The genesis of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece West Side Story stretches back to 1949. Jerome Robbins suggested Bernstein write a modern day version of Romeo and Juliet, with Catholics and Jews in Manhatten's East Side replacing the Montagues and Capulets. The project was delayed and re-appeared in 1956 with the two warring factions now the American 'Jets' and immigrant Peurto Rican 'Sharks'. The change of characters required a change in location; West Side Story was born.
A further delay caused by Bernstein's operetta Candide meant that work did not begin 'till 1957, the composer convinced that nothing else would interfere: "It's going too well now to let it drop again."
The first performance was given on 19 August 1957 in Washington D.C and was a huge success. As Bernstein noted the following day: "I am proud and honored to be a part of it." The show opened on Broadway on 26 September.
A film version of West Side Story was released in 1961, directed by Robert Wise. One of the greatest film musicals, it received 10 Academy Awards, and, unlike On the Town, kept Bernstein's score virtually unchanged.
No doubt in anticipation of the film's success, Bernstein extracted a suite of Symphonic Dances from the score, orchestrated with the assistance of Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. They were first performed on 13 February 1961 and remain a huge favourite with orchestras and audiences.
From the beautiful harmonies of Somewhere, and the mysterious and jazzy Prologue, to the energy and exuberance of Mambo, the Symphonic Dances are a thrilling introduction to a great musical.
Born in Lawrence, Massachussetts, Leonard Bernstein studied piano and composition at Harvard University before enroling at the Curtis Institute in 1939. However it was at Tanglewood summer school that he was to meet one of his most significant influences, conductor Serge Koussevitsky. From 1942 on he acted as Koussevitsky's assistant, and by this time conducting had become a focus for his driving ambition. After replacing an indisposed Bruno Walter at short notice, Bernstein's conducting career took off, with engagements in Boston and Philadelphia leading to offers from around the world.
A parallel career as a composer was cemented by the performance of his First Symphony (Jeremiah) in 1944, along with the ballet Fancy Free, the first of many stage works. Bernstein used the same scenario of sailors on shore leave for his first Broadway show, On the Town, which ran for 463 performances. In 1957 Bernstein's West Side Story hit the stage, and the ensuing film made it his most popular work. Its blending of new musical techniques with popular and jazz stylings mirrored both the efforts of "Third Stream" composers and jazz artists such as Miles Davis.
Bernstein was a great musical educator, giving many televised lectures structured to appeal to the younger generation, and promoting much work by new composers. He also returned to Tanglewood summer school to encourage new talent. In addition he was commited to reviving the music of Gustav Mahler, whose mix of sincerity and irony he was ideally suited to conducting.
After the wild successes of the previous decades, Bernstein's later years provided fewer satisfying compositions. However, his conducting career continued up to his death in 1990, giving concerts in Berlin the previous year to mark the fall of the Berlin wall.