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The Somewhere Project: New York City and West Side Story

As part of Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary season, the Weill Music Institute launches The Somewhere Project, a citywide exploration of West Side Story. This creative learning project engages artists and audiences in all five boroughs in a celebration of community and music. The show is a fitting topic for this citywide project, since it’s as much about New York City as it is about the characters on stage. Below, Nigel Simeone, author of The Leonard Bernstein Letters and Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story, explains further.

Open the script of West Side Story, and after the cast list, there’s a two-line statement: “The action takes place on the West Side of New York City during the last days of summer.” Leonard Bernstein had previously composed the music for On the Town and Wonderful Town, both of which start with numbers that leave us in no doubt about their New York setting. In On the Town, the three sailors rush on to sing “New York, New York! It’s a helluva town!,” and Wonderful Town even has a tour guide to describe the scene: “On your left, Washington Square, right in the heart of Greenwich Village.”

Somewhere Project NYC blog (Bobby Mikul)
Photography: Bobby Mikul

In West Side Story, New York City is a constant, looming presence, but now it’s a cruel and troubling place. Jerome Robbins’s original idea for the show, which he proposed to Bernstein and Arthur Laurents back in 1949, was to set it on the Lower East Side, with rival gangs of Catholics and Jews. For the next six years, the three collaborators were busy with other projects. But in June 1955, Robbins revived the idea, and The New York Times reported that work had resumed on the musical “tentatively being called East Side Story.” Later that year, after reading newspaper reports of gang violence, Laurents and Bernstein were fired up by the idea of rival Puerto Rican and white gangs on the city’s West Side. They sent Robbins a fresh outline that was refashioned into the plot as we know it. In October 1955, Stephen Sondheim joined the team, and the show started to make progress. It also acquired its final title: In January 1956, The New York Times announced that “this modernized treatment of the Romeo and Juliet legend” was to be called West Side Story (a later plan to call it Gang Way! was fortunately abandoned).

While the exact locations are never specified …,
the feeling of being immersed in the city is pervasive and threatening.

Other than its West Side setting, there are no precise landmarks in the show. Sondheim originally wrote lyrics for the prologue, but they were about reaching for the moon—and escaping from New York. This early version of the prologue ran straight into the “Jet Song,” with different lyrics from the ones that eventually made it into the show. There’s one witty New York detail in the abandoned lyric: “How ’bout the day when we made all that mess / With the mice we let out on the Bronx Park Express?” The prologue was reworked as a purely dance number (and the “Jet Song” given new, sharper lyrics), but as Brooks Atkinson wrote in his New York Times review, “there is nothing mythical about the environment of West Side Story. It is New York today, and the principal characters are the tense, furtive, feral members of two hostile teenage gangs, lost in a fantasy of hatred and revenge.” He could have added that the city itself—ever-present and all-seeing—is almost another character in the show.

While On the Town and Wonderful Town celebrate New York’s sights and sounds, West Side Story explores its grim underbelly, with young lives fueled by poverty, violence, and racial hatred. The utilitarian settings intensify this. In the script, we find “the street,” “a backyard,” “the drugstore,” “the neighborhood,” and so on.

Somewhere Project NYC blog (John A. Anderson)
Photography: John A. Anderson

One aspect of the movie version that troubled Bernstein (and some of the other collaborators) was the opening helicopter shots of Manhattan. He thought this looked like a travelogue, and said so to Saul Chaplin, one of the producers. Chaplin replied that it took audiences “to the locale of the picture in a most effective manner.” As seen in the movie, that locale was the area of the Upper West Side south of 66th Street, the area known as San Juan Hill, demolished after the film was shot to make way for Lincoln Center. It’s easy to see why Bernstein found the opening of the movie too literal and too pictorial—presenting a vision of New York that was far removed from the bleak realism of West Side Story.

While exact locations are never specified in Laurents’s book, the feeling of being immersed in the city is pervasive and threatening. Oliver Smith echoed this in his inspired set designs. His concept incorporated typical features of New York’s urban landscape, such as the Z-shaped fire escapes and the concrete bridge piers “under the highway” for the rumble scene (similar relics can still be seen in what remains of the West Side Elevated Highway around 70th Street).

Somewhere Project NYC blog 3

The characters themselves strengthen the sense of place— not only the youthful principals, but also the adults in the cast: Doc, owner of the drugstore; Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke, two streetwise and cynical New York cops; and Glad Hand, a well-intentioned volunteer hosting the dances at the settlement house that doubles as the gym. At the end of West Side Story, the procession carrying Tony’s body makes its way across the stage. The last direction in the script reads: “The adults—Doc, Schrank, Krupke, Glad Hand—are left bowed, alone, useless.” These archetypal guardians of decency in the city are powerless: It is as if New York itself is looking on, its spirit sapped by violence and death.

Finally, there’s Bernstein’s music: With its angular intervals, harsh dissonances, tense repeating motifs, and gritty orchestration, it’s an unflinchingly urban soundworld. The police whistle in the prologue and the siren in the rumble are no mere effects, but are integral to the score: They can be seen in Bernstein’s earliest sketches, long before the orchestrations were made by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal (under Bernstein’s watchful eye). The array of Latin-American percussion is used to depict a strident and hostile city; and right at the start of the prologue, the vibraphone and alto sax ooze disquiet and sleaze. Has anybody created a more evocative soundtrack for New York’s dark side? I doubt it.

—Nigel Simeone

This article first appeared in Carnegie Hall: 125 Years of an Iconic Music Venue’s Most Remarkable People and Memorable Events, available here.

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