West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim Essay

West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim Essay

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Musical theatre is a type of theatrical performance combining music, dance, acting and spoken dialogue. Written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, ‘West Side Story’ is a classic American musical based on William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The through-composed score and lyrics are used to portray different characters and their cultures, the rivalry between the Jets and Sharks, and the emotions felt as the story progresses. This essay will be exploring the music and how effective the score is in realising the world and characters of the musical. Furthermore, it will discuss how Bernstein and Sondheim relate characters’ diverse ethnicities to particular musical ideas and motifs.

In the opening prologue, Bernstein quickly establishes the tension between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks with the use of syncopated staccato major and minor third chords. This is intensified when the Jets start clicking their fingers in time to show unity within the gang. The upbeat to bar 12 marks the entry of the Jets’ leitmotif consisting of an octave jump, a falling minor 3rd, a falling major 3rd, and finally a falling augmented 4th.


Figure 1: The Jet’s Leitmotif (2000: 115)

This leitmotif is used throughout the musical and is even seen in ‘America’ which is the Puerto Rican’s comical song. This recurrent use of the same leitmotif keeps the audience focused on the conflict between the gangs through to the last note. The use of bitonality is another technique Bernstein uses to demonstrate the ongoing rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. In the opening of ‘Tonight (Ensemble)’, which is sung by both Americans and Puerto Ricans, the lower part of the orchestra are providing a steady bass line in E major, with the high...


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... (2000) The making of West Side Story. Ontario: Mosaic Press.

Herrera, B. (2012) Compiling West Side Story’s Parahistories, 1949-2009. The John Hopkins University Press. Volume 64, Number 2. (pp. 231-247).

Kennedy, M and J. (2007) Concise Dictionary of Music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Laurents, A. (2000) Leonard Bernstein West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Company LLC and Boosey & Hawkes.

Mason, K. (2011) “West Side Story”: 50 Years of Cinematic Magic. SBO Guest Editorial.

Simeone, N. (2009) Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Nash, P. (2009) The most beautiful sound I ever heard’: Liturgy, Religious Imagery and Symbolism in West Side Story. Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 19, (pp. 87–100)

Wells, E A. (2011) West Side Story Cultural Perspectives on an American musical. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

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