West Side Story reminds us of Leonard Bernstein’s brilliance

April 19, 2022

The star of West Side Story was never Arthur Laurents, who first wrote the Broadway production in 1957, nor was it Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, who first directed the 1961 film adaptation. And it isn’t Steven Spielberg, who recently revived the timeless classic for a contemporary audience.

The star of West Side Story has always been Leonard Bernstein, the venerable maestro whose career swept through the 20th century and encompassed genres and social classes. Bernstein was a renaissance man. His appeal was not only his ability to compose and conduct in a litany of styles but also the impassioned way in which he advocated arts and culture.

Bernstein bridged the gap between highbrow and lowbrow, between young and old, between classical music and Broadway, jazz, and rock. Bringing together fans of all these genres, Bernstein composed the music of West Side Story.

The timeless musical doesn’t sound or flow like textbook Broadway. It’s lush with a host of different influences. In the ballad “Somewhere,” sung in the aftermath of the rumble scene, Maria despondently cries, “But it’s not us. It’s everything around us.” The somber atmosphere is accentuated by Bernstein borrowing a motif from Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, “Emperor.”

The shell that enveloped the music of West Side Story was always secondary. It’s a twee retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet through urban parameters. Medieval Verona is exchanged for a territorial feud between rival street gangs: the Jets and the Sharks.

Spielberg’s new Oscar-winning rendition applies a fresh gleam over the original, eschewing some of the more dated musical tropes. Unlike the 1961 film in which convention dictated dubbing other singers over the actors, the remake casts capable vocalists who sing all their own parts. Rachel Zegler as Maria, in her career debut at just 17, sings with the confidence and stage presence of a seasoned vocalist.

In addition to the modern recording frills, Spielberg tweaked some of the music. “Officer Krupke,” for example, doesn’t just spring into its jolly cadence. Instead, it playfully crescendos, picking up momentum as it builds into Bernstein’s swinging groove.

But merely shuffling some songs wasn’t enough for Spielberg. He also projected his own vision onto the original story. Peppering the film with his own contemporary psychoanalysis, Spielberg presented the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks as a byproduct of gentrification and racism — a redundant overexplanation coupled with a blunt political angle.

The other most glaring change was the Spanish dialogue. Forgoing subtitles, Spielberg claimed it was out of respect for “inclusivity.” Supposedly, Spielberg didn’t want to give “English the power over the Spanish.” Though it was an effort to put non-Spanish speaking audiences in the shoes of the Waspy Jets, the context in conversation was always obvious. West Side Story isn’t exactly a Hitchcock film.

And therein lies the magic of the film. The simplicity of the story is what makes Spielberg’s modernizing brush strokes unnecessary. The music and orchestration still soar high above the glib social studies lectures.

Bernstein’s daughter said her father never liked the 1961 film adaptation of his work. He felt its worldwide acclaim sucked all the attention away from his other works. Far more people remember Bernstein for creating West Side Story than for reviving the music of Gustav Mahler.

But it was only because Bernstein rejected drawing rigid boundaries between styles of music — he blended themes and, unlike many modern composers, never wrote music exclusively for Juilliard students and culture snobs. To many, Bernstein was a gateway from the few artists they knew to the vast and unexplored world of music. It may be Spielberg’s remake, but it will always be Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Originally Published at The Washington Examiner