Excerpts from Bernstein's West Side Log
1982, Leonard Bernstein. Used by Permission of Amberson, Inc.
In 1957, when West Side Story premiered, Bernstein published a log of the show's genesis. This is his typescript:
Excerpts from A West Side Log
New York, 6 Jan., 1949
Jerry R. called today with a noble idea: a modern version of "Romeo and Juliet," set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Feelings running high between Jews and Catholics. Former: Capulets, latter: Montagues. Juliet is Jewish. Friar Lawrence is a neighborhood druggist. Street brawls, double death -- it all fits. But it's all much less important than the bigger idea of making a musical that tells a tragic story in musical comedy terms, using only musical comedy techniques, never falling into the "operatic" trap. Can it succeed? It hasn't yet in our country. I'm excited. If it can work -- it's a first. Jerry suggests Arthur Laurents for the book. I don't know him, but I do know "Home of the Brave" at which I cried like a baby. He sounds just right.
New York, 10 Jan., 1949
Met Arthur L. at Jerry's tonight. Long talk about opera versus whatever this should be. Fascinating. We're going to have a stab at it.
Columbus, Ohio, 15 April, 1949
Just received draft of first four scenes. Much good stuff. But this is no way to work. Me on this long conducting tour, Arthur between New York and Hollywood. Maybe we'd better wait until I can find a continuous hunk of time to devote to the project. Obviously this show can't depend on stars, being about kids; and so is will have to live or die by the success of its collaborations; and this remote-control collaboration isn't right. Maybe they can find the right composer who isn't always skipping off to conduct somewhere. It's not fair to them or to the work.
New York, 7 June, 1955
Jerry hasn't given up. Six years of postponement are as nothing to him. I'm still excited too. So is Arthur. Maybe I can plan to give this year to "Romeo" -- if "Candide" gets on in time.
Beverly Hills, 25 August, 1955
Had a fine long session with Arthur today, by the pool. (He's here for a movie; I'm conducting at the Hollywood Bowl.) We're fired again by the "Romeo" notion; only now we have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two teen-age gangs as the warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled "Americans." Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and -- most of all -- I can sort of feel the form.
New York, 6 Sept., 1955
Jerry [Robbins] loves our gang idea. A second solemn pact has been sworn. Here we go, God bless us!
New York, 14 Nov., 1955
A young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim came and sang us some of his songs today. What a talent! I think he's ideal for this project, as do we all. The collaboration grows.
New York, 17 March, 1956
"Candide" is on again; we plunge in next month. So again "Romeo" is postponed for a year. Maybe it's all for the best: by the time it emerges it ought to be deeply seasoned, cured, hung, aged in the wood. It's such a problematical work anyway that it should benefit by as much sitting-time as it can get. Chief problem: to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and "just dancing," abstract and representational. Avoid being "messagy." The line is there, but it's very fine, and sometimes takes a lot of peering around to discern it.
New York, 1 Feb., 1957
"Candide" is on and gone; the Philharmonic has been conducted, back to "Romeo." From here on nothing shall disturb the project: whatever happens to interfere I shall cancel summarily. It's going too well now to let it drop again.
New York, 8 July, 1957
Rehearsals. Beautiful sketches for sets by Oliver. Irene showed us costume sketches: breathtaking. I can't believe it -- forty kids are actually doing it up there on the stage! Forty kids singing five-part counterpoint who never sang before -- and sounding like heaven. I guess we were right not to cast "singers": anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and then the "kid" quality would be gone. A perfect example of a disadvantage turned into a virtue.
Washington, D.C., 20 Aug., 1957
The opening last night was just as we dreamed it. All the peering and agony and postponements and re-re-re-writing turn out to have been worth it. There's a work there; and whether it finally succeeds or not in Broadway terms, I am now convinced that what we dreamed all these years is possible; because there stands that tragic story, with a theme as profound as love versus hate, with all the theatrical risks of death and racial issues and young performers and "serious" music and complicated balletics -- and it all added up for audience and critics. I laughed and cried as though I'd never seen or heard it before. And I guess that what made it come out right is that we all really collaborated; we were all writing the same show. Even the producers were after the same goals we had in mind. Not even a whisper about a happy ending has been heard. A rare thing on Broadway. I am proud and honored to be a part of it.