Number 57 – West Side Story and Leonard Bernstein

When I was little Ed Ragozzino would produce a musical every summer.  I remember listening to the cast recordings on cassettes in our car all summer to get ready for the production.  They were quite amazing for a little town like Eugene to produce.  One of my favorites was West Side Story.  I remember asking my mom who the good guys were – the Sharks or the Jets. She said there were no good guys, or bad guys in West Side Story.  This blew my little brain right out of the water.  I knew that I loved Anita and her feistiness, but I think I figured Bernardo and the Sharks were bad guys since Tony (my hero) was a Jet.  This was a story where the antagonist was a situation, not a person.  That might just be what makes this story so beautiful and believable (I know that most of the credit goes to Shakespeare for this one…).

This year at the Oregon Bach Festival there was a concert of Bernstein’s musical works narrated by his daughter Jamie.  Jamie told some lovely stories about her father and about how West Side Story came to be.  The most interesting to me was that Bernstein had the idea some years before he actually wrote the musical.  At the time there were intense gang wars between Jews and Catholics on the upper East side. When he got around to writing it, the East side gangs were gone but some Italian and Puerto Rican gangs were fighting on the upper West side.  Not only did this change the title of the show, but it also gave Bernstein the fodder he needed to begin writing the music.  Now he had direction for the two gang’s musical styles – upbeat jazz for the Jets, sultry mambo for the Sharks.

When I was in high school I got to see Bernstein’s Mass.  This was a life changer for me.  I remember sitting in the audience, very aware of how beautiful and genius the music was.  I don’t recall any of the music or melodies, but I do recall the feeling I had.  People say that Leonard Bernstein was one of – if not the most – influential composer of the 20th century.  I couldn’t say whether or not that’s true, but I can say that he is one of my absolute favorites.

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Filed under People, People I wish I could have known, Things, Things I love

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