With director Steven Spielberg’s new motion picture West Side Story recently being nominated for seven Academy Awards and streaming on Disney+, the classic musical continues its extraordinary popularity with audiences around the world.
The re-emergence of West Side Story came about during Leonard Bernstein’s centennial celebration. Throughout 2018 and 2019, regional theaters, opera houses and syphomines jumped on the bandwagon to perform the work with the pinnacle being an ill-fated Broadway revival directed by Ivo van Hove in addition to Spileberg’s film, originally slated to open in 2020.
West Side Story is part of a very slim list of timeless musicals in which all the elements of theater seamlessly came together in one perfectly crafted piece. The musical’s longevity is also helped by the successful 1961 film version produced by United Artists. There have been many books written about West Side Story and the 1961 film, dozens of various recordings in addition to countless parodies and homages of the work in media throughout the years.
While the original creators; choreographer Jerome Robbins, librettist Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, receive much of the credit due to them for creating West Side Story, and rightly so, there is one creator who also helped shape this classic work who has slipped through the cracks. This unintentional creator is American composer Marc Blitzstein, who was Leonard Bernstein’s life-long friend and mentor. Although Blitzstein’s contribution to West Side Story is small and varied, the ways his music and ideals seeped into this project would help lay the foundation for one of the greatest landmark musicals ever constructed.
The Cheat Sheet
Before proceeding, I assembled a cheat sheet for shows referenced within this dissertation:
On The Town (1944): A musical comedy based on the ballet, Fancy Free. It tells the story of three sailors who have a twenty-four hour shore leave in Manhattan.
Wonderful Town (1950): A musical comedy based on the book and play, My Sister Elieen. It tells the story of two sisters from Ohio who land in the colorful world of Greenwich Village and attempt to make it to the top as creative artists in the Big Apple.
Trouble in Tahiti (1954): A one act opera. It tells a cynical story of a troubled marriage between a husband and wife, set against the backdrop of 1950’s suburbia. In 1983, Bernstein would later write a three act sequel to this story entitled, A Quiet Place.
Candide (1956): A comic operetta based on Voltaire’s satire of the same name. It tells the story of the young Candide’s search for happiness in a world in which all is “supposedly” for “the best”.
West Side Story (1957): A musical based on Romeo & Juliet. It tells the story of two star crossed lovers caught between the gang war of the Jets and the Sharks. The project, originally called East Side Story with the conflict being between Irish Catholics and Hebrews, was conceived, choreographed and directed by Jermoe Robbins.
Mass (1971): A theater piece for singers, players and dancers composed for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The abstract piece follows The Celebrant trying to conduct the catholic mass against a cynically jaded congregation.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976): A concept musical that examined the oval office and its relationship with racial injustice throughout history. This musical closed on Broadway after seven performances.
The Cradle Will Rock (1937): A pro-labor opera whose fabled opening night stood as a bekon of breaking censorship against the government. It tells the story of the Liberty Committe of Steeltown U.S.A. on the night of a big union drive and how each member of the Liberty Committe has metaphorically prostituted themselves to the greedy capitalist, Mr. Mister, and his family members.
No for an Answer (1941): An opera about a group of restaurant and hotel workers battling big business and unemployment in a resort town.
Regina (1949): An opera based on Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes. It tells the story of a three siblings’ rivalry and how their unrelenting greed affects their family members during the dawn of industrial domination in the deep South.
Airborne Symphony (1946): A symphonic canta that revolves around the history, daily grind and dangers of aviation. The piece would lay the groundwork for Bernstein’s Mass.
Ruben Ruben (1954): An opera loosely based on the Faust legend. The musical only lasted it’s out of town tryouts in Boston.
Juno (1958): A musical based on Sean Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock. It tells the story of a Dublin family and their reversal of fortunes during an Irish revolution.
Based on a Conception
In the fall of 1946, Marc Blitzstein began collaborating with choreographer Jerome Robbins on a work inspired by the issues of civil rights beginning to emerge in America. The two proposed a pas de deux of black and white dancers in masks in order to critique the intolerance and treatment of minorities. Three years later this idea became the ballet, The Guests, which was presented by The New York City Ballet on January 20th, 1949. It was Jerome Robbins’ first ballet for the company and would lead him to becoming the Associate Artistic Director.
Although the original idea for the ballet never came through fruition, The Guests’ scenario still dealt with the ideas of prejudice and social discrimation. In the ballet, a host assembles two different groups among ten dancers, one group having six dancers while the other group had four dancers. The larger group is marked with stars on their forehead to represent their superiority to the other group. Both groups receive masks and a dance commences. One boy and girl dance a pas de deux together. At the end of the pas de deux, the two umask to reveal the boy is marked on her forehead while the girl is not. The guests look aghast, the host pulls the two away from each other and both as force to flee as the ballet concludes.
It was during this time in rehearsals for The Guests that Jerome Robbins called Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents on January 9th, 1949 with the notion of doing Romeo and Juliet in the slums of New York. Robbins has denied the fact that he ballet had any connection to West Side Story and the idea for the musical came about when he was pondering how the Shakespeare play connected to contemporary times after a friend of his who was playing Romeo asked Robbins for advice. That being said, there could have been no coincidence that doing a ballet with Romeo and Juliet themes about a girl and boy from two rigidly divided social groups who fall in love in addition to communicating social problems through music and dance could not have inspired Robbins to create the notion of what would become West Side Story. And it could not have been created without Marc Blitzstein’s input and ideas he collaborated on with Robbins for The Guests.
Dancer Rita Karlin who was in the ballet also concurred The Guests was a precursor to West Side Story;
“After the pas de deux was performed…Karlin recalled, ‘Lo and behold [the two lovers] found each other. Everybody, of course, when they realized that they were in love, or they had some kind of thing going, looked in absolute horror…That’s why I’m saying it’s a fore-runner to West Side Story.’” (Lawrence, p.139)
One idea Blitzstein and Robbins cut from was a concept for the ballet’s ending in which the unaccepted lovers were slowly joined by a few members of the different groups dancing together in unity. This rejected idea would later be used for the “Somewhere Ballet” in the second act of West Side Story.
Bernstein and Blitzstein
“[Bernstein and I] are almost telepathically close. Sometimes we compose startlingly similar music on the same day, without seeing each other.” – Marc Blitzstein (Pollack, p. 185)
Marc Blitzstein first met Leonard Bernstein when Bernstein was still a student at Harvard and was conducting a production of The Cradle Will Rock his senior year. Bernstein was a fan of the opera and commented that “I had the feeling I had practically written this work myself, I knew it so well” (Camera Three, 16:00-16:07). Marc Blitzstein attended the premiere and was enamored with the young Bernstein. Throughout the rest of Blitzstein’s life, they remained good friends and Blitzstein became a mentor to Bernstein.
Bernstein premiered three of Blitzstein’s works and dedicated his one act opera, Trouble in Tahiti to Blitzstein. In return, Blitzstein dedicated his Six Elizabethan Songs (written for The American Shakespeare Festival Theater) to Bernstein. Bernstein would also name two of his children after characters from Blitzstein shows; Alexander after Alexandra in Regina and Nina after the character of the same name from Ruben, Ruben. Leonard Bernstein even had a fling with one of Marc Blitzstein’s lovers, Bill Hewit.
The only project the two ever “collaborated” on was for the 1950 Broadway production of Peter Pan in which Bernstein supplied songs and incidental music for. Blitzstein supervised his music and lyrical revisions while Bernstein was away conducting in Israel.
Not The First Time
“[Blizstein] had written those special [musical] notes which seduced my soul, those thousand of special, mysterious notes that can never be forgotten.” – Leonard Bernstein (Pollack, pg.184)
Artistic borrowing and allusions to former works is nothing new in the world of music and still continues till this day (look at Lin Manuel Miranda’s multiple music allusions in Hamilton for example). Leonard Bernstein himself seemed to be aware of himself and other composers who have used musical allusions for compositions. As he stated in an interview with Paul R. Laird;
“Take Le sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring], which was supposed to be the work that revolutionized music and changed the world, and just analyze it page by page, bar by bar. You’ll find that every bar of it comes from somewhere else. But it has been touched by this magic guy” (Laird, p.34).
Marc Blitzstein was fully aware that Leonard Bernstein not only borrowed from other composers but from his own work. As he wrote to his friend, author Mina Curtiss, after the opening of Bernstein’s musical, Wonderful Town:
“He has been this time rather exorbitant in his demands for lenience in the matter of borrowing. I don’t seriously mind when he swipes from me (he has a number, ‘Quiet Girl,’ which title I used years ago; but instead of writing that song, he has written another of mine: a lullaby I wrote for No for an Answer)-but, when he calmly grabs the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto for his ‘hit’ called…’Ohio’, I gaga (I mean gag.)” (Gordon, p.364)
In The Score of West Side Story
After Jerome Robbins proposed the idea of a modern day Romeo and Juliet to Leonard Bernstein in 1949, Bernstein wrote the first tune to be used for the score using his own dummy lyrics. When the work became West Side Story and lyricist Stephen Sondheim joined the project, the tune would be known as “Maria”. “Maria” features a three note melody including a tri-tone (also known as an augmented fourth). The three note melody and the tune for “Maria”, originally came from the Act One opening of Blitzstein’s Regina. Regina premiered and closed on Broadway in 1949, the same year Bernstein wrote the tune for “Maria”. Bernstein followed Blitzstein’s progress throughout the creation of the opera, participated in a New York Times editorial to prolong Regina’s run in New York and informed Blitzstein that in 1955 (four years after the piece closed) how the piece never slipped his mind. Therefore, there is no coincidence that the opening of Regina is identical to “Maria”. In the Act One opening of Regina, the three note melody is in the horn section.
This three note melody is spread out throughout the score of Regina is tied with the character of Mr. Marshall. Instrumentally the theme is heard in such other numbers as “Music, Music”, “Goodbye”, “Horace’s Last” and “The Finale”.
It is heard once again vocally in the dinner scene when Regina sings, “Provincial, Provincial” and when Mr. Marshall sings, “Delightful, Delightful” (Blitzstein, p.22).
In Act III, the character Birdie sings the three note melody in her aria; “Then they try to hide it, Birdie’s got a headache, a headache, a headache again” (Blitzstein, p.209).
With “Maria” in West Side Story, Bernstein kept the identical three note melody for the very beginning of the song.
When the song moved into the chorus, Bernstein used the three note melody once again but “inverted one interval but left the harmonies and rhythms virtually intact” (Peyser, 268). The three note melody is sprinkled throughout the entire score of West Side Story in almost every single number. The three note melody was first heard by the Broadway public in Candide (a piece Bernstein was working on at the same time for West Side Story), used for the number, “Auto Da Fe”. Furthermore, “Auto Da Fe” was a number whose structure was also stripped from Regina, this time from the Act II finale, “Gallop”.
“THE JET SONG”
There is another motif Bernstein used from the beginning of Regina that was used for the beginning of West Side Story. It occurs when the Hubbards break the fourth wall and express their inner monologue about the proceedings of their dinner. They sing “The company have the table quit” (Blitzstein, p.21).
Bernstein took this little section, added an additional dissonant note at the end and transformed it into The Jet’s leitmotif used in “The Prologue” and “The Jet Song” (originally used for an extended opening number called, “My Greatest Day”).
Bernstein took another Blitzstein theme to make one of the greatest hits from the score of West Side Story, “Tonight”. The motif from “Tonight” came from an unrecorded song in No For An Answer, “Lullaby”. The lyric is as follows; “Baby don’t you cry, Baby don’t you cry, Baby, baby, don’t you cry” (Blitzstein/Lehrman, p.26). Bernstein took the interval notes on the second and third “don’t”s and the final two words “you cry” and re-arranged them into the notes for the lyric, “Tonight, tonight, it all began tonight” (Bernstein/Sondheim, p.64) Bernstein would also used the harmonic structure of “Lullaby” for dozens of other songs from “A Quiet Girl” from Wonderful Town (“Quiet “Girl” was also the title of a wartime song composed by Blitzstein), to “Fraction: Things Get Broken” from Mass, to a ballad from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “Take Care of This House”.
THE POP SONG FORM
In Camera Three’s 1976 tribute to Marc Blitzstein, Bernstein stated;
“I was tremendously influenced by Marc in everything I wrote for the theater… because even in works that are enormous as my Mass….the basic unit in it is always the song form, the pop song form, no matter how it’s stretched or distorted or snuck in and out of and in that sense I think I owe my biggest debut to Marc.” (Camera Three, 19:06-19:39)
An example of Marc Blitzstein using the pop song as a basis would be “Croon-Song” from The Cradle Will Rock, a parody of crooners and their music during the 1930s. Another example is “Fraught” from No for An Answer, a pastiche of a Cole Porter torch song. The pop song in West Side Story would be derived from two popular styles of music dominant in the 1950’s; jazz, the “American” music used for The Jets such as “The Jet Song”, “Dance At The Gym: Jump” or “Cool” and latin music for The Sharks such as “Dance at the Gym: Mambo”, “America” or “I Feel Pretty”.
“GEE, OFFICER KRUPKE”
The introductory vamp to the number, “Dear Officer Krupke” is eerily similar to Blitzstein’s introduction vamp to “Scene Six: Hotel Lobby” from The Cradle Will Rock. Both numbers start in all sharps or flats with the horns speedily playing a vaudevillian introduction’s melody followed by an um-chug, um-chug over dialogue.
Both numbers use vaudevillian conventions for ironic commentary. The Cradle Will Rock comments on the willingness of creative artists to disregard politics in order to create “art” while “Gee, Officer Krupke” comments on a flawed system that believes it understands juvenile delinquency. Bernstein would continue to use this style of ironic commentary for his later works including, “God Said” in Mass and “The Money Lovin’ Minstrel Parade” in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I HAVE A LOVE” & “ONE HAND ONE HEART”
Maria’s Act II number, “I Have A Love” (originally penned “Once In Your Life”) is a variation on the opening of “What Will It Be” from Regina. “What Will It Be” starts with a whole note, followed by two quarter notes and a dotted half note. “I Have A Love” is a dotted half note followed by two eighth notes and a dotted half note.
In the book Music in a New Found Land (dedicated to the memory of Blitzstein), author Wilfred Mellers asserted that Bersntein’s “One Hand, One Heart” (originally written for Candide) was a “Hollywood corruption” of Blitzstein’s “What Will It Be” from Regina and “Gus and Sadie’s Song” from The Cradle Will Rock (Mellers, p.431).
Long before West Side Story, Bernstein wrote a melody to a song to which Blitzstein added lyrics to;
There goes what’s his name
Unhappy what’s his name
I’ve been wondering who’s to blame?
Who’s to blame?
That melody that would later be pulled out of Bernstein’s trunk years later with different lyrics for the Act II number, “Somewhere” and long after West Side Story opened “neither Shirley [Bernsetin, his sister] nor Lenny could shake from their minds Marc’s [lyrics].” (Gordon, p.325)
The musical phrase, “Peace and quiet”/“Hold my hand” in the song is identical to Blizstein’s solo from his Airborne Symphony, “Emily”. Bernstein himself conducted the American premiere of The Airborne Symphony and would have known the melody.
Blizstein used a technique in two of his songs in which the leading man would sing the heroine’s name while the heroine would interject with dialogue. In “Francine” from No For An Answer, Sam sings the heroine’s name then hums a haunting melody while Francine interjects with dialogue over his humming. In “One Kind Word” from Juno, Jerry sings his sweetheart’s name, “Mary”, while Mary interjects with dialogue as he holds her name out.
Although Bernstein does not directly use this technique, he does a variation of this during “Dance at the Gym (Meeting Scene)”. Instrumentally, the strings play the tune of the heroine’s name, Maria, interjected with dialogue from Tony and Maria. Tony doesn’t know Maria’s name hence why there is no lyric when the strings play her name musically.
Like in No for An Answer and Juno, this small section in West Side Story showcases “the passion and the difficulty of communication between two lovers, who seem to be on different levels of emotion” (Lehrman, p.151). All the men in these songs (Joe, Jerry and Tony) are so gobsmacked with their love for their girl (Francine, Mary, Maria) that they wax poetic while the female characters reply with level headed and direct responses. “I knew something never before was going to happen, had to happen”, Tony romantically expresses, “But this is some much more” to which Maria replies “My hands are cold” (Laurents/Richards, p.364).
RETURN TO THE VERSE
Another favored formal device Blitzstein used in his songs was using the beginning verse of the song as an ending tag. For example in “I Wish It So” from Juno, Mary begins the song with “I’ve an unrest inside me…and I think I’ll go mad” (p.107-108, Blitzstein/Lehrman) and ends the same way. In “Emily” from The Airborne Symphony ends the same way the song begins, “At night a white-face nineteen year old bombarder sits writing. The wonder of his crew tonight before the flight, sits writing” (p.80, Blitzstein/Lehrman).
Bernstein uses this technique for Tony’s songs in West Side Story; “Something’s Coming” both begin and end with “It’s only just out of reach, down a block on a beach” (p.34, Bernstein/Sondheim) and “Maria” in which Tony returns to verse at the end of the song, “The most beautiful sound I ever heard, Maria” (p.59, Bernstein/Sondheim).
After West Side Story
Seven years after the Broadway premiere of West Side Story and three years after the film’s release, Marc Blitzstein died on January 21st 1964. Although Leonard Bernstein vowed to complete Marc’s uncompleted operas, Sacco & Vanzetti and Idiots First, in addition to restoring Regina, he never got around to doing so. After Marc’s passing, Bernstein never reached the success he had in the 1940s and 50s. His work for the theater such as Mass, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and A Quiet Place were all met with negative reviews.
The musical examples listed above lead to questions of whether or not these artistic borrowings were intentional? Was Bernstein so infused with Blizstein’s style that it was coquinential? Was it Berstein tipping his cap to Blitzstein and believed imitation was the sincerest form of flattery?
Regardless, as American composer Ned Rorem stated, it is clear to see that; “Bernstein would never have been quite what he was without the firm example of Marc Blitzstein…” (Pollack, pg.185). Leonard Bernstein throughout his career strove to write music with an artistic and social base, which he learned how to do so through Marc Blitzstein’s work.
Had it not been for Marc’s original concept written for The Guests with Jerome Robbins and the melodies he composed for the theater, West Side Story would not be the mega hit musical it is today nor a piece of theater that will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.
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This dissertation is written for nonprofit educational purposes. I have cited the media (photo, videos, sheet music, etc.) and information I used for the dissertation.
According to the Library of Congress: The Library of Congress is providing access to The Leonard Bernstein Collection ca. 1920-1989 for educational and research purposes. LOC provided accessible download links to the photos and offered citations for the photos.
The NYPL Digital Photo Library provided accessible download links to the photos and offered citations for the photos.
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