West Side Story, Revisited

The 1957 Broadway stage play of this musical was very popular and successful, as was the subsequent movie, issued in 1961.

When my sister Diane and I saw the film version of West Side Story (we were again living in our home town, San Francisco) we were emotionally transported back to the miseries and terrors of street life in the poorer sections of New York City, including the Borough of Brooklyn, where we had lived from 1946 to 1951. It was inversely nostalgic for us, and quite compelling.

The music and lyrics of most of the songs have always stirred great emotions in us: “Something’s Coming,” “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us),” “America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

In addition, upon hearing the tenderer songs of the play, I always sense the musical correlations between Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story music and that of Peter Tchaikovsky in the latter’s musical “Overture” composed on the theme of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet, set in the West Side of New York’s Manhattan Island in the 1950s.

Now to the “Revisited” part…

On November 8 of this year I traveled in an “Airbus A330 Wide-Bodied Twin-Engine Airliner,” from Frankfurt, Germany to Portland, Oregon, the second leg of a three-leg trip from Stockholm to San Francisco. Although I traveled coach class, I was provided my own viewing screen (and I had brought my own noise canceling earphones). From the wide variety of video offerings I chose “The Making of West Side Story.”

This documentary about Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece is a behind-the-scenes look at the 1984 recording. This legendary session features a cast of operatic stars including Jose Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos and Kurt Ollmann. It was the first time that Bernstein conducted this work himself, 28 years after it was composed. With the cameras being allowed full access, this film documents the creative process behind the recording and reveals the moods, triumphs, mistakes, and vulnerability of everyone involved.(Edited quotation)

I watched the documentary twice, weeping well and often throughout each viewing.

Upon reaching California I told my sister by phone about the experience and resolved to buy the DVD before she arrived from Mexico to visit the family over Christmas week in San Jose; I have been staying here for two months, including over the year-end holidays.

Diane and I watched the 1984 video together, with others present, and we both wept through much of the performance. The others had no such response, having not seen the original movie. I therefore bought the DVD of the original movie, and we all watched this until it became obvious that the film was quite dated. It did not stir the emotions as did the 1984 documentary of the making of the musical CD.

Our youthful experience in Brooklyn was intense and difficult, not only due from the negative aspects of the neighborhood, but also from our isolation from all that we had previously known, including loving relatives in California. Also, our father’s work difficulties and guilt over the family’s situation made him somewhat mad, often. Also, and significantly, we left Brooklyn in mid-1951 just after the beginning of great migration from Puerto Rico. We witnessed the brutal welcome given these refugees from poverty, by the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Europe, mostly from Italy and Ireland. The play is centered in the conflict between such groups.

But I prefer now to dwell on the direct effect of the 1984 documentary I have now watched three times.

It was primarily the music that affected me, rendered by a magnificent gathering of orchestral musicians, and by the great singers featured in the video (as listed in the above quotation). They captured the pathos and drama not only of the New York slum, but also of the timeless story of Romeo and Juliet. None of these performers would have succeeded as they did, however, without the brilliant leadership of the composer/conductor, Leonard Bernstein.

From 1958 to 1972 Bernstein wrote and appeared as commentator, piano soloist and conductor in 53 televised concerts named “Young People’s Concerts.” Our family had a television by 1958 and we watched these marvelous programs avidly.

So, part of the emotion evoked from my watching the 1984 documentary was due to these fond memories.

The music played by the summertime “pickup orchestra” was as expert as any well-rehearsed set of musicians playing in any well known orchestra. Especially talented and skilled were the first trumpet and the first percussionist. There were several musical pieces that were mostly or entirely orchestral; that is, without many or any vocal parts. One piece was thrilling in its power and evocation of the mood of the scene it accompanied: “Cool.”

I had seen the name “Kiri Te Kanawa” and knew she was an operatic singer, but I had never knowingly seen and heard her sing until viewing this DVD. I am now an avid fan of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Her vocal, and even visual, portrayal of “Maria” (Juliet) was beyond wonderful. I cannot bring forth more words to further and adequately describe my appreciation of her. Perhaps, after I listen to other works she has performed, I will write an essay on her in this weblog.

The other singers were also powerful and professional performers whom I thoroughly enjoyed, although I felt Jose Carreras was not properly cast as the “white” (i.e., not Puerto Rican) protagonist Tony (Romeo). Carrera’s Spanish accent, however well muted, seemed out of place.

Memories of Brooklyn, music, musicians, Leonard Bernstein: all these and more combined to give Diane and me a deeply soulful experience which we can now revisit through viewing this documentary I would not otherwise have been aware of had I not traveled to San Jose to celebrate the 2008 year-end holidays with my extended family.

A most serendipitous airplane flight.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
This entry was posted in Books & Literature, History, Music & Musicians, The Arts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to West Side Story, Revisited

  1. Pingback: Weltschmerz « A Few Words

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