On September 26, 1957, West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein, opens at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. For the groundbreaking musical, Bernstein provided a propulsive and rhapsodic score that many celebrate as his greatest achievement as a composer. However, even without the triumph of West Side Story, Bernstein’s place in musical history was firmly established. In addition to his work as a composer, the “Renaissance man of music” excelled as a conductor, a concert pianist, and a teacher who brought classical music to the masses.
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1918, Bernstein began piano lessons at his own insistence when he was 10. He immediately demonstrated an instinctive talent for music and by age 12 was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. He studied piano and composition at Harvard but was encouraged by the American composer Aaron Copland and others to become a conductor after they observed Bernstein’s intuitive grasp of classical music and his unusual ability to play complex orchestral scores on the piano.
He studied conducting with Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky and in 1943 was hired as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic. In the history of the orchestra, no assistant had been called on to conduct, but on November 14 fate smiled on Bernstein when guest conductor Bruno Walter fell ill. The night before, Bernstein had heard a singer perform one of his compositions and then, in typical Bernstein fashion, had stayed up late drinking and playing piano at the post-recital party. With three hours of sleep, a hangover, and no rehearsal, Bernstein was asked to conduct a complex program of Schumann, Strauss, Rosza, and Wagner that was going to broadcast from Carnegie Hall across the nation by CBS radio. The concert was a sensational success, and The New York Times published a front-page article the next day announcing the arrival of a great new conducting talent.
For the rest of his life, Bernstein was an internationally sought-after conductor. He toured the world many times over and in 1953 became the first American to conduct at La Scala in Milan, Italy’s foremost opera house. He had an animated and flamboyant style, and on more than one occasion Bernstein actually fell off his conducting podium in his enthusiasm. A respected classical pianist, he sometimes conducted from the piano stool. Charismatic and good looking, Bernstein was a popular idol known to people who never listened to classical music.
Refusing to restrict himself to conducting, he composed acclaimed symphonies, operas, and scores for ballets. He was also deeply interested in American popular music, and jazz influences can be found in many of his classical pieces. His best-known works were for Broadway, and the musicals he composed include On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), and West Side Story (1957).
For West Side Story, a reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transposed onto New York’s West Side, Bernstein worked with the brilliant choreographer Jerome Robbins and the lyricist Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story tells the tale of a love affair between Tony, who is Polish American, and Maria, a Puerto Rican, set against an urban background of interracial warfare. With its gritty story and volatile dance sequences, West Side Story was the antithesis of traditional American musicals. Bernstein’s exhilarating, semi-operatic score runs throughout the play and keeps the tension and emotion high.
When it opened on September 26, 1957, West Side Story received a mixed critical response. Debuting one day after the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, the musical’s story of racial conflict was discomfiting to some. West Side Story won just two Tony Awards, for choreography and set design, but made an impressive maiden run of 732 performances. In 1961, a film version starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer was an enormous hit, and took home 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The stage version of West Side Story was soon revived, and the musical is still performed today.
Leonard Bernstein was also a talented educator who taught America about classical music with the television programs Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts. In 1973, he was invited to Harvard to lecture on linguistics and music. He died in 1990 at the age of 72.