SoundReels: Dancing With The Devil In Leonard Bernstein's Score For 'West Side Story'

Aug 1, 2018

Even if you’ve never seen the 1957 hit musical West Side Story, I'll bet you can hum the tune from "Tonight," "Maria," "America" or any number of the show's signature songs and dance pieces on command.

West Side Story is just that iconic, and Leonard Bernstein's music for the show has taken root just that deeply in American culture.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein's birthday, the score for the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story is the focus of this episode of SoundReels, Classical 101’s film music podcast.

Soundtrack: Amazon | ArkivMusic

Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the film adaptation of West Side Story took 10 Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Music Scoring for a Motion Picture.

Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin scored Bernstein's music for West Side Story.

You might think Tony and Maria are the lead characters in West Side Story, but as the saying goes, and as we'll see in this episode of SoundReels, the devil is in the details — of the musical score.

Set in New York City, West Side Story plays out the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet between Tony, a first-generation Polish-American, and Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant.

The lovers inhabit opposite sides of an ethnic and cultural divide embodied by two warring street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.

The very first two notes of Bernstein's music for the film adaptation of West Side Story warn of this division and trouble ahead.

Those two notes outline the interval called a tritone, which divides the octave in half. Because of its evil and volatile sound, Medieval music theorists called the tritone "the devil in music."

You can hear the tritone at the very beginning of the film's opening scene:

Throughout the film, and on every level of the score, this musical divider represents the division between the Jets and the Sharks and — despite their better efforts — between Tony and Maria that plays out as dramatic conflict to tragic effect.

In Tony's love aria "Maria," the tritone appears on the first two syllables of Maria's name (at minute 3:04 into the clip):

The tritone also shows up at the beginning of the song "Cool," which Ice sings to his fellow Jets after a rumble that runs violently amok:

And — spoiler alert! — the tritone makes its way into Tony and Maria's love duet "Somewhere" at the end of the film, after the story turns tragic.

Join me and co-host Jon Sherman, associate professor of film at Kenyon College, for this episode of SoundReels and meet the devil face-to-face in Bernstein's dramatic, award-winning score for West Side Story.

Enjoy more episodes of SoundReels here, and listen to even more great film music during the Summer Festival of American Film Music on The American Sound, Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on Classical 101.