Today we will be listening to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, who conducts the NY Philharmonic in a 1976 live performance of his own composition.
West Side Story is arguably the most notable landmark in all of American theater. It took Broadway by storm in 1957, then conquered the silver screen with ease. West Side Story fused the American musical tradition in all of its variety with European theater forms and a Shakespearean love-story theme. It was original, relatable, and lovable.
In 1960, Bernstein decided to capitalize on the popularity of West Side Story and wrote the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. As conductor of world-famous NY Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein was in the perfect position to further publicize his famous musical.
The set of dances is essentially a condensed version of the full musical. The Prologue describes the rivalry between the Jet gang and the Shark gang. It is followed by Somewhere, which describes a dream in which the two gangs develop a friendship. Third is a Scherzo in which the dream continues and takes the gangs out of the city and into a sunlit field. The Mambo showcases the dancing competition between the gangs. Cha-cha is when Tony and Maria – the Romeo and Juliet of the story – see each other for the first time. In Meeting Scene, the lovers speak their first words to one another. The Cool Fugue is an elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets show off their moves. In Rumble, the two gang leaders are killed. The work finishes with a Finale love song sung by Maria.