There’s a new book revealing that Leonard Bernstein almost abandoned writing West Side Story. Before we proceed to the dish, pause for a moment to consider what a poorer place this world would be without those singing and dancing Jets and Sharks. The show was a significant advance in the development of the musical. As I recently outlined, one of the very last. It’s possible the form might not have developed further.
I suppose Jerome Robbins and book writer Arthur Laurents could have found someone else to collaborate with. At the time of the near-abandonment Bernstein was doing his own lyrics; Stephen Sondheim didn’t take over that role until far later. Who but Bernstein could have composed in such a forceful and gutsy style? No one was nearly as urbane, as comfortable with ballet music, jazz, and the sound of tough New York youths, half of whom hail from Puerto Rico.
The most obvious choice would be Harold Arlen, the other spiritual heir to Gershwin. He used innovative harmonies and some contemporary-seeming dance rhythms. But it’s rare for him to utilize the muscle needed for West Side’s most dramatic moments, like the fire of A Boy Like That. Shifting just a few letters on the marquis, they could have used Marc Blitzstein. But in the 1950s, he was box office poison. He could write very interesting material, but never a hit song. Which reminds me of a little-known-fact about West Side Story. Its songs didn’t become hits until the movie came out and the Hollywood studio that produced it promoted it. Many of the critics reacted to Bernstein’s wonderful score as it was the most unlistenable acid jazz imaginable at the time. A powerful experience, sure, but unmelodic! The other odd-in-retrospect thing is that critics ignored Sondheim’s lyrics, which are mostly pretty good. But, just because I’m relentlessly nit-picky about rhyme, can we talk about the girls’ interlude in I Feel Pretty for a moment? I’ve known a lot of people from Puerto Rico in my life, but I’ve never heard anyone pronounce the first syllable of Maria in a way that rhymes with “her.”
Keep away from her
Send for Chino
This is not the Mar-
ia we know
Believe it or not, folks: Sondheim meant the first and third line to rhyme. Homer nods again.
But what about the idea of Sondheim composing West Side Story? Take a listen to his score about New York City young adults, written about the same time, Saturday Night. It may charitably be described as cute, but a far cry from the guts and gusto West Side required. Plus, Sondheim tells the story of how Arthur Laurents, back then, hated his music.
But hating collaborating with Arthur Laurents seems to have been Leonard Bernstein’s reason for considering dropping the project. Everybody loved Lenny, I’m told, and Lenny loved many. So one might reasonably conclude that Laruents was a difficult collaborator. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote two excellent musicals with Bernstein. They later collaborated with Arthur Laurents on the Tony-winning but significantly less wonderful Hallelujah Baby and never returned to the Laurents inkwell again. In fact, it was nearly 25 years before he wrote another Broadway show; an odd career for someone so successful. The collaborator who did work with Laurents again and again was Stephen Sondheim. Four shows, but the last two were the disappointingly short-lived Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz? These are hardly the highlights in the Sondheim canon, and that casts yet another aspersion.
When Bernstein pondered ditching West Side Story, of course, he had a world of other options. He was a much sought-after conductor; there was classical music to write, and, also in the 50s, two other Broadway shows, Wonderful Town and Candide. He would have been rather fulfilled, and considered extremely successful, if he didn’t write the Romeo and Juliet update. But, in considering his entire output, including those wonderful television shows, I think West Side Story is his masterpiece, the best thing he ever did. And just because I’ve somehow failed to mention the other Sondheim-Laurents collaboration, I should say I think the book to Gypsy was the best thing Laurents ever did, also taking into account the shows he directed and his many straight plays.
In light of the happy outcome of Bernstein’s deciding to see it through, I’m rather skittish about giving up on any of the musicals I’ve started. While there are all sorts of reasons that seem perfectly clear to me that I should shutter my show about a non-believer at a religious retreat, the argument for persevering is: I don’t know; it could turn out to be my West Side Story.
Seems high time to confess the moment it became crystal clear to me I should abandon work on that show. I’d played the opening number for someone, and he thought my joke about Hassidim smelling bad was both untrue and offensive. “You can’t say that.” Now, I don’t like being told what I can’t say, but this comment helped me hone in on how important it was to me that irreverent humor be a part of my show. If I couldn’t crack jokes about Jews that might offend some, I didn’t want to do the show. And the next thing I knew, a musical opened that was filled with hysterically funny gags about a certain religion, ones you’d think some would take umbrage to. This really took the wind out of my sails, because, whatever I make of my show, it will inevitably be compared to the biggest hit musical of recent vintage, The Book of Mormon.
Of course, I don’t really know I won’t return to mine. After all, Leonard Bernstein could have gone to South Pacific and thought, “Damn! Rodgers and Hammerstein have beaten me to the punch with a show about star-crossed lovers. Now my East Side Story” (as it was then called) “will inevitably be compared to South Pacific.”
Ever hear anyone making such a comparison?