The Story Behind the Music: Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story

West Side Story, one of the most iconic musicals in American history, has captivated audiences for over half a century. The story of the tragic romance between Tony and Maria, set against the backdrop of rival New York City street gangs, has become a cultural touchstone, inspiring countless adaptations, parodies, and homages. But while most people are familiar with the show’s unforgettable songs and thrilling dance numbers, not everyone knows the story behind the music.

That’s where music educators come in. As teachers, we have a unique opportunity to not only introduce students to the magic of West Side Story, but to help them understand and appreciate the work of the creative team behind it. Specifically, we can teach students about the two men who were responsible for the musical’s unforgettable score: composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Bernstein was already a celebrated composer and conductor when he was approached to write the music for West Side Story in the late 1950s. He had made a name for himself as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and had composed several popular works, including the musical scores for On the Town and Candide. For West Side Story, he drew on his love of jazz, blues, and Latin music to create a vibrant, eclectic score that is still beloved by audiences today.

Meanwhile, Sondheim was a young and relatively unknown lyricist when he was asked to work on West Side Story. He had previously contributed songs to several Broadway shows, but West Side Story was his first major success. Drawing on his background in musical theory, he crafted lyrics that were both poetic and dramatically effective, capturing the angst and passion of the show’s young characters.

Together, Bernstein and Sondheim created a score that not only perfectly matched the show’s story and characters, but also pushed the boundaries of what was possible in a Broadway musical. Songs like “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere” have become iconic, not just for their tuneful melodies and clever lyrics, but for their ability to express complex emotions and ideas through music.

So, how can we help our students appreciate the work of these two remarkable artists? One way is to use examples from West Side Story to illustrate different musical concepts. For example, we might play the opening of “Jet Song” to demonstrate the use of syncopation, or discuss how “America” incorporates elements of Latin music into its melody and rhythm. We could also encourage students to explore other works by Bernstein and Sondheim, such as their collaborations on the musicals Company and A Little Night Music.

Another approach is to place West Side Story in its historical context. The show debuted in 1957, a time of great social and political upheaval in the United States. By portraying the tensions and conflicts between the Jets and the Sharks, the show was commenting on issues of race, identity, and prejudice that were very much present in American society. By helping students understand the show’s larger cultural significance, we can deepen their appreciation for the music that brought it to life.

Ultimately, teaching students about the people behind West Side Story can help us foster a greater appreciation for the power of musical storytelling. By understanding the work of artists like Bernstein and Sondheim, students can learn to listen more deeply, to appreciate the nuances of melody and lyric, and to see how music can be used to explore complex human emotions and ideas. Who knows? One day, they may even create their own musical masterpieces that capture the imagination of audiences around the world. 

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