West Side Story is an American musical with a script by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. The musical’s plot and story are based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Set in New York City in the mid-1950s, the musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Sharks from Puerto Rico are taunted by the Jets, a white working-class group.The young protagonist, Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.
The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre. Bernstein’s score for the musical has become extremely popular; it includes “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, “America”, “Somewhere”, “Tonight”, “Jet Song”, “I Feel Pretty”, “A Boy Like That”, “One Hand, One Heart”, “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool”.
The score for West Side Story was orchestrated by Bernstein himself, with assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. The instrumentation at first seems unusually large, but typical for Broadway, many of the players are called upon to handle multiple instruments, or double.
The score calls for a total of five reed players covering: three piccolos, three flutes, oboe, English horn, E-flat clarinet, four B-flat clarinets, three bass clarinets, bassoon, and saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass). There are two independent parts for horn in F, three independent parts for trumpet in B-flat (2nd doubling trumpet in D) and two trombone parts.
Two or more percussionists are asked to cover: traps, timpani, vibraphone, four pitched drums, guiro, xylophone, three bongos, conga, timbales, snare drum, police whistle, gourd, two suspended cymbals, castanets, maracas, finger cymbals, tambourine, small maracas, glockenspiel, wood block, claves, triangle, temple blocks, chimes, tam-tam, ratchet, and slide whistle.
In addition, there are parts for celesta, piano, electric guitar, Spanish guitar, and mandolin, while the (bowed) string section consists of seven violins (divisi), four cellos (divisi), and double bass, a total of 12 independent string parts.
A common musical device in West Side Story is the tritone (also known as the augmented fourth, or diminished fifth). It is featured throughout the musical, such as the repeated word, Maria, in the song “Maria”, and in the overture and all of the fight music (“The Rumble”).
The interval is dissonant (that is, it sounds jarring and unsettled and creates musical tension). By embracing the musical disunity created by the tritone, Bernstein is providing a musical representation of the opposing gangs in West Side Story.
On October 18, 1961, a film adaptation of the musical was released. It received praise from critics and the public, and became the second highest grossing film of the year in the United States.
The film won ten Academy Awards in its eleven nominated categories, including Best Picture, as well as a special award for Robbins. The film holds the distinction of being the musical film with the most Academy Award wins (10 wins), including Best Picture. The soundtrack album made more money than any other album before it.