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Popular Music. “West Side Story” Musical

When West Side Story burst upon the Broadway stage in 1957 it was the most unique musical of its time, bringing together a wide array of musical genres with different cultural roots to enhance a modern version of Romeo and Juliet with wonderfully blended orchestration and an inspired choreography. Following the frantic changes of the 1920s, George and Ira Gershwin presented Porgy and Bess as a “folk opera”, and introduced jazz and blues done with full orchestra as a viable modern classical music. By the 1940s, Hollywood was looking for more upbeat music and took on the more standard ballad and chorale styles for the many musicals produced between 1940 and 1960. West Side Story was a huge departure in musical style, using the classical Shakespearian tale of Romeo and Juliet with a very contemporary and culturally loaded score and a modern interpretation of the classic love story. The Herald review of opening night in Sydney, Australia illustrates the way in which the tension spilled over the footlights and excited the audience:

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“The thrust and jab of its movement, the pace and rattling excitement of its delivery were of a quality to leave any spectator limp with exhausted tension… From the moment that the rival gangs of Jets and Sharks shrug themselves into action at the beginning of the first act the stage is rarely at peace from stealthy tension, explosive gaiety, and acrobatic pummelling.” (25) (Card 18).

The score is energetic and exciting, totally descriptive of the action and representational of the times and the cultures within the story. More than this, the musical score on its own almost tells the story. In Shakespeare’s tale the clash lies between two feuding families. Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents took this to a much higher level when they created a clash of cultures, treating each as the warring Montagues and Capulets. In New York’s Hells Kitchen of the 1950s, life was ruled by a number of gangs, as was so for many American inner cities. Cultural groups of the times in large cities would congregate into separate areas, preserving, yet isolating, their particular cultures. The Sharks represent the Puerto Rican culture, while the Jets represent middle American culture, with an emphasis on Irish and Italian, since these were well represented in New York City.

Bernstein’s musical score fits this definition all the way through as he creates and combines a musical tapestry from several different styles and then recombines them in different ways all through the play. The musical uses more than the story to promote the theme. While many musicals simply incorporated music to tell part of the story and to set the mood, and preparinge the audience for action, the music of West Side Story did much more: it provided an expression of the story in its metaphorical (symbolic) battle of sound and musical style. This is uniquely suitable for the grand theme, since music is a very tangible part of every world culture. “While some critics were sceptical about the combination of folk and classical genres in the music and choreography for West Side Story(23), others were excited by these very same experiments.” (Card 18).

The jazz rhythms of the Jets’ music is sharply American, drawing on past American culture, including black sources for variations on Jazz stylings. The masterful orchestration and vocalizations of “Cool” are a wonderful example of Jazz at its best. Beginning with the very subtle sounds of snapping fingers, and the counterpoint of the opposing theme of the very lyrical organ measures. Adding a very well done stylized modern jazz dance reminisvcentreminiscent of the classic French Apache dancing completed the rich experience which totally involved the audience. Cool is not a song that makes people sing along. It is a marvelously complex showpiece which involves the audience completely, but passively as enthralled listeners. There are mixed rhythms of the snapping sequences with the quietly sung “cool” lines contrasting with the lyrical organ melody, and punctuated by the muted horns as the dancers progress among the darkened buildings and alleyways. During the performance the piece rises to full orchestra and chorus and then fades back to quiet jazz, ending finally with the same finger-snapping with which it began.

Cool does more than present the theme of “being cool” (a new street word of the time idomatic to the American culture). The words describe the reigning culture of New York City teen-age and gang life, echoing that of many American inner cities, while setting them apart from “the establishment”. The music sets a mood of expectation in its blending of melody, harmony and counterpoint and its mixture of pure percussion, male voices and full orchestra. It is thematic of the entire Jets group, even more so than the Jets’ Song, as they (the Jets) have bound together in a common cause to control territory, in lieu of accomplishment of anything else, since they deem this idea hopeless for most of them. Membership in the group is the highest aim of most of these characters. This group of “rebels” against society find safety in conforming internally to a pattern of non-conformance externally. In addition to the statements it makes, this song and its music set the stage for failure. The final rumble, which ends in tragedy has everyone losing their ability to be “cool”.

The opposing cultural theme for the Sharks is best presented in the song “America”, as the rhythms and orchestration are decidedly “Latin” and very much a “hot” dance piece, exploring the themes of Latin dance, which was considered to be sexually charged and a little “naughty” for the times. (Miller, Jack A ,1961) The guys of the Jets may voice their racial prejudice, but they openly find the Puerto Rican women sexually thrilling. The words of the song tell us of the problems of being Puerto Rican in 1950s New York City and the music is an exciting representation of Latin dance music.

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Other music in West Side Story shows us the difference between the cultures, such as the Latin Mambo challenge dance in the gym and the Jets Song theme for the American group, but the Tonight Quintet expresses the overall theme of the musical, in showing how the music of the two cultures can be most beautifully blended and how the hopes and dreams of the various singers are expressed in their songs. The idea that these two cultures can learn to live together peacefully and even complement each other is the central theme of this collage of canon of music. It is one of the most masterfully created blendings of music and style ever done for stage.

Bernstein masterfully combined the two musical styles of Puerto Rican culture and American Jazz with his wonderful ability to score powerful symphonic music. “Leonard Bernstein’s talent and imagination have brought him to the highest places in at least two musical worlds-the world of the Broadway musical, and the world of the concert stage.” (Bernstein 401) Bernstein used melody and musical themes to create a panorama of sound against which this classic story is told. The words of the songs add depth and meaning to the marvelous tapestry of orchestral magic. The music is both representational of the clashing cultures and a metaphor for the hope for the future. Bernstein has taken different styles and orchestration with complex rhythms and painted a sound play, while Sondheim added the lyrics to point to all the various plot points and characterizations of the script. This musical, which was a complete departure from anything done before on the stage, was a completely flowing sound-scape for the actors to dance across as they told their stories. (Gold 2007) Shakespeare would likely marvel at what has been done here with his classic love story.

This is what my peer review had to say about my paper:

“The thesis seems to be missing, or I could not find it, but it did not hurt from understanding the topic of the paper. Whenever your thesis is in the introduction, make it standout to let the reader know exactly what the topic of the paper is.” CAN YOU UNDERLINE THE THESIS STATEMENT, IF YOU ALREADY INCLUDED IN THE ORIGINAL PAPER THAT YOU SENT. IF NOT, INCLUDE ONE FOR ME. My peer review also said.”In the first paragraph you introduced some artist with only their last names, when first introducing a person use their full name and give them an intro., so the reader actually knows who these guys are. Some ideas were unclear in the body paragraphs but with fixing grammatical errors and rephrasing a few ideas those unclear ideas will become well developed and add great innovations to your paper. The conclusion paragraph could be better at bringing the paper together at the end. The fact that you ended with a citation is odd and unfinished. Ending the paper with your own idea is my suggestion for that. Some ideas to remember from the guidelines for this paper is to include a brief summary of how your topic relates to the course syllabus or our text book. Also, you have filler material sometimes or unnecessary wording so refer to the actually paper. Musical analysis could be more prominent in this paper, using musical terminology. Remember to review the research guidelines to have everything our professor is looking for in the paper.”

My instructions: I would like for you to revise the paper as much as possible from what the peer review suggested, if it helps my paper and not degraded it. I would definitely need a THESIS STATEMENT included in the paper, underlined. I also need you to include more MUSICAL TERMINOLOGY. The rest of the suggestions is up to you to decide if it needs to be revise or not. Please absolutely include what I capitalize in my instructions.

Thank you.


Bernstein, Leonard. “Whatever Happened to That Great Symphony.” Perspectives on Music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963. 401-412.

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Card, Amanda. “The ‘Great Articulation of the Inarticulate’: Reading the Jazz Body in Australian and American Popular Culture in the 1960s.” Journal of Australian Studies (1998): 18.

Gehring, Wes D., ed. Handbook of American Film Genres. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Miller, Jack A , 1961, Modern Jazz Dance Midwest’, Dance Magazine, 1961, p 68.

Gold, Sylviane. “On Broadway: When West Side Story Opened 50 Years Ago, Dance on Broadway Changed Forever. but What Became of Its Legacy?.” Dance Magazine Aug. 2007: 78+.

Lunden, Jeff and Simon, Scott, 2007, A Place for US: 50 Years of West Side Story, Web.

Santoro, Gene. Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Shakespeare, William, 1977, Romeo and Juliet, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Cresta House, London, England.

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