Francesca Zambello and Steven Reineke’s Notes on West Side Story, Staged for the Concert Hall
In February 2018, WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello directs Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical in a production staged for the unique experience of the Concert Hall, with a full cast of more than 20 dazzling performers including members of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. NSO Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke leads the National Symphony Orchestra in the performance.
Today, it seems incredible that Leonard Bernstein could have written West Side Story, an up-to-the-minute commentary on gang warfare in New York City, concurrently with Candide an operetta based on political satire by Voltaire. Yet both pieces, in their way, struggle with timeless ideals that are at the heart of the American project: the idea that we are all created equal, and with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The human struggle to honor these ideals plays out in both pieces. In West Side Story, discord between native-born Americans and recent immigrants leads to tragedy, but its most famous song is an anthem of true optimism, a belief in a world – “Somewhere” – where each person has a place, each person has a home. Later this spring, at Washington National Opera, Candide will ultimately offer a similar message of hope, a message wrapped in a challenge to “Make Our Garden Grow.”
Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year, left a wealth of great music for the stage and concert hall. But if we simply enjoy the tunes, we are missing the point. Bernstein devoted his life not only to art, but also to advocacy, education, and the responsibilities of citizenship. May his legacy inspire us to do the same.
For more than 60 years, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story has captivated the minds and hearts of audiences worldwide. As a huge fan of this work personally, I’ve often contemplated why it’s so enduring. Certainly one reason is its timeless tale of forbidden love inspired by Shakespeare’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet. Another reason is the remarkable score created by Bernstein, music that will stand the test of time and somehow never feel old or dated. His infectious melodies, complex rhythms, and jazz-infused harmonies from this score have been performed in many different arrangements by a vast array of performers in just about every genre: from symphony concert halls to Broadway stages, opera houses, jazz clubs, concert and marching bands, and the Academy Award–winning motion picture adaptation.
Some of the credit must also be given to the genius of lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as well as Bernstein’s co-orchestrators, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. However, when the piece is experienced as a whole, ultimately I believe it touches us so deeply because it shines a mirror on each and every one of us to make us think about how we treat each other as fellow human beings. It exposes our prejudices and preconceived ideas about one race or class versus another, a dangerous cancer on the human race that I fear won’t be cured anytime soon. It was an issue Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim contemplated decades ago… “Somehow, Someday, Somewhere.” To honor Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, I implore each of us as individuals to begin “Here, Now, and Compassionately.”