perfectly achieved. To this day actors, dancers and musicians love performing it because it remains as challenging technically and artistically as anything in the repertoire. It is profound without being pompous and uses a popular idiom to say serious things. Any book to address this work seriously deserves to be applauded but at the end of the day it is the living breathing work itself that counts – so don’t read about it, go and see it!
As a source of information this is wonderful; the analysis I find less sound. … see Full Review