Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 80
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published August 23, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Juliet Appears Above, At A Window" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Eric Engler, the Summer News Operations Intern at NPR in Washington, from Sheryl Cannady at the Library of Congress, and from Jono O'Neill at Yellow Bean Studios in Leicester, England.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: Romeo stands beneath Juliet’s window and speaks.
[CLIP from West Side Story]
TONY: Maria, Maria...
TONY: Come down.
MARIA: Please. If Bernardo—
TONY: He's at the dance. Come down.
MARIA: He will soon bring Anita home.
TONY: Just for a minute.
MARIA: A minute is not enough.
TONY: For an hour then.
MARIA: I cannot.
TONY: Then I'm coming up.
WOMAN'S VOICE [from the offstage apartment]: Maria!
MARIA: Momentito, Mama...
MICHAEL WITMORE: Of course it’s not Romeo and Juliet, but all of us know it really is.
[MUSIC] From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director.
That of course was the scene on the fire escape from West Side Story, the 1957 smash Broadway hit adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, written and created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. Next year, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. To honor his legacy, we’ve decided to take a close look at the creation of West Side Story, Bernstein’s most significant contribution to the world of Shakespeare, which as you’ll hear, was originally titled, Romeo.
To help us out, we’ve invited in two guests with extensive knowledge of Bernstein. Mark Horowitz is archivist for the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress, nearly 400,000 items including music manuscripts, letters, photographs, audio and video recordings, fan mail, and even some of the maestro’s old batons. Nigel Simeone has produced two books on Bernstein. In 2009, he wrote Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story, and in 2013, he edited The Leonard Bernstein Letters. We call this podcast “Juliet Appears Above, at a Window.” Nigel and Mark are interviewed by Neva Grant.
[CLIP: the orchestra plays the opening bars of West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty”]
GRANT: We know that the plot of West Side Story is by no means a carbon copy of Romeo and Juliet, but when you look at West Side Story, how much of a Shakespeare connection do you see? And let’s start with you, Mark.
HOROWITZ: You’ve got the two main themes of this love story and the feud, but you’ve also got these very specific moments that are echoed or almost exact. You’ve got the street fights, you’ve got the murders. It is the plot, it is the story.
GRANT: And Nigel?
SIMEONE: Very much so, and of course one of the most famous scenes in West Side Story, of course, is the balcony scene, which is one of the closest things to be modeled on the original. But of course you’ve also got families, or the gangs in this case, meeting together right near the beginning and so on. So there are very clear parallels there, that obviously were the thing that inspired the whole thing.
GRANT: And Nigel, it seems that the original idea for West Side Story came from Jerome Robbins, who was of course the choreographer as well as the director of West Side Story.
SIMEONE: Yes, indeed. But actually, in terms of the Shakespeare element of it, in some ways the most important figure in all of this is the man who wrote the book, Arthur Laurents. And he was the one who you know, came to the first meeting that they had and said, “Well, look, here’s an outline. What are you guys going to do it to turn this into a musical?”
GRANT: But walk us back if you would, I mean how did Robbins come up with the idea?
SIMEONE: Well, he was a great friend of an actor called Montgomery Clift, and they worked together at the Actors Studio, I think in 1947. And Clift was having some sort of problem getting inside the role of Romeo, and Jerry said, “Look, let’s try this thing as a modern story, you know, imagine this is now.” Now that was two years before they first met to talk about this, before Jerry and Bernstein, who had known each other for ages, and Arthur Laurents got together. So the spark was lit with that encounter with Montgomery Clift and trying one scene as a kind of you know, Romeo as if he was a New Yorker in the late 1940s, as it then was. And I think that’s what gave Robbins the idea for something that could go a lot further.
GRANT: And as we’re about to hear, they hashed this out, there were several iterations of what later became West Side Story. But I’m wondering as part of those earlier conversations, do we know if there was any discussion about whether Romeo and Juliet might be too dark a story to even put in musical terms? Because of course this was the late 50s, when you know, what did we have? We had Rodgers and Hammerstein, and we had Cole Porter. We weren’t... people weren’t as used to going to musicals that had sort of a dark theme to them.
SIMEONE: That’s very true. But we also had you know, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, 1947 or so, which ends up with corpses all over the stage as well. So this wasn’t the very first. They wanted to do something that was dark and that wasn’t a comedy. They argued forever about what to call it. They couldn’t call it a musical comedy, they couldn’t call it an opera, even though Bernstein sort of thought about that for a while. They...
GRANT: You say they couldn’t call it an opera.
SIMEONE: They didn’t want to call it an opera. Robbins and Laurents were quite determined that this was not something they wanted to do. Bernstein took a little more persuading, and we’ll maybe go into that a bit more later. But what’s interesting is that from the very start, the idea was to do something that was going to be, just as you say, that was deliberately, that was going to be dark, challenging. But how it got to be quite as dark as it did is something that came a bit later on. The whole process was long because it had a sort of five-year hiatus where none of them did anything between about…
GRANT: Right, while they were all busy working on other projects. But I want to give Mark a chance to jump here as well.
HOROWITZ: A couple of things. One, you mentioned Rodgers and Hammerstein and if you think about Carousel, there’s a death on stage there, but there’s no question that as they were writing West Side Story, one of the producers of the show, Cheryl Crawford, quit because she felt the show was too dark and was concerned about that.
GRANT: You know, this was of course a love story, but it was also a story about intense conflict and racial hatred, really.
SIMEONE: That was one of the very first things that Laurents made as a change. Right at the start of the process. He said that he wanted something that was to do with tribal warfare rather than family stuff. But it’s very interesting that the idea of kind of tribal conflict, which in a way is even more sinister, was at the heart of this from the get-go.
GRANT: Right, and that leads to my next question, which was initially, the two tribes were going to be Jews and Catholics.
SIMEONE: That they were.
HOROWITZ: [LAUGHS] Yes.
HOROWITZ: Which as far as we can tell, they quickly realized that that wouldn’t work. But in the Bernstein collection, we have his copy of Romeo and Juliet.
GRANT: Right. Leonard Bernstein had the play Romeo and Juliet, he had a book of it, and in that book, you can still find the sketches, the notes that he wrote about how he envisioned what would become West Side Story, right Mark?
HOROWITZ: Yes. And inside he’s making notes about how to turn this into a musical. What he writes, sort of a plot outline that parallels the Romeo and Juliet, and on the title page, he says: “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.” But then he begins placing songs and characters and you know, should it be a cop or a druggist, that kind of thing, and it takes place during Passover and Easter at the same time. And actually, in early sort of draft or outline, there’s this great scene where, and the characters are still called Romeo and Juliet at that point, and Juliet is at the Seder table, and they’re waiting for the younger brother Tybalt, to show up to ask the four questions, and it’s when he doesn’t show up that they realize he’s been killed.
GRANT: This is the four questions at Passover that are traditionally asked as part of a Passover Seder.
HOROWITZ: Yes, yes.
SIMEONE: Yes, it’s a marvelous thing, that copy of Romeo and Juliet, because the other things that you see right at the very first notes that he made, is the balcony scene is there, the street fight is there, and in fact the opening scene, outdoors-on-the-streets scene is there. So there’s quite a lot of things that we know and love from West Side Story already there in some kind of embryo, even though for at least the next five years, no one had a clue what it was going to sound like. And of course the Jews versus Catholics thing went completely out of the window when they got back to it in 1955. But it’s wonderful to see those very first ideas scrolled in his copy of the play.
GRANT: And as you’ve just said, Nigel, the Jewish Catholic part of the narrative eventually went down the drain and was replaced by this Puerto Rican and Anglo gang conflict that we know today. And there’s a story about how that all came about. Mark, what is it?
HOROWITZ: The story—and I don’t know entirely how accurate it is—was that they’d given up on the show and Bernstein and Arthur Laurents were in LA, sitting around a pool at a hotel, and all of the sudden, they saw a newspaper cover talking about a gang fight and a murder as a result, and that was they described it as sort of the light bulb going off, and they realized, “Aha, yes, that’s the solution to our show.” And I think Lenny also was excited about the idea of being able to write Latin music. I think that sort of was a little thrill for him. And I have tracked down a couple of things that I think may have been the actual clippings they saw, but we’ll never know for sure.
GRANT: And Nigel?
SIMEONE: That’s very true, and there certainly was gang violence right there. But what’s quite interesting is that if you look in, you know, The New York Times in the first five years of the '50s, it’s absolutely chock full of stuff about Puerto Rican gangs. So this was stuff that they, all of them were reading on a kind of weekly basis. And it just, I think it obviously took the poolside moment for them to realize that this was actually the way to make this work.
GRANT: When the Jewish Catholic narrative got dropped, then the musical really began to take the shape and the form that we know today, right?
SIMEONE: Yes it did. They’d hardly written, I mean, I don’t think Bernstein had hardly written any music because as I said, for five years, the thing kind of lay fallow. So in 1949, it was the Jews and Catholics. When they came back to it in 1955, Laurents and Bernstein suddenly realized that this thing could really work. Because the idea of kind of racial hatred, tribal rivalry was suddenly much, much stronger with the idea of Puerto Ricans and white Americans.
GRANT: I’m also trying to think about people who would’ve been fans of Romeo and Juliet, who might’ve just parachuted into the musical in modern times. Let’s take someone from Shakespeare’s time and put them in the theater, and having them watch an early version of West Side Story. They, I think, would’ve recognized still Romeo and Juliet. There would have been these warring families, a love story intertwined, a fight scene, a balcony scene. Do you think they would’ve recognized it?
SIMEONE: Yes, I do. And you know, what Laurents did, I think quite brilliantly actually with his book for West Side Story was to keep those sort of essences of Romeo and Juliet and get rid of an incredible amount of stuff that we do think of when we think of Romeo and Juliet the play. He simply got to the barest essentials and stripped it down. I think really so cleverly. So you know, he got rid of Rosalind, he got rid of the parents, so you’re just left with the kind of key players.
GRANT: And the title changed over time, too. When they first conceived of this as you alluded, it was called Romeo. And then what happened?
SIMEONE: Well, for a long time, it was called Romeo. And when they got back to it, they toyed with the idea of East Side Story. Because that’s where they’d originally thought of setting it. They then had the truly awful idea of calling it Gang Way! With an exclamation point. But actually there was, I think… he did an interview for The Washington Post, where he said that at the moment it was being called Gang Way!, and Lenny, in the same interview said, you know, we’re thinking about calling it West Side Story, but he wasn’t too sure about that, because it sounded a bit like kind of a documentary rather than a show.
HOROWITZ: In Bernstein’s date books, up until February of ’57, he says, you know, rehearsals for Romeo. So that’s what he was calling it that close to the opening of the show.
GRANT: And Mark, as I understand it, Arthur Laurents had said that in some ways, his book actually added a layer of nuance to Romeo and Juliet. What did he mean by that?
HOROWITZ: I don’t know that I’d say nuance is the word, but he made a fundamental change to how the story worked and how it reached its denouement, that he was very proud of, and he actually thought improved on Romeo and Juliet. For the end of the show, he came up with the notion that prejudice itself was the cause of the final deaths and that he had came up with a scene where Anita goes to warn the Jets that Chino is after Tony, the Jets start taunting Anita and are cruel to her.
[CLIP from West Side Story]
JET: Por favor?
ANITA: Will you let me pass?
JET: She’s too dark to pass!
JET: Please don’t?
JET: Por favor?
JET: No comprende!
ANITA: Listen, you…
HOROWITZ: And it’s because of that that she changes her mind and tells them Maria is already dead. And that causes the tragic finale. There’s no poison or anything like that, it’s actually prejudice, which is the underlying theme of the show, that causes the tragedy. And he was very proud of that I think.
SIMEONE: Yes, he was. As he said you know, there was no kind of convenient plague like you get in Shakespeare. But actually I think the other thing he was proud of is that when West Side Story opened in London, a lot of the theater critics that went to see it picked up on this and were equally impressed and thought it was almost a kind of improvement by really making this end kind of more poignant and dreadful at the same time.
[CLIP from West Side Story]
MARIA: How many bullets are left, Chino? Enough for you? and you? All of you! You all killed him! And my brother and Riff. Not with bullets and guns, with hate! Well, I can kill too! Because now I have hate! How many I can kill, Chino? How many? I still have one bullet left for me.
GRANT: I want to talk a little bit about the music, Nigel. We’ve alluded to this a bit earlier and I wanted to get into it in a little more detail. What do we know about what Bernstein wanted to achieve with this? I mean, he wrote about trying to find this sweet spot between traditional Broadway and opera. And I think that was a tension that kind of ran throughout his work on this musical.
SIMEONE: Absolutely. Because he had three collaborators who all fought very hard to stop him from going down too operatic a route, and it’s really interesting, this, because in Library of Congress, you know, there are early versions of some of the songs. One lovely example is “A Boy Like That.”
[CLIP from West Side Story: “A Boy Like That”]
A boy like that who'd kill your brother,
Forget that boy and find another,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!
A boy like that will give you sorrow,
You'll meet another boy tomorrow,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!
SIMEONE: And the early version of “A Boy Like That” is far more operatic. It’s also in a far higher key, so everything sounds a bit more screechy. [CLIP from West Side Story]
[CLIP from “A Boy Like That” continues]
I don't care what he is.
I don't know why it's so,
I don't want to know.
A boy who kills cannot love,
A boy who kills has no heart.
Very smart Maria, very smart!
Oh no, Anita, no,
You should know better!
SIMEONE: This was the kind of stuff that had Sondheim and Laurents and Robbins all saying “No, you’ve got to strip this down.” What’s interesting is that in the letters to his wife, to Felicia, while rehearsals were going on in DC, he was saying, “You know, they’re trying to gut my masterpiece, you know, every time... yet another one of my favorite bits hit the floor today because they said they wouldn’t have it. They said it was too operatic.” And when you look at what he wrote first time through, and compare it with what you ended up with, there is—I hope Mark agrees—not a single song where you want to go back to the original, except for sort of you know, a kind of antiquarian purposes.
SIMEONE: It’s kind of fun to hear what his first thoughts were. But the revised thoughts are so much tighter, so much harder, edgier, more interesting and more concise, and so he had a really tough trio of editors essentially in his other collaborators who were just saying, “No, no, no,” every time he got a bit flowery.
HOROWITZ: If I can add to that, Lenny was a fan of very purple lyrics, and I think the tension was Sondheim was trying to convince him to be more vernacular, to be more realistic to these kids and not have such flowery language.
[CLIP from West Side Story]
MARIA and TONY:
The world is full of light
With suns and moons all over the place
The world is wide and bright
Going mad, shooting sparks into space
Today the world was just an address
A place for me to live in
No better than all right…
HOROWITZ: You know, there are still moments, I think, where Sondheim is very embarrassed with the compromise you know, in “Tonight”—“Today, the world was just an address”—is something that I know grates on him a lot. But it was the lyrics that Lenny started writing, things like you know, “honey dripping on my tongue” and that kind of thing.
GRANT: Wow. Well, I know that at one point Sondheim complained and still feels embarrassment to this day about you know, from “I Feel Pretty”—“it’s alarming how charming I feel.” Which is a line that nicely trips off the tongue, but I guess if you’re Stephen Sondheim now, you know, you feel a little embarrassed about something like that.
HOROWITZ: Well, I think that somebody, it was during, you know, rehearsals or a run through, and I think it was Sheldon Harnick.
GRANT: That’s Sheldon Harnick who wrote the lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof, right?
HOROWITZ: Yes, yes. Sheldon Harnick saw them and made a comment and Sondheim all of the sudden realized, you know, that this girl sounded like she came from a Noël Coward show. And he actually rewrote a new lyric, but the collaborators wouldn’t let him use it.
GRANT: What was the new lyric, do you know what it was?
HOROWITZ: I don’t know. But in my mind, you know, even though she’s sort of not an educated girl, and it’s not—she wouldn’t in English know this… I always sort of thought that the song she sings are…she’s actually thinking them in Spanish, and you know, they’re just sort of translated for the audience, which makes it a little more excusable.
GRANT: You know, I want to talk a bit more about the actual score, the music. Bernstein did some things that later became sort of iconic for this musical, and I think the major one is the so called tri-tone.
[CLIP: Orchestral music from West Side Story: “Prologue”]
Nigel, do you want to explain what that was, because it’s such an important theme that really runs throughout the musical?
SIMEONE: Yes, it does. There’s quite a lot to say about it. First off, when we talk about a tri-tone, we mean if you sit at a piano, you play a C and an F sharp, so it’s kind of the nastiest musical interval you can get, from C to F sharp [SINGS]. Okay, so it’s sometimes called the Devil’s interval you know for that reason as well. Now, yes, there are a lot of tri-tones in West Side Story, but it’s really important that we also remember that this great discovery, that it was full of tri-tones, first of all, was Sondheim’s, rather than Bernstein’s. He told me that you know, they were sitting at the piano one day and he said to Lenny, you realize this is full of tri-tones, this music. It’s kind of interesting. And Bernstein, quite a lot of years later, kind of made out that West Side Story was somehow connected by all of these kind of leitmotifs that were full of tri-tones. That’s a stretch, to be honest, because when you think about how a musical is conceived, how it’s put together you know, a song at a time with a lot of times things being written in a great hurry, you haven’t got time for kind of Wagnerian sort of deep thought about things like motivic structure.
So while it is full of tri-tones, and they do give it that sort of rather brutal color, that’s all very true, but Bernstein made a huge deal of this after the event, that is a bit wishful thinking, you know. While it’s true, I don’t think this was a conscious part of the process. On the other side, since it is the interval that is often to do with kind of you know, conflict, bad stuff, extreme dissonance, when you’re writing a show that is about conflict, bad stuff, and extreme disharmony between people, it’s kind of no surprise that there’s a lot of tri-tones in there.
GRANT: Well, let’s talk about some of the specific examples, because, of course, this is a score that many people know and love, and so when we talk about tri-tones, what do we really mean? Let’s walk through some of the songs where they’re the most evident.
SIMEONE: “Cool.” Yeah, “Cool.”
[CLIP from West Side Story: “Cool”]
Boy, boy, crazy boy,
Get cool, boy!
Got a rocket in your pocket,
Keep coooooooolly cool boy…
So the first two notes of “Cool:” [SINGS] “Bo-oy.” Okay. Dah-dum. “Bo-oy, crazy boy.” So there you’ve got a lovely tri-tone in the first two notes. And that I think is one of the most effective ones because it is a very sinister number, that. And you know, the tri-tone really helps sort of cement that feeling of unease I suppose is the word I’d use.
GRANT: What about “Maria”?
[CLIP from West Side Story: “Maria”]
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria...
All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word:
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria...
HOROWITZ: I find that fascinating that in so much of the show that the tri-tone is that angry, scary malevolent sound. And yet, in “Maria,” it’s so romantic and touching, and that somehow he’s able to use that same interval romantically.
[CLIP from “Maria” continues]
I’ve just met a girl named Maria,
And suddenly the name
Will never be the same
I’ve just kissed a girl named Maria,
And suddenly I’ve found
How wonderful a sound
HOROWITZ: I don’t think we made it clear also that throughout his career, Lenny would write music and couldn’t find a place for it, and then it would end up later in various forms and various places. So “Somewhere” was actually a pop song he was trying to write many years earlier.
GRANT: Right, and I think I read that “Officer Krupke,” the melody from that came from Candide, which was another musical he was writing at the time.
SIMEONE: Is this the moment to mention “America?”
[CLIP from West Side Story: “America”]
Immigrant goes to America,
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America!
Which began life in a ballet called Conch Town, which he wrote in 1941 and you get two tunes in Conch Town that made it into West Side Story. One of them is the tune that opens the “America” number, the Puerto Rico, that bit, and then a few pages later, you find in this ballet, a tune that goes.
[CLIP from “America” continues]
GRANT: You know, I don’t know about you guys, but I just find it exhilarating just to be sitting here, talking about this music. When the musical finally premiered on Broadway in 1957, was it well reviewed? Did people love it? Or did it take time for all of that to develop?
SIMEONE: A bit of both. The most enthusiastic review was actually written in The Washington Post when it opened for previews in DC a month earlier. When it got to New York, the reaction was much more kind of cautious. There was even a kind of disapproval about the fact that you were putting these kind of squalid human beings on stage and making a show out of it. There was almost a sense among some of the stuffier theater critics that this was a slightly immoral kind of thing to do. And I think there was a certain amount of discomfort about that. There are some hilarious letters to the Times from people who had been to see it who thought it was the most awful thing they had ever seen.
SIMEONE: So it wasn’t by any means universal acceptance of the stage show. It was really when the movie came out in 1961 that it suddenly became the smash hit that it has been ever since.
HOROWITZ: You just reminded me of what I think is a great anecdote. Sondheim’s talked about how brilliant the opening of the show is because it tells immediately the audience what kind of show it is, and he talks about very early on, maybe even during previews, standing at the back of the theater and the show opens and very quickly, this guy in the middle of a row stands up, walks down the aisle, and leaves the theater sort of shaking his head. And Sondheim says, “You know, he thought, you know, ‘I’ve had a hard day, I want a couple of martinis, there’s this new Broadway musical opening, there will be some pretty girls.’” And all of the sudden, this show opens with what Sondheim calls “ballet delinquents.” And you know immediately this is not that. And that’s why it’s great, but also why not everybody was prepared for it or wanted it.
GRANT: When did this extraordinary creative team, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and of course, Leonard Bernstein, when do you think they finally realized that they had created a masterpiece that would really live on in American musical theater and really, in all of theater for I hope, we hope, eternity? I mean, this was an extraordinary thing they had done.
SIMEONE: It was. It was a marvelous thing they’d done. And I think they knew that the moment they saw the thing on the stage. They had enough confidence in their astonishing collective gifts, you know, to realize that this one absolutely worked.
HOROWITZ: Despite Sondheim’s problems with aspects of the show, there’s this very moving letter he wrote to Lenny for the opening night of the show. And in it, he says, “May West Side Story mean as much to the theater and to people who see it as it has to us.” So it certainly gives you the sense at that moment that they had the sense that there was something special, whatever details they were questioning. But I think they knew from the beginning that a lot of it was spectacular.
GRANT: Mark and Nigel, thank you so very much.
HOROWITZ: Thank you.
SIMEONE: Thank you.
[CLIP from West Side Story: “Something’s Coming”]
I got a feelin’ there’s a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Comin’ to me!
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something’ good,
If I can wait. . .
WITMORE: Mark Horowitz is archivist for the Leonard Bernstein collection at the Library of Congress. Nigel Simeone is the author of Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story. He also published The Leonard Bernstein Letters in 2013. Nigel and Mark were interviewed by Neva Grant. Juliet Appears Above, At A Window was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Eric Engler, the summer news operations intern at NPR in Washington. From Sheryl Cannady at the Library of Congress. And from Jono O’Neill at Yellow Bean Studios in Leicester, England.
If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing the podcast on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it, and people who might enjoy it. We really appreciate your help, thanks.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.