Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim
You know those comic-book team-ups that everyone loves? The Avengers, the Justice League, those stories where two (or more) incredible superheroes join forces and start kicking some righteous bad guy butt? That's what happened with the score of West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein on music, Steven Sondheim on lyrics. Everybody brace yourselves: something's coming, something good.
Leonard Bernstein was one of the first people Jerome Robbins approached with his idea, all the way back in 1947. At that point, it was a story about Jews vs. Irish Catholics on the Lower East Side of New York, to be titled East Side Story. Which puts us in the mood for a knish with a side of corned beef hash.
In 1947, Bernstein was an up-and-coming name in the New York music scene. He'd spent two years working as the music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, and was doing a lot of composing on the side, as well as conducting. He and Robbins had worked together on the original musical On the Town in 1944.
He was a busy man, and he didn't feel like he could devote the time necessary to write the music and the lyrics to a new show. (On top of everything else, he was moonlighting in the newly-minted nation of Israel, conducting concerts in Tel Aviv as a show of support for the Jewish state.) It took another ten years for them to crack the code on this musical, and in the meantime, he kept occupied with more composition, lots of music festivals all over the world, and generally becoming acknowledged as a musical genius.
By the time West Side Story began development, he was famous. But he still wasn't sure about those lyrics. They needed someone else to pump them up, and suddenly West Side Story scored a dream team for its songs.
Sondheim to the Rescue
Like Bernstein and Robbins, Stephen Sondheim was a name to note in the Broadway world of the 1950s. As a kid, Sondheim palled around with a buddy named James Hammerstein, whose dad was Oscar Hammerstein of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, and who became like a second father to the lonely and emotionally neglected Stephen. (source). That's one heck of a leg up. By the time little Stephen graduated from college, he was ready to move it and shake it in the world of Broadway. He'd already written some musicals at Hammerstein's behest, and he wanted to stretch his wings.
West Side Story gave him that chance. He was approached at a party (why do these things always happen at parties?) by Arthur Laurents, who was writing the dialogue for West Side Story and knew that Bernstein needed help with the lyrics. He agreed to do it, and suddenly, the last obstacle to putting this play on was finally removed. He was 25 years old.
Together, the Bernstein-Sondheim collaboration brought something new and exciting to the world of Broadway. Bernstein added jazz and Latin beats to the score, which was a hugely innovative move in a Broadway musical. The score became an instant classic and sold huge number of albums.
Later in his career, Sondheim admitted he was never happy with his work on the play; he thought the lyrics were too sentimental and poetic for street gangs—more Bernstein's style than his. In his autobiography, Finishing the Hat, he wrote, "I'm fond of quoting 'I Feel Pretty.' The street girl is singing, 'It's alarming how charming I feel.' ... I just put my head under my wing and pretend I'm not there" (source).
Sondheim thought it wasn't believable that "street kids of the pavements of New York City should have ended up crooning lines such as 'Today the world was just an address' from 'Tonight' [but] Lenny kept encouraging me to come up with these maunderings" (source).
Audiences did not agree.
As much as we'd like to get all Seth Rudetsky on you and deconstruct every single one of Sondheim's compositions, we won't. Suffice it to say that his lyrics and music after West Side Story were very different. Still, how cool is this rhyme?
JETS: That Puerto Rican punk'll
And when he hollers "uncle,"
We'll tear up the town.
Punk'll/uncle? We sure weren't that clever at 25.
Although Bernstein had already achieved fame with earlier works like On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and Candide (1956), the massive success of West Side Story rocketed Bernstein and Sondheim to the very top of their professions. Sondheim went on to compose the music and the lyrics to a staggering number of successful shows: Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music (source of "Send in the Clowns"), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George—the list goes on and on, His shows are known for their sophisticated and complex lyrics (yes, that's Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert in there) that went way beyond hummable pieces of fluff.
Bernstein, for his part, stuck largely to the orchestral world: conducting the New York Philharmonic for most of the 1960s, and spending the 70s as a guest conductor for some of the most exalted orchestras in the world. (He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, which is kind of like winning the Super Bowl ten years in a row.)
Bernstein also conducted a televised a series of Young People's concerts with the Philharmonic to indulge one of his passions: introducing kids to classical music. He eased out of that world as he grew older, but he never stopped composing or teaching.
Two geniuses, different sensibilities. Sondheim said of their collaboration:
"I learned a lot of things from Lenny, but the most important was philosophical and had to do with the whole idea of taking a chance, of not being afraid to fall from the highest rung of the ladder,'' Mr. Sondheim recalled. ''I had come from the other end of the telescope, in that my writing was exceedingly neat. I had never attempted to write highly stylized songs. Lenny's approach to music has always been to think big. The whole idea of writing arias for street kids who talked in a kind of poetry and also danced would never have occurred to me. Lenny's approach to music is about excess, and the errors we made in 'West Side' were those of excess. But Lenny's idea of going too far rather than not far enough I have found invaluable. (Source)
Bernstein died in 1990. Sondheim is still among the living as of mid-2016. West Side Story? Immortal.