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Cheat sheet: 
West Side Story

Brush up on your musicals with the Jets and Sharks in a battle for love

Showing until 6 October. Book tickets

This article was first published by Opera Australia

Opera Australia

What's the story?

The Jets (a gang of all-American boys) are at war with the Sharks (a gang of Puerto Rican boys), and the Upper West Side is their battleground.

When Tony (a former Jet) and Maria (a Puerto Rican girl) meet and fall in love, the pair wonder if they can overcome the deep rivalries between their communities. Optimistically, they sing: “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.”

But the two gangs see it differently, and the stage is set for a bloody fight.

(Not to give anything away, but the story is based on Romeo and Juliet, and we all know how that ends.)

The cast of Opera Australia's West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House, 2019. Image: Jeff Busby

A little history

Romeo and Juliet… but with a Latin beat. It wasn’t the first idea for the project that became West Side Story, but it was the one that stuck.

The doomed love story between a Puerto Rican girl and an All-American boy struck a nerve, both for its gritty, true-to-life storyline and its inventive music. It changed the genre forever, lifting the bar for other creators.

In 1949 up-and-coming choreographer Jerome Robbins was thinking about a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. He got Leonard Bernstein (music) and Arthur Laurents (book) on board.

But their initial idea, where a Catholic boy and Jewish girl fell in love, felt stale. They abandoned the project. Five years later, Bernstein and Laurents read news reports of gang violence between Puerto Rican and Anglo-American street kids. They were inspired. East Side Story became West Side Story.

The cast of Opera Australia's West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House, 2019. Image: Jeff Busby

Arthur Laurents got chatting to lyricist Stephen Sondheim at a party and brought him in to meet Bernstein. Robbins had his dream team.

The four collaborated closely. Sondheim took passages of dialogue and turned them into songs. Bernstein moved songs around to serve Laurents’ vision of the story. Robbins created choreography that advanced the story, instead of embellishing it.

In 1957 West Side Story premiered in Washington. The show was a hit. Its subsequent premiere on Broadway left audiences and critics reeling. Whether they liked it or not, it was clear this musical was something special. It ran for 732 performances and then toured nationally. A production ran in the West End for more than 1000 performances.

Hollywood came knocking, and the 1961 film took a popular musical and made it a cult classic.

What's the big hit?

Where to begin? Nearly every song in the musical is a bona fide Broadway hit. ‘America,’ ‘Somewhere,’ ‘Tonight,’ ‘I Feel Pretty,’ and ‘Something’s Coming’.

One of the most important is the tri-tone, or ‘devil’s interval’, which he uses throughout the score to highlight tension and drive the story forward. The tri-tone is an interval (distance between two notes) that sounds unstable - your ear reaches for a note that would resolve it, or make it sound finished.

Can you sing this line from ‘Maria’? ‘Ma-ri-a, I’ve just met a girl called Maria’. The first two notes ‘Ma-ri-’ is a tri-tone. That’s why it sounds so gorgeous when Tony sings the ‘a’ — the uncomfortable interval is resolved.

The prologue opens with a tri-tone and a motif that symbolises discord. It reappears whenever you meet the Jets. Unlike Tony’s tri-tones, they are often left unresolved. There is violence brewing, and the music makes you feel it. Listen out when the Jets try to keep their ‘Cool’ — the song is full of tri-tones and the result is you can feel the tension in your guts.

Bernstein sets us up to feel the longing and love of ‘Somewhere’ long before that song appears in the score. If you listen carefully, you can hear parts of the song in other places: the rhythm of the line Some day! Somewhere! in the last notes of ‘Maria’, and the melody of There’s a place for us under the closing notes of ‘Tonight’.

By the time the pair of lovers sing ‘Somewhere’, we already know how we’re supposed to feel.

Bernstein combines these two ideas with powerful effect in the finale, where the melody of ‘Somewhere’ competes with two unresolved tri-tones. This story isn’t over. What will the gangs do next?

The legendary creatives

Conversation starters

  • Robbins originally planned to write a story about a star-crossed romance between a Jewish girl and Catholic boy on New York’s Upper East Side. Bernstein and Laurents changed his mind when Puerto Rican and American gang violence began to figure in the news.

  • Robbins visited a high school dance in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood of New York to get real-life inspiration for his choreography

  • Robbins wouldn’t let the original Jets and Sharks casts mix, to help create real tension on set. They rehearsed in different rooms and weren’t allowed to eat lunch together.

  • Chita Rivera, who played Anita on Broadway, and dancer Tony Mordente, who was a Jet, actually got married and had a child! (And that was in spite of Robbins’ ban on Shark-Jet socialising).

  • Robbins decided not to kill off Maria after composer Richard Rodgers told him: “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her.”

  • ‘One Hand, One Heart’ was actually written for Candide. Bernstein swapped it out for ‘O Happy We’, which he originally wrote for West Side Story.

  • Bernstein and Sondheim had a late stroke of inspiration and wrote ‘Something’s Coming’ just 12 days out from opening night.

  • The 1961 film brought home 10 Academy Awards, and still holds the record for most awards won by a musical.

  • Sondheim got the gig as lyricist through a bit of old-fashioned networking. Talking to Arthur Laurents at a party, the pair got to discussing Laurents’ new project with Leonard Bernstein. Sondheim asked who they’d found to do the lyrics, and was just in time – they hadn’t contracted anyone.

  • Sondheim was actually looking to move into writing music along with lyrics, but was keen to meet Bernstein, so he agreed to play for him.

  • Sondheim made up nonsense street slang so the language wouldn’t date. He wanted it to be the first Broadway musical to use the 'F word', but learned they’d never get a cast album approved. The boys say ‘Krup you!’ instead.

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