Suite from West Side Story (Bernstein)

Program note

West Side Story signage on Broadway
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Suite from West Side Story
arr. Jack Gale

Something’s Coming

One Hand, One Heart
I Feel Pretty

The crunching dissonances, driving rhythms, and singable tunes of Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 hit West Side Story (with lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim) have made it one of the most distinctive pieces of musical theatre of the twentieth century. It was first adapted for film in 1961 and more recently in 2021, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Bernstein fuses elements of jazz, Latin American music, 12-tone composition, popular music and European symphonic music, to create a sophisticated score that dazzles in concert hall, theatre and cinema. The show retells Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of New York gang violence: the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks taking the place of the Montagues and Capulets.

This brass ensemble arrangement of numbers from the show by Jack Gale begins with the musical’s Prologue and the opening tritone – a difficult-to-sing interval labelled ‘diabolus in musica’ (devil in music) during medieval times – that recurs as a menacing motif throughout the musical.

The upbeat Something’s Coming sees Tony – our Romeo – looking forward to a dance, at which he will meet his Juliet, Maria. An apartment fire escape becomes the gritty, New York stand-in for Juliet’s balcony, where Maria and Tony pledge their love for each other in Tonight, while the hymn-like One Hand, One Heart accompanies a wedding ceremony acted out between Tony and Maria.

The girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo, Anita argues with her friends that life in America is better than in Puerto Rico in the rhythmic America, while Maria sings the happy and naive I Feel Pretty as she prepares for a meeting with Tony.

The final movement of this suite, Somewhere, is sung by an off-stage soprano in the stage show, by Maria and Tony in the 1961 film and by Valentina in the 2021 film – in
a heart-rending performance by Rita Moreno. It speaks of yearning for a place of peace, quiet and forgiveness.

© Angus McPherson, 2022

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