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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Leonard Bernstein, "The West Side Story"

Leonard Bernstein
"The West Side Story"
Columbia (1957)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

I readily admit that when I watch a musical, I rarely pay attention to the instrumental aspects of the performance. I generally focus on the lyrics, because for one, I'm a human being and we tend to pay attention to words more than instruments in music, and two, the lyrics usually reveal the integral parts of the plot. Tom Moon forced me to take a different approach when approaching the original cast recording of "The West Side Story."

This production featured two of the biggest names in Broadway history handling the show. On one side is Stephen Sondheim, probably the biggest name in lyrics for the lighted stage. On the other side of things, the instrumental side, is Leonard Bernstein, a composer we've seen before as a conductor with Beethoven, but he's better known for his Broadway contributions. Moon focuses the entry for "The West Side Story" on Bernstein and his use of tritones, but Sondheim should get some credit for his use of the method as well.

A tritone is a musical interval that features three whole tones. In layman's term, it's an interval that generally creates dissonance, and for composers of classical and musical performances, this in turn creates a sensation of tension. The very first note in the opening scene, "Prologue," sets the tone (pun not intended) for the rest of the show. It doesn't take long for big band-style jazz and police whistles to jump in, but the opening unease paints the base coat for the scene. Bernstein continues the practice throughout.

Sondheim gets his kicks in as well. Of note is the popular track "Night" (often referred to as "Balcony Scene" in other recordings). Tony and Maria, our Shakespearean protagonists, are serenading each other at Maria's balcony. Note how Tony, played by Larry Kert, carries out Maria's name: "Mar-i-a." It's an example of diminished fourths, another method contained within the concept of tritones. It doesn't serve the purpose of creating tension this time around, but it does take considerable skill to do. It should be noted that Tony and Maria (played by Carol Lawrence here) are considerably more talented than the rest of the cast, even more so than the typical Broadway production.

The best representative of the style is the musical's showcase, "Somewhere," a scene that occurs right after Tony has killed Maria's brother. The opening mood is tense and frantic, and the instrumentals realize both. The pair drift off into a dream world, and the tension retracts for nearly five minutes before rising again (in time for Tony's untimely death. Sorry for the spoiler alert).

From a plot perspective, "The West Side Story" is a tad cliched. The "Romeo and Juliet" theme had been and has been done hundreds of times. And don't expect anything too pretty (or witty) from the lyrics. Moon is correct, and my musical-maven girlfriend agrees, that Bernstein's work is the driving force here.

INTERESTING FACT: The setting of "The West Side Story" is meant to be an area on the west side of Manhattan, just north of Hell's Kitchen. It's somewhat ironic that the area is now much wealthier, and that Lincoln Center, a gem in the performing arts crown, sits right in the middle of it.

Somewhere (Ballet) by Original Broadway Cast on Grooveshark

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