When Was The Last Time You Listened To 'West Side Story'?

Image: Jason Hickey

Week after week, I share my preferred recordings of the pieces I write about, and more often than not, they’re recordings by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein from the 1960s. But rarely do I go into Bernstein himself, the seminal composer, conductor, pianist, lecturer, etc. (this is a BIG et cetera, not a LAZY one — he really did do just about everything), who died a mere six months before I was born.

But who was Bernstein, really? Beyond the “Lenny” that seemingly every account of him refers to him as. Bernstein was born to a middle-class family in Massachusetts in August of 1918 (another Virgo!). He went to Harvard for his undergraduate (where he first met one of his significant mentors and friends, Aaron Copland), then the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. From there he worked in Boston for a time before going to New York City, where he took on the role of assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic, eventually conducting the orchestra well before he turned 30. 30 under 30, baby!!!!

From there, Bernstein had almost too illustrious a career to go widely in-depth in this space. He was a figure of public admiration, always straddling the line between full-on genius and relatable guy next door. His Young People’s Concerts are on Youtube and very pleasant to watch, even if you do not identify as a young person. Also here is another good video:

And so: I’ve had Bernstein bouncing around my consciousness for the past couple of weeks, partially because he was (sort of) the subject of this very silly story and partially because last week I went to go see West Side Story for the first time (! leave me alone) on the big screen at a 70mm festival in Chicago.

Young Socialites Conjure the Ghost of Leonard Bernstein at the Dakota

I first learned about Bernstein through this making-of documentary that used to air on PBS, which I was also eventually required to watch in my high-school composition class. Bernstein in his later years was a simultaneously fascinating and terrifying character to me as a kid. Bernstein is harsh but not unkind, stern and direct. He knows what he’s looking for in every single song and he’s out to get it. This clip of him working with José Carreras is telling. This is, for a few reasons, considered the “official” recording of the musical. It’s more operatic and complex. It’s also the only official version that Bernstein himself conducted.

Have you listened to West Side Story lately? I would wager: no. It’s okay if you haven’t! I know there’s a new Calvin Harris album out seemingly every single week of the summer. But that goes for me as well. It enters and exits my subconscious every other year or so. I was lucky enough to play from it in high school, but rather than serve as a member of a pit orchestra, I played Bernstein’s adaptation of the score in his symphonic dances. Remember symphonic dances? Composite pieces, mostly upbeat, following a theme or sharing a narrative? They rule.

Listening to the Symphonic Dances From West Side Story (original from 1961) is also a good opportunity to appreciate what Bernstein was doing with the score. I know, I know, we love the Sondheim lyrics. They’re great! But there’s a magic to this score. I barely have words to even describe it. It’s light and — I’m trying not to exaggerate but — transcendent. There’s both a symphonic majesty to it, as well as managing to take everything we like about jazz except jazz itself. (Just kidding!! I like jazz. Leave me alone.) I’m partial to the deep musicality of the Cool, Fugue (what a title!).

Obviously the “Cool” sequence in the movie is legendary, but because it is so — sorry — cool (we all know that they’d cast a Hemsworth as this guy in 2017, right?), it’s easy to lose the musical balancing act of it. The vibes! The piano! The fricking BRASS! The symphonic dances are essentially one big brag: look at how good my music is that I stripped it down to make it more obvious. But it works, also! Bernstein was always all about this mix of high and low art. Making something deeply complex and occasionally strange that also felt accessible to any old idiot who liked good songs (me).

In the event that you can’t make it to a beautiful 70mm screening of West Side Story or music that has lyrics distracts you too much at work, take some time to revisit Bernstein’s work in the Symphonic Dances just to soak in all of Lenny-ness. Plus I’m pretty sure it’s easier than trying to hold a seance.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.