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West Side Story: our guide to Bernstein's original 1957 stage musical

As well as two glitzy film adaptations, Bernstein's legendary musical has been staged by amateur and professional theatre companies across the globe for more than half a century. Here, we explain its history and why it's stood the test of time

Published: August 4, 2021 at 2:31 pm

The history of Bernstein's West Side Story

With lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story was initially simply a collaboration between composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The idea had initially been suggested by Robbins in 1949 and he and Bernstein worked on it for the following years on and off, but it was only when Sondheim came on board was there a period of concentrated effort on the production. It was initially planned to be based on a conflict between Catholics and Jews, until the pair read a headline about gang violence between Mexican and white people and realised there was a more pressing issue they could focus on.

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Along with his operetta Candide, Bernstein wrote West Side Story around the same time as he was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, a particularly fruitful time for him as both composer and conductor.

When it finally arrived on Broadway on 26 September 1957 at the Winter Garden Theater, it ran for 732 performances.

In 1984, the first recording of West Side Story was completed – the first time the composer had conducted the entire work. He worked with a cast of opera singers, including soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and tenor José Carreras. The production was captured in a TV documentary about the recording process of West Side Story, which has since been released on DVD. You might be familiar with this documentary thanks to this now infamous YouTube clip of Bernstein losing his patience with José Carreras, who is singing the part of Tony – and just can't stay in time with the orchestra.

Read our review of the West Side Story recording documentary here.

Bernstein's life is in the process of being adapted for film in a new biopic starring Bradley Cooper.

The film adaptations of West Side Story

Four years after West Side Story landed on Broadway, it was adapted into a film, which went on to win ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Musical.

Rita Moreno won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing the role of Anita. Moreno will return for the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story in a newly created role of Valentina. Anita was brought to life in the new adaptation by Ariana DeBose, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

After the film version of the musical was created, Bernstein adapted his score into Symphonic Dances, which are still performed in many concerts today. A huge percussion section is used in these dance, with the story told through compressed sections reflecting different motifs and musical moments from throughout the narrative.

Filming for a brand new adaptation of West Side Story began in 2019 with Steven Spielberg directing a musical for the first time in his career. Despite numerous postponements due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the film is scheduled for release in December 2021.

Find out more about the 2021 adaptation of West Side Story here.

The best versions of Bernstein's West Side Story

Original Soundtrack Recording
Sony COLSK48211

San Franscisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media SFS0059

'Tilson Thomas's version scores heavily with its casting of the appealingly youthful-sounding Cheyenne Jackson as Tony and Alexandra Silber as Maria. The orchestra swings like the biggest of big bands, with a driving kit drummer and some spectacular trumpet playing the performance deserves, and demands, tumultuous applause.'

Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras et al, Broadway Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
DG 4571992

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Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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