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> From Humphrey Burton's biography of Leonard Bernstein

> NY Herald Tribune, 8/57

> NY Herald Tribune, 9/57


Fact Sheet

Leonard Bernstein by Humphrey Burton, Chapter 26

            In early December of 1956, immediately after the opening of Candide, Bernstein fled to Nassau to get away from it all. He talked to no one for three days, except to order his meals, as he rested and lucked his wounds far from the madding crowds of Broadway. Even had the show been an unqualified triumph, too much of his music had been jettisoned along the bumpy road from Boston to New York for him to feel comfortable about the hit-and-miss business of composing a Broadway show. As it as, he must have experienced a brief sense of despair at all the hard work and agonized hours that had failed to jell.

            West Side Story was still waiting in the wings, but Cheryl Crawford, who had become the show’s producer the previous April, had not yet succeeded in assembling a production package. Meanwhile, Bernstein had committed himself in the months ahead to a heavy new load of conducing and television programs. In November 1956, shortly before Candide opened, he had been appointed joint principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, effective the 1957-1958 season, sharing the title with Mitropoulos, who was stepping down as musical director. The appointment was widely seen as an interim move which would test Bernstein’s willingness and ability to devote a substantial portion of his time to the Philharmonic. His first contact with the orchestra, after a six-year hiatus, would be the month-long engagement arranged before negotiations for a more permanent position had begun. This was brought forward and additional two weeks to December 13, as a result of the death in the Pairs airplane crash of Italian Conductor Guido Cantelli. Bernstein kept to Cantelli’s planned programs, which mean restudying among other music the grand Mathis der Mahler Symphony by Hindemith.

            His own programs began after Christmas with three performances of a virtually complete Messiah, presented in two parts rather than three – in Part One, the Christmas music, culminating in the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and in Part Two, after the intermission, the music for Easter. There was controversy immediately. His interpretation was “grotesquely unauthentic,” according to Paul Henry Land, who had succeeded Virgil Thomson at the Herald Tribune, and “one of the finest things yet to his credit” if one was to trust Irving Kolodin. Altogether he conducted twenty-two concerts in six weeks. His repertoire included Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern and Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, his first collaboration with the eccentric but brilliants Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. The two concertos and Messiah were immediately recorded by Columbia. The recording company was beginning to influence repertoire and soloist choices, but it also gave the orchestra a strong profile. Emphasizing his commitment to American music, Bernstein conducted Toy Harris’s Third Symphony and the American premiere of Copland’s challenging Short Symphony of 1933, as well as the first performance of the full orchestra version of his own Candide Overture. “A smart sophisticated little piece,” judged Harold Schoenberg, then a second-string critic of the Times, it rapidly became Bernstein’s most popular concert hall composition.

            In between concerts Bernstein wrote and hosted another major “Omnibus” essay, An Introduction to Modern Music. Essentially he wanted to persuade his enormous audience that twentieth-century music was as beautiful in its own way as that of earlier centuries. He demonstrated convincingly that “beauty” and “dissonance” were relative terms, and explained the tonal system of harmony in terms of a baseball diamond on which the home plate represented the tonic key. Though he granted that a composer like Alban Berg could use Schoenberg’s system of composing with all twelve tones to compose beautiful and moving music, his skepticism concerning the universality of the twelve-tone system and his preference for Copland and Stravinsky were clear for all to see. Dimitri Mitropoulos had led the Philharmonic in major works by Schoenberg every year from 1950 to 1954. Bernstein was choosing instead to highlight contemporary American music, and his “Omnibus” lecture gave early notice that he would be an articulate spokesman for musical conservatism, while all around him the tide was flowing toward serialism.

            A few days before Candide closed, Leonard Bernstein and Felicia left tow for a two-week holiday in pre-Castro Cuba with Marc Blitzstein, who was recuperating from a hernia operation and was depressed by the impasse in his composing career since the production of his musical Reuben Reuben had been canceled before its Broadway opening in the fall of 1955.  Ironically, he now earned higher praise as the translator of Brecht than as composer. Bernstein was equally disconsolate following Candide’s failure, but the two friends and their families consoled themselves with ever more elaborate word games, incorporating French, German, Italian, and even Latin words to add spice.

            Their professional prospects could hardly have been more different. Although Candide had been a box office flop, Bernstein’s music for it had been widely praised – only Irving Kolodin wrote it off as “padded out by formula” – and he was ready to bounce back with West Side Story. Several important developments would soon improve his finances. An exclusive recording contract with Columbia, signed in April 1956 and announced to the public in the fall with the issue of five Bernstein LPs in a single month, provided an annual fifteen-thousand-dollar advance against royalties, and he was promised a busy schedule of new recordings. His television fee was almost doubled when “Omnibus” switched to AMV and Sunday night screenings. Even his concert work was set to expand in a new direction: it was announced that he would take over artistic control of the Philharmonic’s “Young People’s Concerts”.

            While Bernstein was still on holiday in Cuba, Time published a profile of him in which it listed five different Bernstein Careers and had laudatory comments about them all. His portrait appeared on the magazine’s cover, the first time an American conductor had ever been singled out for such acclaim. Significantly, the caption read “Conductor Leonard Bernstein” – this in the very week when his most ambitious composition, Candide, was set to close. It seems fair to assume that during their Cuban vacation Felicia encouraged him to concentrate for the next few years on conduction. (The Time article said Mitropoulos was “very likely to quit soon.”) There was no certainty that West Side Story would fare any better on Broadway than Candide had done. The immense effort involved in preparing a musical no longer seemed commensurate with the uncertain reward. In any case Bernstein was not a natural commercial Broadway composer. He had just sailed through six weeks of Philharmonic concerts with great panache. Now he had the chance to follow Gustav Mahler’s footsteps and become New York’s music director. Like Mahler, he could be a conductor in the winter months and a composer in the summer. On the financial side there would be handsome additional income form the television shows and the Columbia recordings. Whatever the grumbles to his friends, he loved being in studios and he loved teaching. Above all, he reveled in being a celebrity, as he had ever since the heady days following his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943.

            Felicia too, enjoyed the society role. There was tremendous status in being the wife of New York’s leading musician. In the fall of 1956 she had been photographed for the Herald Tribune in the dress she would wear for the opening concert of the Philharmonic season. “It was of floor length which faille,” the report read; “the pearl and gilt embroidery began just under the empire bodice.” She looked breathtakingly beautiful. To maintain that kind of elegant lifestyle, money was essential, lots of it. A gossip columnist estimated that from all sources Bernstein earned one hundred thousand dollars in 1956; examination of his financial records indicates that before taxes he actually did slightly better. But a nine-room Manhattan apartment at a prestige address was not easy to keep up, and there were the Chilean cook and nanny to pay for. (Julia Vega joined her compatriot Rosalia Guerrero in 1954.)

            Decisions taken in the weeks following his Cuban holiday reshaped Leonard Bernstein’s career still further. The first move, the assumption of the “Young People’s Concerts,” was soon followed by successful negotiations with William Paley of CBS (a member of the board of the Philharmonic) to have four programs a year televised on Saturday mornings at noon. And in April, before he had given a single concert in his official role as joint principal conduction, negotiations began for him to become the Philharmonic’s music director when Mitropoulos stepped down.

            Two weeks after receiving his first Emmy Award, for Best Musical Contribution to television, he demonstrated his versatility as a conductor with an hour-long “omnibus” feature broadcast on Easter Sunday. The subject was the grandeur of J.S. Bach, and the program featured excerpts form the Magnificat and the St. Matthew Passion. Considering how rarely he had performed the choral music of Bach, his enthusiasm and knowledge were impressive – he conducted, played piano and harpsichord, even sand a little. His talk touched on many aspects of Bach’s genius – the strength and beauty of his counterpoint, his numerological complexities (which Bernstein compared to the Talmud), his musical pictorialism, the mystic fusion of words and music in the chorales, the high drama of the Passion story. He spoke finally of Bach’s religious spirit; simple faith; he argued, was the spine of Bach’s enormous output.

BY late spring of 1957 the eleventh hour for West Side Story had arrived, and with it the crisis withouth which no Broadway story is complete. Having nursed the production for more than a year and seen it postponed in March, allegedly because of casting difficulties, Cheryl Crawford called its creators into her office on the morning of April 22 and told them she was quitting. Bernstein felt suicidal. “I don’t know how many people begged me not to waste my time on something that could not possibly succeed . . . a show full of hatefulness and ugliness.” Sondheim remembers his sense of shock and surprise at being rejected. But when Crawford’s partner Roger Stevens was telephoned in London he confirmed his interest and urged them not to give up. That night Sondheim enlisted the support of his producer friend Harold Prince, to whom, unbeknownst to Bernstein, he had already played much of the score. Prince and his partner Robert Griffith flew down from Boston the following weekend. Prince recalled the subsequent audition in his memoirs: “Sondheim and Bernstein sat at the piano playing through the music and soon I was singing along with them and Bernstein would look up and say, ‘My God, he’s so musical!’”

            There was a rapidly approaching deadline: Bernstein had to leave in September for concerts in South American and Israel, to be followed by his first New York appearances as joint principal conductor of the Philharmonic. Production had to be now or never. Robbins threw in his own bombshell. He wanted Herbert Ross to do the choreography so that he could concentrate on directing. Prince threatened to pull out unless Robbins agreed to be in change of the dancing (his was the hottest name among the collaborators). Robbins relented, on condition that he would have eight weeks rehearsal instead of the customary four, there was to be more dancing in West Side Story than in any previous Broadway show and extra rehearsal was essential to block all the numbers. Even so, Robbins entrusted some of the dance numbers to the choreographer Peter Gennaro.

            In their brief careers as producers, Griffith and Prince had had three hit shows in a row. With Roger Stevens behind them, they quickly raised the case and established a production schedule. They chose a bid New York theatre, the Winter Garden, and booked a five-week pre-Broadway tryout, three weeks in Washington and two in Philadelphia.

            Fine-tuning on the scare of West Side Story went on throughout the early summer. They dropped what Bernstein described as the “militantly aggressive: opening chorus, “Mix,” sung by the Jets and the Sharks.  The replacement number, “prologue,” was another big chorus for the rival gangs with, as Bernstein put it, “millions of lyrics to insanely fast music.”  Eventually, the lyrics were dropped in favor of pure dance; the only sounds the chorus produced in the opening five minutes are a whistle and the rhythmical click of fingers snapping.

            Bernstein had originally intended his song “Somewhere” to serve (with a different lyric) as the love music for the balcony scene between Tony and Maria played on a tenement fire escape. Laurents and Robbins were not convinced, so Bernstein and Sondheim created a new love duet, using the “Tonight” music from the quintet heard later in the act. “Somewhere” found its ideal position in the second act as the introduction to the dream ballet.

            Composing West Side Story and Candide in tandem let to some surprising switches of material between the two works. Tony and Maria’s duet, “One Hand, One Heart,” was originally intended for Candide and Cunegonde. The music of the satirical number “Gee, Officer Krupke” was annexed form the Venice scene in Candide, where its punch line (to Latouche’s lyrics) had been, “Where does it get you in the end?” The traffic flowed both ways. The marriage duet in Candide “O Happy We,” started life as a song for Tony and Maria in a tea party scene that was dropped.

            Once the green light had been given, Bernstein had two main tasks; coaching the company in his music and supervising the orchestrations, which began in late June, with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal carrying out Bernstein’s wishes. Ramin was especially knowledgeable about jazz and vaudeville. He suggested some of the slapstick effects in “Officer Krupke.” Kostal had been a student of Stefan Wolpe: he did the music for the weekly “Show of Shows” starring Sid Caesar. He described Bernstein as a great orchestrator. “If he’d had the time he wouldn’t even need us. . . . .When it came to West Side Story every note is his: still, he would say once in a while, ‘Who said that orchestration can’t be creative?’ He was entirely appreciative of anything that we did. Jerome Robbins, if you changed anything, would really get angry. Lenny would say, ‘Jesus, why didn’t I think of that?’” Bernstein once told Kostal he was like a sponge; “I learned everything I know from everyone I meet. I pick their brains.” Kostal’s wry comment was: “Yeah, sure. He learned everything I know, but I didn’t learn everything he knows.”

            As a first step in their preparation, Bernstein and his orchestrations went to the Winter Garden to hear the resident band. Under the prevailing union rules, certain players came with the theater; they were officially knows as house men but Bernstein called them “Shuberts,” after the name of the owners of the theater. “how would you guys feel if we got rid of the viola Shuberts?” he asked his orchestrators “If they don’t come to the theater we’ll have to pay them anyway,” warned Kostal. “Okay,” Bernstein said, “Let’s just do without them, because I couldn’t stand listening to my show every night and hearing what those guys would do to the viola parts.” The two “guaranteed” cellists were also disappointing, and Kostal suggested dividing the cello parts so that the freelance musicians on the first desk would play the difficult music while the Shuberts “played the potatoes.” A similar procedure was adapted for the violin sections. Doing away with the violas created a little more room in the crowded pit for the elaborate percussion section Bernstein needed for a score that was heavy with jazz and with Latin-American rhythms.

            With Bernstein totally reoccupied with preparations for his musical, Felicia and the children flew to Chile on July 9 for two months with Felicia’s mother in Santiago. Bernstein’s letters provide a more accurate and detailed “log” of the weeks leading up to West Side Story’s first night in Washington than the one he subsequently published in Playbill.

            Leonard in New York to Felicia in Santiago, July 19, 1957: :Darling: The work grinds on, relentlessly, and sleep is a rare blessing. Jerry continues to be – well, Jerry: moody, demanding, hurting. But vastly talented. We start on the book Monday, trepidation in hand; and the score is still not completed. At the moment the Problem is the usual one of the 2nd act ballet, which is finished, and will probably not work at all and be yanked and we’ll have the manufacture a new one. It’s going to be murder from here on in. My nights are all spent in work, so no fun at all.”

            In Chile Jamie, nearly five, and Alexander, just two, met their cousins – the children of Felicia’s sister Nancy. “Jamie is the queen, the glamorous beautiful imperious pixie and they’re at her feet ready for her slightest whim,” Felicia wrote in her first letter. “I miss you so that it hurts – I think it’s the incredible depressing distance between us.”

            Leonard to Felicia, July 23: “The show – ah yes. I am depressed with it. All the aspects of the score I like best – the big, poetic parts – get criticized as ‘operatic’ – and there’s a concerted move to chuck them. What’s the use? The 24-hour schedule goes on – I am tired and nervous and apey. This is the last show I do. The Philharmonic board approved the contract yesterday and all is set. I’m going to be a conductor, after all.”

            A few days later Bernstein had to interrupt work on West Side Story in order to attend a Columbia Records sales convention in Miami. “Home tomorrow, in time . . . for a RUN-THRU of Act One! Imagine – already! Where does the time all go to? In a minute it will be August, and off to Washington – and people will be looking at West Side Story in public, and hearing my poor little marked-up score. All the things I love most in it are slowly being dropped – too operatic, too this and that. They’re all so scared and commercial success means so much to them. To me too, I suppose – but I still insist it can be achieved with pride. I shall keep fighting.

            “I mess you all terribly – especially you, who have come to mean something miraculous to me. You reside at the very core of my life, my darling.”

            Felicia responded with the king of emotional support Bernstein needed: “Don’t give up the ship, Lennuhtt. Fight for what you think is right – you are so far ahead of all that mediocrity and in the long run they’re only interested in the ‘hit’ aspect of the theatre. What you wrote was important and beautiful. I can’t bear it if they chuck it out 0- that is what gave the show its stature, its personality, its poetry for heaven’s sake! From way down here protest!! Promise me you’ll make an effort to get enough sleep – and don’t take too many pills. Are you eating correctly or just pastrami sandwiches and coffee in cartons? Lennuhtt?”

            On August 3, Leonard wrote:

           . . . I signed the Philharmonic contract. . . . Big moment. Bruno arrived at 10:30A.M.; contract in one had and a huge chilled bottle of Brut in the other. . . . I made a coup. The lawyers had fallen out so far that the contract was up to 20-odd pages, and growing; and the disputes were growing correspondingly. So I scotched it by tearing up the whole thing, and writing a one-page letter that said I was engaged for such a period for so much money, sincerely yours. They loved it. Simple, and trusting. We’ll settle the details as they come along.

            Other events – nothing but the show. We ran through today for the first time, and the problems are many, varied, overwhelming; but we’ve got a show there, and just possibly a great one. Jerry is behaving (in his own way - and Arthur is doing well. But the work is endless: I never sleep: everything gets rewritten every day: and that’s my life for the moment. And imagine, we open two weeks from Monday.


A week later, her reported on a last-minute change:

8 August already!

            . . . I missed you all terribly yesterday. We wrote a new song for Tony [“Something’s Coming”] that’s a killer, and it just wasn’t the same not playing it first for you. It’s really going to save his character – a driving 2/4 in the great tradition (but of course fucked up by m with 3/4s and whatnot) – but it gives Tony balls – so that he doesn’t emerge as just a euphoric dreamer.

            These days have flown so – I don’t sleep much; I work every – literally ever – second (since I’m doing four jobs in this show – composing, lyric-writing, orchestrating and rehearsing the case). It’s murder, but I’m excited. It may be something extraordinary.

            The show had its first run-through – for an audience of Broadway dancers and singers – on August 10. It is traditionally done without sets or lighting or costumes, but on this occasion, Arthur remembered, “the case came out on stage in colors they had chosen for Jets and Sharks and their girls. They did it on their own, by themselves, and it was very, very touching.” During rehearsals Robbins had kept the rival groups separate offstage as well as on. “I thought it was pretentious,” Stephen Sondheim said, “but of course it was perfect, because without any animosity or hostility, there was a sense of each gang having its own individuality, so that you had two giant personalities on stage.”

            On Tuesday, August 13, the company moved to Washington. Tow days later Leonard wrote to Felicia again:

            Dear Beauty,

            Well, look-a me. Back to the nation’s capital and right on the verge. This is Thurs. We open Mon. Everyone’s coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals. Senators abounding, and big Washington-hostessy type party afterwards in Lennhutt’s honor. See what you miss by going away. Then next Sunday, which is my birthday, there is the Jewish version – a big party for me, but admission is one Israel bond. All helps the show. We have a 75 thou. Advances, and the town is buzzing. Not bad. I have high hopes.

            . . . If I sound punchy, it’s because I am. Up all night trying to put together an overture of sorts, to carry us through until I do a real prelude. [He abandoned this idea, preferring to have no music before the Prologues began. Later he claimed not to have written the overture, but his letter surely confirms that he wrote something.] Orchestra reading all day yesterday – a thrill. We have surprisingly good me, who can really play this terribly difficult stuff (except one of two of them) – and the orchestrations have turned out brilliant. I tell you this show may yet be worth all the agony. As you can see, I’m excited as hell  - oh so different from Candide.

            The show opened on August 19. Relying on adrenaline to get his performers through the evening, Jerome Robbins called a final dress rehearsal at 3P.M. It was a risky move, but it paid off. The evening performance had none of the embarrassing stumbling that had marred the first performance of Candide in Boston. President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams (later famous for the scandal surrounding his vicuna coat), was in the audience. So were senators Fulbright and Javits, together with Mrs. Robert Kennedy, three ambassadors, and Justice Felix Frankfurter, whom Bernstein found in tears at the intermission. In Felicia’s absence, Helen Coates went to the post performance party on Bernstein’s arm.  When the reviews arrived – all of them “raves”  - Bernstein read them out to the guests before going on to the case party where he played jazz piano with the dancers until five in the morning. When she received a cable from her husband next evening, Felicia was beside herself with happiness. She wrote back: “Oh joy oh bliss, oh rapture! Your cable with the frabjous news has just arrived – thank you! I’d been desperate for some word all day long. Congratulations to one and all – how happy, how marvelously happy you must be. As for me I’m bursting with pride and frustration – of all the moments to miss sharing! . . .Oh God how exciting it must have been! Were you very nervous – did you sit through it or pace?”

            Later in the week Bernstein went to the White House for lunch. “Such credenzas, such breakfronts!? He exclaimed to Felicia. “I really felt in. . . . All were talking of nothing but West Side Story. I think the whole government is based on it.” But despite the pressure to return to America (she had also just received two offers to do television plays) Felicia preferred to make her mother happy by remaining in Chile for another week. When the Washington reviews reached Santiago, she was one again trembling with excitement – “such reviews, my God, I carry them around with me to read over and over again.” The Washington Post called West Side Story “a uniquely cohesive comment on life . . . . The violence is senseless but Leonard Bernstein’s score makes us feel what we do not understand.” The Daily News said I opened “a new field in the American stage.” A critic for the Seattle Times perceptively noted that “perhaps the love story is a little too reminiscent of Rome and Juliet.”

            Flushed with success, Bernstein told a journalist that he felt like he did after his first dance. A celebrated photography caught him leaping for joy outside the National Theatre. He had just been told that the box office had “gone clean” for the entire run. “It’s only Washington, not New York,” he wrote to Felicia; “don’t count chickens. But it sure looks like a smash . . . the book works, the tragedy works, the ballets shine, the music pulses and soars, and there is at least on history-making set.” (Bernstein is referring to Oliver Smith’s magic moment when the tenement walls fly up to reveal a sky filled with stars.)

In Washington the program credits read “Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.” “I can see you’re upset,” Sondheim remembers Bernstein saying to him as they drove back to their hotel from the day’s rehearsal. “The lyrics are yours an you should have sole credit and I will arrange that.” Sondheim thanked him. “And we’ll make the financial adjustment too,” Bernstein went on. “Oh, don’t bother about that,” said the grateful Sondheim. “After all, it’s only the credit that matters.” When Sondheim told the story later, he would ruefully add: “I’m sorry I opened my mouth.”

            As Bernstein’s most intimate collaborator, Sondheim recognized early on that his task was “to bring the language down to the level of real simplicity. The whole piece trembles on the bring of self-conscious pretentiousness anyway. . . and Lenny’s idea of poetry was much more purple than mine. Back up by Arthur Laurents, I got stronger about it as I felt more sure of myself.” Out went Bernstein’s draft lyric of “Maria” – a song he had already sketched for East Side Story in 1949 when Maria was going to be Jewish and Tony was an Italian Catholic from Greenwich Village. “I had a dummy lyric,” Bernstein said later: “Lips like mine – divine – very bad@ Like a translation of a Neapolitan street song.” Sondheim perceived that since Tony had only just met Maria the song should not be about the girl herself but about the loveliness of her name – “the most beautiful sound I ever heard/All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word.” Bernstein later claimed that it “took longer to write that song than any other. It’s difficult to make a strong love song and avoid corn.”

            The melody of “Maria” begins with the tritone interval Bernstein pinpointed as the kernel of West Side Story “ . . . in that the three notes pervade the whole piece, inverted, done backwards. I didn’t do all this on purpose. It seemed to come out in ‘Cool’ and as the gang whistle [in "Prologue”]. The same three notes.”

            When it was decided to add Tony’s first-act song “Something’s Coming,” Bernstein and Sondheim raided the scene-setting page in Laurents’s outline. “something’s coming,” Laurents had written: “it may be around the corner, whistling down the river, twitching at the dance – who knows?” The lines were incorporated in the lyrics. “We raped Arthur’s play-writing,” Bernstein said. “I’ve never seen anyone so encouraging, let alone  generous, urging us, ‘Yes, take it, take it, make it a song.’”

            Like Sondheim, Laurents was working on his first Broadway musical, but he was an experienced dramatist and screenwriter. His invention of a teenage language and his skillful updating of Shakespeare’s plot intricacies are t the hear of West Side Story’s success. The show’s climatic moment when, with a gun in her hand, Maria makes a speech over Tony’s lifeless body, is one of Laurent’s most striking contributions. According to Sondheim, Bernstein wanted at this point to create a mad scene for Maria, but he could not find the appropriate style. “It cries out for music,” Bernstein said himself. “I tried to set it very bitterly, understated, swift. I tried giving all the material to the orchestra and having her sing an obbligato throughout. I tried a version that sounded just like a Puccini aria, which we really did not need. I never got past six bars with it. I never had an experience like that. Everything sounded wrong.” So Maria’s words, which Laurents had written merely as a guide to lyricist and composer, became the dramatic text. “I made,” Bernstein confessed, “a difficult, painful but surgically clean decision not to se it al all.” West Side Story is a true marriage of all the arts. It is emphatically not an opera.

            The West Side Story creator whose name receives especial prominence in every for of billing is Jerome Robbins – his “original conception” is contractually protected by a “name in a box” clause. Robbins in rehearsal is a formidable personality. Sid Ramin remembers an early cast meeting at which Robbins said, “I knows I’m difficult. I know I’m going to hurt your feelings. But that’s the way I am.” Bernstein remained in aw of him. When there was the threat of confrontation about music to be cur or an orchestration to be changed, Bernstein would back down. “I hate scenes,” he confined to Ramin. At the dress rehearsal in Washington, Sondheim, who was sitting with Bernstein, was startled to see Robbins do down to Max Goberman at the conductor’s podium and five orders for a rhythmic pulse to be added to the second verse of “Somewhere.” Instead of remonstrating, Bernstein slipped out of the theatre, Sondheim found him with several scorches lined up at a nearby bar.

            What counted was the chemistry between Robbins and Bernstein, which was as strong as it had been for Fancy Free. “I remember all my collaborations with Jerry in terms of one tactile bodily feeling: composing with his hands on my shoulders. . . . I can feel him standing behind me saying, ‘Four more beats there,’ or ‘No, that’s too many,’ or ‘Yeah – that’s it!’” Robbins described their work together as one of the most exciting collaborations he ever had. After Bernstein’s death he spoke of “the amount of fuel that we fed each other, the ideas and chemistry between us, each one taking hold of something and saying, ‘Hey, I think I can do that,’ or saying ‘No, don’t write it as music, we can do it better in book’ – or ‘don’t do it in song, I can do it better in dance.’ The continual flow between us was an enormous excitement.”

            Robbins had no problem defining the genre of West Side Story. “It’s an American musical. The aim in the mid-50s was to see if all of us – Lenny who wrote “long-hair” music, Arthur who wrote serious plays, myself who did serious ballets, Oliver Smith who was a serious painter – could bring out acts together and do a work on the popular stage. . . . the idea was to make the poetry of the piece come out of our best attempts as serious artists; that was the major thrust.” For Robbins it was a “musical”; for Bernstein “a tragic musical comedy.” In his heart Bernstein refused to yield primary authorship to his colleagues. Writing to David Diamond for Philadelphia he insisted that “this show is my baby . . . . If it goes as well in New York as it has on the toad we will have proved something very big indeed and maybe changed the face of American Musical theater.”

            West Side Story ran nearly two years (772 performances0 THEN TOURED NATIONALLY FOR CLOSE TO A YEAR BEFORE RETURNING TO New York in 1960 for another 253 performances. In 1961 it was released as a feature film.

BERNSTEIN was criticized by the critic Brooks Atkinson for having “capitulated to respectability” when he withdrew from Broadway to become music director of the New York Philharmonic. The truth is more complicated: Bernstein knew that the creative collaborations he had enjoyed (and endured) with Lillian Hellman and Richard Wilbur on Candide and with Sondheim, Robbins, and Laurents on West Side Story were experiences too intense and exhausting to be renewed on an annual basis. The creators were not permanent teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan. Besides, the rival attraction of being sole lord and master of the New York Philharmonic, encouraged week in and week out to journey among the masterpieces of two centuries of music, was for Bernstein too strong. Coupled with Candide, West Side Story made a splendid climax to Bernstein’s composing years. But it was neither the end of an era nor the beginning for Broadway Bernstein claimed it to be.  West Side Story was a singular marvel of style and substance created by what Stephen Sondheim dubbed a “unique concatenation of people.”

            The New York premiere on September 26, 1957, was not a total triumph. “The show is, in general, not well sung,” wrote Walter Kerr, the man Bernstein most feared, in the Herald Tribune. “It is rushingly acted. . . . And it is, apart form the spine-tingling velocity of the dances, almost never emotionally affecting. But Kerr led off his review with two much-quote phrases: “The  radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” He applauded “the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patters we’ve been exposed to in a dozen seasons.” All seven morning newspapers were strongly positive; Brooks Atkinson of the Times, the most important of the bunch, called it “a profoundly moving show . . . as ugly as the city jungles and also pathetic, tended, and forgiving . . . Everything contributes to the total impression of wildness, ecstasy and anguish.  This is one of those occasions when theater people, engrossed in and original project, are all in top form. . . . This subject is not beautiful, but what West Side Story draws out of it is beautiful. For it has a searching point of view.”

            The only consistently hostile review was Harold Clurman’s in The Nation: he called it a “phoney” and accused the writers of intellectual slumming for the purpose of making money. The offended Sondheim informed Bernstein, tongue in cheek, that he was canceling his Nation subscription immediately. Sondheim’s handwritten not to Bernstein delivered on the afternoon of the New York premier provides a touching epitaph to an important chapter in the history of American musical theatre: West Side Story means more to me than a first show, more even than the privilege of collaborating with you and Arthur and Jerry. It marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and enduring friendship. Friendship is a think I give or receive rarely, but for what it’s worth, I want you to know you have it from me always.

            “I don’t think I've ever said  to you how fine I think the score is, since I prefer kidding you about the few moments I don’t like to praising you for the many I do. West Side Story is a big step, Leonard, for you as it is for Jerry or Arthur or even me, and in an add way, I feel proud of you . . . . May [it] mean as much to the theater and to people who see it as it has to us.”

© 1994 by Humphrey Burton.
All rights reserved.