So when, in the '80s, he had the chance to make a recording of the score, it must have felt like Christmas. Bernstein could handpick singers who could really sing his music — and not have to worry about acting or dancing.
From the start, the project came under fire for some of the casting decisions which, granted, would have been ludicrous in a staged version.
He chose opera singers for the major roles — unsurprisingly because the music in West Side Story is hard, musically and vocally.
We can see that difficulty in some of the awkward documentary footage shot during the recording sessions (below). Some of the world's best singers struggle to get it right.
But we also get to see the energy and connection Bernstein had with his musicians. Under Bernstein's baton, the orchestra was electric.
As in the classic film version, though, it's Anita who really steals the show in this recording. Tatiana Troyanos gives a searing performance of "A Boy Like That" that really stays with you.
Check out the documentary, in which Troyanos tells of growing up on the West Side of New York City:
Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online.