By Matt Begley
The idea for West Side Story originated as a collaboration between Jerome Robbins (choreographer), Arthur Laurents (writer), and Leonard Bernstein (composer) as a revival of the story of Romeo and Juliet in a modern New York setting.
The concept really picked up steam in 1955 as gang violence in Los Angeles inspired the idea of using Puerto Rican and Polish populations in New York.
In late September, Laurents and Bernstein met with Comden and Green (who had already collaborated with Bernstein on productions like Fancy Free, On the Town, and Wonderful Town) with the goal of hiring the two on as lyricists for the musical.
Comden and Green declined, but later in October, Stephen Sondheim, a 25-year-old mentee of Oscar Hammerstein II, was selected to be the lyricist, and “to bring the language [of Bernstein’s drafts] down to the level of real simplicity.” Throughout the winter of 1955 & 1956 Sondheim and Bernstein worked on the music.
Sondheim shows both his youth and inexperience in the business as well as the degree to which Lenny trusted Sondheim’s judgement in this interview.
During this time, Bernstein was also working a large amount on Candide and a significant amount of music was swapped between the two pieces. For example, the music for two love duets was exchanged between West Side Story and Candide, with the music for “One Hand, One Heart” going to West Side Story and the music for “O Happy We” (a song in a scrapped tea shop scene between Tony and Maria) going to Candide.
Bernstein and Sondheim complemented each other well, being almost exact opposite personalities, with Sondheim being introverted and reserved and Bernstein being outgoing and extroverted. Sondheim’s music experience also added to Bernstein’s comfort in working with him. Sondheim’s “less is more” approach countered Bernstein’s “more is better” approach and caused many of Bernstein’s excessively corny lines to be edited out, like the lyric for “Somewhere” that reads “Someday we’ll have a city / Truer than dreams.”
Sondheim said of Bernstein’s lyrics “The music is so rich that if the lyrics are too ripe you have overdone it.” Much of the music for the show was altered last minute, with Bernstein and Sondheim even writing and adding “Something’s Coming” to the show only three days before its first performance for an audience of Broadway performers.
Sondheim demonstrates in this interview, his tendency toward less over-the-top lyrics, unlike Hammerstein and especially Lenny, whose tendency was to make everything melodramatic.h
Sondheim wrote to Lenny the night of the Broadway premier that “West Side Story means much more to me than a first show, more even than the privilege of collaborating with you and Arthur [Laurents] and Jerry [Robbins]. It marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long and enduring friendship. Friendship is a thing I give or receive rarely, but for what it’s worth, I want you to know you have it from me always.”
Matthew Begley is a senior music and biology major at Davidson College from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Davidson College Chorale.
In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series.
Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.