Long before Winnipeg ever faced off against San Jose, the jets and sharks were rumbling in the streets of New York City in Leonard Bernstein’s masterful 1957 musical, West Side Story. Bernstein was one of the most prolific and well-known American composers and conductors of the twentieth century. He found critical acclaim quite young (his mid-twenties!) as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, an organization with which he would later achieve international fame as its music director. He has left behind an abundance of canonic works, though none have reached the pop cultural status of West Side Story.
West Side Story is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s unforgettable play, Romeo and Juliet, reworked to reflect the gritty reality of 1950s New York. Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the Jets and Sharks gangs, the former the established neighborhood gang, the latter a group of Puerto Rican newcomers. The roles of Romeo and Juliet of replaced by those of Tony and Maria. The largest break from Shakespeare comes in Maria’s survival – she lives to deliver a damning speech to both gangs, decrying their joint responsibility in Tony’s death.
The overture captures some of the most dramatic parts of the show and highlights Bernstein’s incredible integration of dance music. The opening rumble music has a brassy, primal quality to it that initially takes you by surprise! Luckily, Bernstein knows just when to introduce the theme from “Tonight” (the balcony duet music) in the strings to remind you that not everything will be so daunting. Bernstein then transitions to “Maria,” Tony’s hit number from the first act. The melody opens with the infamous tritone (the same two notes that open the Simpsons theme song!), which Bernstein uses thematically throughout the whole show. The end of the section features a stunning horn solo that will surely melt your heart. Following this, Bernstein gives us a taste of the mambo dance music that absolutely steals the first half of the show. The music allows for the combative rivalry between the two gangs to manifest in an all-out dance off to the mambo’s exciting Latin rhythms. The overture progressively builds to a whirlwind finale that will leave you certain that West Side Story will feature at your next family move night!
Bernstein’s other monumental stage work is his comic operatta (little opera) Candide. Though the performance history of the show is littered with rewrites and turnover in the creative team, Candide has remained a staple in opera houses, due largely to Bernstein’s musical brilliance. The story is taken from a book of the same name by the eighteenth-century French philosopher, Voltaire, in which he rebukes the optimism of earlier thinkers. The character of Candide travels around the world before returning to his home and deciding, alongside his love Cunegonde, to take his future happiness into his own hands.
The Candide overture is ingenious for its insertion of thematic snippets into a classic sonata structure. Bernstein opens with a brash fanfare, designed to ensnare the attention of everyone in the hall. He then flies into a run of tunes from the show that are too numerous to list. This jukebox theme is followed by a more lyrical section that features Candide and Cunegonde’s love duet, “Oh Happy We.” This melody beautifully captures the initial optimism and naivete of the lovers and is delightfully playful! After an extended rendition of the duet melody, Bernstein brings in music from what is undoubtedly the most famous song in the whole show, “Glitter and be Gay.” Sung by Cunegonde at the end of act one, the song can be praised equally for its theatricality and vocal acrobatics. The section quoted in the overture is an exuberant display of coloratura (many fast notes in a row), punctuated by jumps up to the stratosphere of the singer’s range. This energy is not lost in the orchestral version and is sure to have your toes tapping by the end. The overture finishes in a truly romantic opera fashion, rising to a cacophony of instrumental bravado. If I may be ‘candide,’ it certainly won’t disappoint!