Why West Side Story is so timely now

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This summer, the world is paying tribute to a singular artistic genius: Leonard Bernstein, who was born 100 years ago on 25 August. There are thousands of events taking place across the globe to mark the centenary of the man who created such iconic works as West Side Story, Candide and On the Town – not to mention dizzying amounts of symphonies, choral and instrumental works, ballet, opera, chamber music, pioneering television programmes, books, lecture series and even a film score (Elia Kazan’s 1954 On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando).

His genius was fuelled by an enormous humanity coupled with his acutely empathic intelligence

At Bernstein’s beloved Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a place that played a formative role in his musical and personal development, the centenary celebration is host to a glittering gala featuring everyone from Broadway legend Audra McDonald to composer John Williams and superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Meanwhile other birthday celebrations are taking place in New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Japan, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Israel – and beyond. Truly, the musical world has never seen his equal and likely never will again.

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Why all the fanfare? To sum up Bernstein’s genius is impossible, but it’s fair to say his range of achievements are unique in cultural history. He grew up in a Jewish family in Boston with no musical background whatsoever: he was 10 years old when a chance encounter with his aunt Clara’s shonky old piano set him on his path. (“From that moment on,” he later said, “I knew that music was to be my life.”)

As a conductor he was, notably, the first homespun American boy really to hit the classical heights, the war having prevented him from studying in Europe as all US conductors had been obliged to do previously. From the moment of his legendary professional debut aged 25, in 1943, when he stepped in at zero notice for ailing maestro Bruno Walter to conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, his work with the world’s top orchestras duly set alight music from Haydn to Mahler, from Bartok to Stravinsky.

As a composer, his Broadway masterpieces stood shoulder to shoulder with refined classical works. His career as a leading concert pianist took him to the world’s most esteemed stages, but it also sat alongside monumental achievements in broadcasting, music education and the humanitarian sector. Harvard lecturer; bestselling author; social celebrity: Leonard Bernstein’s multi-faceted, multi-platform life could give any millennial ‘multi-hyphenate’ a run for her money.

I was present at a celebratory BBC Proms performance of West Side Story recently. This is the work that perhaps more than any other made the creatively bountiful Bernstein’s name, exemplifying as it does his curiosity about all sorts of music including classical, jazz, folk, blues and klezmer (he was also obsessed with The Beatles). As other American 20th Century musical giants veered towards more modernist modes, his music remained unashamedly and unapologetically tonal, and he found a way to blend seemingly disparate elements like a master musical mixologist. He also had an unerring knack for drama; late in life he remarked: “I have a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theatre music in some way.”

His music exhibits a gigantic humanity coupled with acutely empathic intelligence. For various reasons the Proms offering of West Side Story had to be what is known as a ‘concert performance’ rather than a full staging. And perhaps it was this – the work stripped bare of its phenomenal Jerome Robbins choreography and Arthur Laurents book, allowing Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to shine apart – that made me hear, thunderstruck, this overfamiliar moment from Act 2 entirely anew:

When love comes so strong
There is no right or wrong
Your love is your life

A few weeks previously I’d watched weeping as somebody close to me wed his beloved long-term girlfriend. He happens to be a Welsh boy of no particular faith. She happens to be a Muslim girl from Karachi via Britain. After years of deliberating about what they should do, of waiting and wondering, of attempting to pave the way for a shared future, they had decided the time was now: they wanted to be together forever. Your love, after all, is your life. Despite her best efforts to reconcile her family to her relationship, at the news of her engagement her father had immediately cut her off: there was not a single member of her enormous extended family to watch her walk down that aisle. It was a beautiful summer day tinged with sadness – and, it felt to me, madness.

From West Side Story I learned about tragedy, and love, and sex – Cynthia Zarin

Perhaps that is why those lines in the song, which takes place between the characters Maria – the Puerto Rican heroine of West Side Story who has fallen in love with Polish-American Tony – and her friend Anita, struck me so forcibly. The musical first appeared on Broadway in 1957. I wish it were not the case that it remains so desperately relevant today. Earlier in that very same number, Anita sings:

Forget that boy and find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind!

Bernstein would have known as acutely as anyone what it felt like to be told ‘forget that boy’: although he married the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre in 1951, had three children and was by all accounts a terrifically dedicated father and family man, he also wrestled all his adult life with his sexuality. As revealed in the book The Leonard Bernstein Letters, published in 2013, not long after their wedding Felicia wrote to him: “…You are a homosexual and may never change….” Touchingly, she went on: “I am willing to accept you as you are”. Many others would not be so tolerant.

But oh, what a thing it would be if we could look back at West Side Story as a sort of quirky artefact from history and say: wow, look, what insanity it was once the case that two human beings should be denied the chance to be together merely by dint of their religion, or the colour of their skin, or their cultural background, or their gender; in other words by being “not of the same kind”. Instead, in 2018, as the world heads in ever more divisive directions, the tragic central premise of West Side Story – a work based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was itself based on a 1562 translation of an epic Italian poem called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet and is itself part of a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity – has never seemed more prescient.

Poet Cynthia Zarin recalled in The New Yorker recently: “From West Side Story I learned about tragedy, and love and sex – there were broken hearts all over the place, like broken glass – and the idea that things can go very, very wrong, in an instant, but that the most important thing in the world was that we all learned to get along.” Over 60 years later, and 100 since the legend that is ‘Lenny’ was born, I can’t help but feel it is our collective human tragedy that we still have not learned how to do that.

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