In the last century, two musicals have stood out from there comic counterparts. Les Miserables and West Side Story tell more serious stories and have captivated audiences with revivals and film versions. Both are based on classic literature, and share universal and relatable social problems. West Side Story created by Lenard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins tell the story of Romeo and Juliet in 1950s New York. Les Miserables by Composer Claude-Michael Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same title.
The atypical nature of both the musicals that has made them more than just a temporary cultural fad. Initially both musical were not received well and did not receive that same recognition as there lighthearted counterparts, but over there complete existence they have surpassed most other musicals in their ability affect audiences. West Side story Bernstein saw great potential in musical comedy and predicted a genius work of art to arise just as the Magic Flute by Mozart changed the 1750 singspiel.
Though not the next Mozart, Bernstein’s musicals Candide and West Side Story did broaden the genre, opening it up to serious and tragic tones. (Stemple 398) Lenard Bernstein was a conductor and composer and had previously worked with Jerome Robins on Fancy Free and on the Town. Eight years before, Robbins had an idea of a contemporary Romeo and Juliet story set in New York City because of rising tensions between catholic and Jewish communities. Bernstein soon became interested, especially about telling a tragic story with musical comedy elements.
Laurent soon joined them. During this time all their careers were on a rise and Herrera called the process of the Romeo Project “a formal experiment” for the three collaborators. After some time, Laurents and Bernstein ran into each other in a hotel and after hearing of an LA news headline “Gang Riots on Olvera Street” which was about of gang riots between Mexican Americans and White American; it sparked ideas for the Romeo Project. (Herrera 235) Robbins liked the new racial element and the new title changed to “East Side Story to Gangway. “the collaborators trolled for a social context in which the dramatic action could be both powerful and plausible and so seized upon two hot-button issues of their day”. Bernstein wrote “[l] have come up with what I think is going to be it: two teen-age gangs, one warring Puerto Rican, the other self-styled Americans. Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms ad pulses, and – most of all- I can sort of feel them form. ” (Herrera 236) When the musical opened on Broadway, its serious content wasn’t appreciated, but it gained more positive praise later as the show tour the nation and return to Broadway in 1959.
During the 1950s gangs were understood exclusively as racial groups of kids and “juvenile delinquents” were understood to be individual white kids who had gone astray. Both were seen as growing problems in American cities. New York in particular saw a significant post war population rise of Puerto Rican migrants. The post war economic boom created more affordable travel and people could now avoid air and boat travel previously inaccessible.
The New York Puerto Rican population doubled. For a largely segregated America, they were viewed as lower class immigrants and foreigners even though Puerto Rico is a United States province. Herrera 236) This I evident in the musical as the attitudes between the gangs and how the creators chose to show Puerto Rican life. This particularly brought critiques against how the show portrayed the Latino culture and Puerto Ricans. The story begins with an introduction of the two teenage gangs and their growing contempt for each other. There are clear parallels between Romeo and Juliet story. Tony and Maria meet at a dance and meet up afterward for a balcony scene. Both characters are associated with the gangs but not an active member.
The rumble is the ultimate down turn, Tony was originally avoiding all conflict and ends up vengefully killing Maria’s brother, who killed of one of his friends. Maria and Tony with the new pending retaliation, spend one night together and make plans to escape. However miscommunication puts Tony in a position to get shot. The musical diverges from the Shakespeare story by containing racial irony. Also Juliet ( Maria) remains alive to confront the social problem that crushed her love by facing both gangs in the final scene. Stemple 401) Shakespeare characters expresses themselves with poetics and words.
In West Side Story, dance and movement replace the teenagers’ words. Dance was incorporated throughout and often carried the narrative long. It illustrated the visceral actions and feelings of the gang members. The music is the foundation for movement with its “angular melodies, dissonant harmonies, and cross rhythms”. Bernstein gathered many different contemporary styles including Jazz “cool”, Latin “America”, and Stravinsky “A boy like that. ” Bernstein’s use of the tri-tone and half step became very famous.
He introduced it in Tony’s song “Something’s Coming” descending in the line “who knows” . After he meets Maria he sings her name “Maria” reshaping and answering the previous song. (Stemple 402) The dance and music are woven together stringing the musical and non-musical performances together, and sometimes replacing dialogue altogether. The musical starts with a prologue of only dancing. It introduced the two gangs and exhibits their growing rivalry. The movement is and an extension of the music and both are an extension of the characters’ conditions and narrative.
These are able to portray and connect the audience more effectively to the story than dialogue alone. Though not an opera the creators needed to address how it would relate to this previous art form. What musical and dramatic elements it would keep and what would be avoided? Bernstein wanted the characters to sing it from their heart “I don’t want pear-shaped tones”. However other songs shared similar structures to opera, like vocal polyphony of “tonight” and the melodic repetition in “Maria” (Stemple 405). Maria was going to sing a “mad aria” over Tony’s body but is was changed to spoken monologue.
The cold silence make the words ring in the audience’s ears. And every one is left with the tragic message. The particular nature in the creators’ artistry made it difficult for future revivals. However in 2009 efforts were made to put on West Side Story again but with revisions. This revival waned to equalize the gangs with the introductions of Spanish dialogue for the Puerto Rican characters. There had been only three revivals, but they were very close to the original and were not successful. This new one emphasized love.
LinManuel Miranda a young musical theater writer, whose parents were Puerto Rican immigrants wrote in the Spanish. (Herrera 239) Sondheim gave him freedom to create new Spanish imagery but the words need to rhyme for an English audience. Miranda recalled, “It was the hardest bilingual crossword puzzle I’ve ever done. ” Even though the original intentions were to only add Spanish, the show took on additional changes. Laurents said the Spanish “brought the theme-love can’t survive in a world of bigotry and violence-vividly to life with an emotional reality. (Herrera 240)
There was more emphasize on young infatuation and love, how love is a universal langue, and more dramatic flourishes by adding ad-libbed profanity among gang members. Song Analysis In the duet “Somewhere” which takes place after the rumble, Tony and Maria are together for the last time. Because of the Romeo and Juliet storyline, the audience is aware of this. This is the musicals most bittersweet moment. In the 1961 movie version, the song is sung in Maria’s bedroom with just the two main characters. However, on the revived stage version the room dissolves as Tony and Maria walk through a dream-like heaven world.
All the characters are on the stage dancing in white, Sharks with jets, and jets with Sharks. The stage becomes the “somewhere” that “we’ll find a new way of living”. The song now speaks to all of humankind. The initial state of disequilibrium is Tony and Maria cannot exist as a couple the way they want to, and the problem is broader social conflict. In addition, the “other” is not just Tony or Maria, the song is directed to all human conflict the separates people. The new interpretation with the full cast elevates the timeless message to all humankind.