By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
My review from last Saturday’s concert is online HERE and has been published in the print editions of the above newspapers.
Additional Thoughts and Musings:
• While I was looking at the piano Saturday afternoon, it appeared to have a fabric cover on top of the lid. Since neither Terrence Wilson nor David Lockington took it off, I assumed that it was on intentionally. Correct, says President/CEO Lora Unger, who reported that the cover was on because the light reflecting on the wood (ebony) results in a glare in the orchestra members’ eyes, which prevents them from seeing.
• I’m still processing the wealth of emotions that I experienced during the superb performance of the West Side Story Symphonic Dances delivered by David Lockington and the PSO.
For someone who grew up during the time that West Side Story came to fruition, the work remains a seminal moment in my musical life. From the passage of time many historians realize that WSS was a landmark in musical theatre but those of us who lived the experience knew it from the start. “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr in his New York Herald Tribune review after the official premiere. I was 12 at that time and even living in the “foreign country” of Los Angeles I knew what was happening. I was 16 when the movie version appeared and, like many teenagers, was entranced by the great love songs: Maria, One Hand, One Heart and Tonight. You can get some background from a recent New York Philharmonic program note HERE.
Although Lockington didn’t explain the history of why Bernstein wrote the West Side Story Symphonic Dances (nor did the printed program), the backstory of West Side Story that he offered was fascinating.
In 1961, the New York Philharmonic was planning a pension fund benefit concert entitled “A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein” on the day before Valentine’s Day. The program was to celebrate Bernstein’s tenure as NYPO music director, which began in 1958, and also the fact that he had just signed a contract to renew that position for another seven years. Lukas Foss conducted the premiere.
Bernstein pulled together nine dances from his iconic musical, which had debuted on Broadway in 1957 and ran there for nearly two years. WSS was made into a movie in 1961. It won 10 Academy Awards out of 11 nominations, including Best Picture, and also won a special award for choreographer Jerome Robbins. BTW: the one nomination that didn’t turn into an award was Best Adapted Screenplay, where Ernest Lehman’s work lost out to Abby Mann for Judgment at Nuremberg.
As nearly everyone knows, West Side Story was a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What isn’t as well known is the backstory: in 1947, Robbins approached Bernstein and author Arthur Laurents about a Romeo and Juliet-style work. Robbins wanted it to be about an Irish-Catholic family and a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and its original title was to be East Side Story.
The idea never got any traction but, according to Lockington, Laurents met Bernstein when the latter was conducting at Hollywood Bowl in 1956 and tried to re-pitch the idea. Someone suggested moving the locale to Los Angeles but Laurents was more familiar with Puerto Rican turf wars in New York, so eventually the setting was shifted back to New York City, but this time on the west side of Manhattan — in fact, the setting was in the area now occupied by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
“Casting was another problem,” wrote Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn in their program notes. “The perfectionist Robbins wanted a cast of 38 who could both dance and sing — a nearly impossible demand in those days, but now the rule rather than the exception. A choreographer first and foremost, Robbins finally settled on dancers who could sing — as opposed to singers who could dance.”
Ultimately Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins and Stephen Sondheim (who wrote the lyrics) became the creative team and, after nearly every Broadway producer turned down the project, Harold Prince and Robert Griffiths took it on.
Lockington brought out two other points in his preconcert talk. Tonight, which became the famous balcony-scene song, was not the original choice for that pivotal moment. The original idea choice was One Hand, One Heart but that was ultimately moved to the wedding scene. And because the musical leaned so heavily on the tragic nature of the work, the creative team swiped a song from another Bernstein musical, Candide, and turned it into Officer Krupke.
What the West Side Story Symphonic Dances showed was the fragility of Bernstein’s score. The dance suite left out Tonight, Maria, Something’s Coming and Officer Krupke — the “happiest” parts of the musical — and also the sardonically witty America. What emerged was a suite that, while powerful, emphasized the work’s “darker” side. As I noted in the review, the audience didn’t know how to respond to what was a wonderful performance.
(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.