How the arts open our minds and our hearts.

It seems altogether fitting that we close out this season with a performance of the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s fabled “West Side Story” – our own “American” version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” – fresh on the heels of our performances in February of both Sergei Prokofiev and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music based on the same story.

West Side Story was indeed a groundbreaking Broadway production that included a “Dream Team” of creative talent: music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and produced by Hal Prince.

Bernstein integrated ethnic Puerto Rican dance rhythms and motifs into his score which, up to that point, was probably one of the most difficult Broadway shows to play as a musician. 

Taking the story of the Montagues and the Capulets, and setting it down in West Side New York City – changing the antagonists from patrician and wealthy feuding families to blue collar Irish Catholics at odds with the most recent “immigrants” into their turf, the Puerto Ricans made the story come alive for a new generation of audience who could actually identify with the characters being portrayed on the stage.

West Side Story became a “Morality” play for a generation – speaking of social issues such as acceptance, tolerance, and the “Dream of America” – whether it should be for everyone, or just those who were already here.

But then, Broadway has always used the stage as a “bully pulpit” – the numerous shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein illuminated many social issues, such as date rape, (Oklahoma), wife beating, (Carousel), inter-racial relationships, (South Pacific), and even Nazis, (The Sound of Music).

Kalmen Opperman

Kalmen Opperman

I was only one or two years old when West Side Story was running on Broadway.  My future clarinet teacher, Kalmen Opperman played in the original orchestra!   I remember my Mother saying that she and my Dad went on a trip to New York City and saw West Side Story on Broadway.   In fact, I remember her saying they didn’t really like it at the time!

It was after all, a very different and “gritty” Broadway show – a polar opposite from the Rodgers and Hammerstein productions that people were used to.   Its depiction of life in the tenements and slums of the lower West Side, together with the sometimes loud and dissonant music depicting gang fights was a culture shock to many people from the nice suburbs in the countryside.

In fact, although West Side Story was nominated for a number of Tony awards in its first year on Broadway, the award for Best Show went to “The Music Man” that year.   Moreover, Columbia Records initially declined to produce the original cast recording, saying it was “too depressing and difficult!”

In the end, both my parents, and countless millions in succeeding generations now love West Side Story, and it will stand forever as one of the greatest and most innovative shows in the musical theater – and yes, it remains for us as a “morality” play and musical civic lesson as we still continue the dialogue on the “American Dream” and the “melting pot” that has made America great.

At Claflin Hill, we’re all relishing the opportunity to “dig into” Lenny Bernstein’s masterful score and share it with you, as we continue our musical journey and exploration, bringing to culmination another amazing season right here in Our Town.

Paul Surapine