Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" is widely considered one of the best musical scores ever written.

In Bernstein's groundbreaking 1957 score, he combined jazz, Latin and symphonic music in masterful new ways for this story of gang warfare and doomed love — one of the most memorable musicals of all time.

"It still sounds new today," said Akron Symphony Orchestra Music Director Christopher Wilkins, quoting famed composer Stephen Schwartz's comment about "West Side Story's" blend of musical styles.

Wilkins spoke this month at an Akron Symphony Guild event at Wolf Creek Tavern in advance of the orchestra's performance of "West Side Story" at 8 p.m. May 4, which will be performed in concert version at E.J. Thomas Hall at the University of Akron. The concert is a continuation of the centennial celebration of Bernstein's birth.

In this concert version featuring the complete musical score, there will be no staging or dancing. "West Side Story's" cast of 40 will be led by Northeast Ohio-based performers Connor Bogart O'Brien and Trinidad Snider as Tony and Anita and Puerto Rican soprano Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez as Maria.

In Bernstein's music, rhythms, chords and colors clash in new and masterful ways to bring to life ethnic strife and gang violence in this famous musical. Conversely, his score also soars with an open-hearted lyricism in the romantic symphonic tradition.

"West Side Story," whose lyrics were written by then-27-year-old Stephen Sondheim, features song favorites including "Tonight,'' "America," "Maria," "I Feel Pretty" and "Somewhere."

The opening chords of the original Broadway show are a mix of major and minor chords, played at the same time.

"This is dissonance. These are intervals that don't go together in 'nice' music, right? It dirties things up," Wilkins said. "But it's also just an extended language of jazz, in a lot of ways."

In Bernstein's eclectic score, he starts the story's dance at the gym by channeling an early 19th century formal quadrille, in which the girls circle on the inside and the boys on the outside. When the music stops and dance partners are supposed to pair up, the Sharks and Jets scramble to dance with their own kind.

Soon, the dance features Bernstein's blend of Latin jazz, Latin rhythm and Latin popular music that explodes with the mambo. It's a sort of dance-off between the Puerto Rican-American Sharks and Polish-American Jets that foreshadows violence to come later. 

"What's extraordinary about the score to 'West Side Story' is the way that it captures an exuberant moment in American history. It's sort of this breaking of racial barriers or racial taboos and musical taboos," Wilkins said.

What many people may not know is that choreographer Jerome Robbins, who conceived the original story, wanted to create a tale in the tradition of "Romeo and Juliet" that put a Lower East Side Jewish family in opposition with a Catholic family. That draft of the story by book writer Arthur Laurents was called "East Side Story."

Then, when violence among Chicano gangs in Los Angeles made headlines in the mid-1950s, the musical's creators discussed changing it to opposing groups from Harlem and the West Side. Finally, the creators settled on midtown Puerto Rican and white gangs from the neighborhood that now surrounds Lincoln Center.

In this heavy dance musical, directed and choreographed by Robbins, much of the story is told through music and dance. As a result, the book by Laurents is one of the shortest books in Broadway history, Wilkins said.

Here are some other interesting "West Side Story" facts:

• An early title for the show was "Gangway." "The title was a problem from the beginning,'' Wilkins said.

• Getting funding for a musical about gang warfare was an uphill battle. Akronite Cheryl Crawford, the show's original producer, pulled out of the project just two months before rehearsals were scheduled to start. She was replaced by producers Hal Prince and Robert Griffith.

• The original cast album was recorded just three days after "West Side Story's" Broadway opening Sept. 26, 1957, and released in October. "They wanted to sell while the show was hot,'' Wilkins said.

• For the Jets' signature, tri-tone whistle, used as a gathering call, Bernstein was inspired by the Jewish ceremonial blowing of the shofar in temple.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.