I’ve been a fan of West Side Story ever since my dad composed the score back in the 50s, when I was a little girl. I was too young to understand a lot of the story, and I wasn’t permitted to see the original Broadway production; the knife fights and scary gunshot at the end rendered it thoroughly inappropriate for a five-year-old. So I just listened to the record, over and over and over, until I knew every note. My siblings had the same experience of completely internalizing West Side Story; we joke that the work is our fourth sibling.
It can happen with a rich work of art that it will grow and unfold along with you over the course of your life. And so it was with me and West Side Story. At the age of ten, the film came out—and I was finally old enough to see it. I was thoroughly smitten; I vowed I would see it ten times!

Maria sings “I have a love” while Anita grieves the death of Bernardo. Photo: Elise Bakketun.

That turned out to be a modest vow; by now, I’ve seen West Side Story more times and more ways than I can count: in several Broadway theaters; in regional theaters all over the country; in movie houses, on video, in high schools; in a punk rock version, in a one-woman version by Cher(!); and even at the illustrious La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, where the blue jeans and fire escapes onstage made a fine contrast with the elegantly dressed audience in the gilded balconies.
But the most vibrant, memorable productions of West Side Story tend to be the high school shows. The kids are the right age; they “get” it. Whatever is less than perfect in the performance is marvelously compensated by the passionate commitment of the players.

By now, pretty much everyone knows that West Side Story is a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. The Romeo character is Tony, who belongs to the Jets street gang, and Maria is the Puerto Rican Juliet, attached to the Sharks gang. Like the characters they’re based on, Tony and Maria fall in love and suffer the consequences of the hate and prejudice in their respective worlds. And THAT, unfortunately, is a storyline that never seems to lose its urgency.

Here’s a bit of background on how West Side Story came into the world. Director Jerome Robbins’s original concept was not about Jets and Sharks at all; he first wanted the gangs to be Jews and Catholics, with everyone’s strong feelings boiling over during the Easter and Passover holidays. But somehow the idea just wasn’t clicking.

But when Jerry Robbins suggested making one street gang Puerto Rican, everything suddenly came together. Now Lenny and Jerry knew exactly what do! The Jets would move to the cool American sounds of bebop jazz, while the Sharks would dance to the restless, syncopated Latin rhythms of the mambo. There it was: the Jets were cool; the Sharks were hot. Music, dancing, costumes—everything fell into place.

But just because a show is a hit doesn’t mean any less agony went into its creation. In the summer of 1957, my father was feverishly finishing the score of West Side Story in time for the August opening in Washington, DC. To get little five-year-old me out of the stinking New York City heat, my mother took me down to South America to visit her family in Chile. While I played with my cousins, my parents kept in touch through the mail.

July 19: “Darling: the work grinds on, relentlessly, and sleep is a rare blessing. It’s going to be murder from here on in.”

July 23: “The show—ah yes. I am depressed with it. All the aspects of the score I like best—the big, poetic parts—get criticized as “operatic”—and there’s a concerted move to chuck them. What’s the use? I am tired and nervous…This is the last show I do.” [Not true.]

July 28: “A RUN-THRU of Act One! Imagine—already! In a minute it will be August, and off to Washington—and people will be looking at West Side Story in public, and hearing my poor little marked-up score. All the things I love most in it are slowly being dropped—too operatic, too this and that. They’re all so scared and commercial success means so much to them. To me too, I suppose—but I still insist it can be achieved with pride. I shall keep fighting.”

On August 1, my mother writes back from South America, using my father’s family nickname Lennuhtt:
“Don’t give up the ship, Lennuhtt. Fight for what you think is right. What you wrote was important and beautiful. I can’t bear it if they chuck it out—that is what gave the show its stature, its personality, its poetry, for heaven’s sake! From way down here I PROTEST!! Promise me you’ll make an effort to get enough sleep… Are you eating correctly or just pastrami sandwiches and coffee in cartons? Lennuhtt?”

My father writes back on August 3:
“We ran through today for the first time, and the problems are many, varied and overwhelming; but we’ve got a show there. And just possibly a great one. But the work is endless: I never sleep: everything gets rewritten every day: and that’s my life for the moment. And imagine, we open two weeks from Monday.”

August 13: “Well look-a me. Back to the nation’s capital and right on the verge. We open Monday. Everyone’s coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals… I tell you this show may yet be worth all the agony. As you can see, I’m excited as hell.”

A few days later, the reviews were in. The Daily News said the show opened “a new field in the American stage.” After the New York opening the following month, the Herald Tribune said, “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” But my personal favorite, from the Seattle Times, offered this perceptive criticism: “Perhaps the love story is a little too reminiscent of Romeo & Juliet.”

Because my father was such a bundle of contradictions, it makes sense that he was so attracted to the notion of ambiguity as a way to express the irresolvable tensions in his own personality.
Maybe the original contradiction in his life can be found in his relationship with his creator: both the spiritual and the biological one. Leonard Bernstein was raised by his Russian immigrant parents in a fairly traditional Eastern European Jewish environment, albeit in the Boston area. He went regularly to synagogue, had his bar mitzvah, and grew up in the intense atmosphere of his father Sam’s devotion to the Talmudic scriptures. Sam Bernstein ran a successful hair and beauty supply business in Boston, and he was proud indeed to be able to pass along such an excellent business opportunity to his eldest son.

But you know? Leonard Bernstein didn’t want to run the Samuel Bernstein Hair Company! No, Lenny wanted to be a musician, and for Sam, who grew up in the shtetls of Poland and Russia, a musician was little more than a beggar who bummed from village to village, from wedding to bar mitzvah, barely keeping food in his belly and shoes on his feet. The story goes that Sam refused to pay for his son’s piano lessons. After Leonard’s famous last-minute debut in Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1943, some reporters challenged Sam about his reluctance to encourage his son’s musical career, to which Sam famously replied, “Well, how was I supposed to know he’d turn out to be Leonard Bernstein?”

So from his earliest conflicts with his father, Bernstein was already establishing a template for a lifetime of confronting authority. And the wrestling match moved into the spiritual realm as well. Over and over again, Bernstein turned to his father’s beloved Hebrew biblical texts for both inspiration and disputation. These texts appear in so many of Bernstein’s pieces that, taken together with the music, they comprise a document of the composer’s lifelong running argument with God.

What Leonard Bernstein ended up doing in West Side Story was go back and forth between harmony and dissonance—like two end zones between which Bernstein could throw his musical ambiguity back and forth. And that permanently unsettled interval, the tri-tone, serves as the football. Harmony… dissonance. Love… hate. Optimism… pessimism.

My father worked so hard to make the world a better place; he never gave up on the goals of brotherhood and world peace that he held so close to his heart. But he struggled with it: was the world coming to its senses? Was it in fact becoming a better place? He wasn’t sure, and we can hear him wrestling, as a composer, with his own notions of faith, hope and despair in piece after piece. It’s as if he were constantly shaking his fist at the heavens, demanding: If you’re up there taking care of us, why is everything so terrible down here, and why are we all so terrible to each other?

Yet my father could never entirely give up hope for a better world. There was even a part of him that believed if he could just write a melody that was beautiful enough, he could cure the world’s ills. He knew, of course, that this was impossible—but it was that impulse to heal the world through music that galvanized him as a composer.
In the end, what I hear in my father’s music is that he cannot and will not give up on the possibility of a better future for humanity. He’s dreaming it for us through his notes. His own creative impulse was his deepest expression of faith—and it’s what makes his music so touching to everyone who hears it.

And that dream of a better world is the final message Bernstein leaves us with in West Side Story, too. At the end of the show, Tony has been shot dead and Maria has vented her rage at both gangs: the equivalent of Mercutio’s “a pox on both your houses” speech in Romeo & Juliet. The two gangs tentatively come together to help carry out the body. As they all exit, we hear the final notes of “Somewhere”—that anthem to the possibility of something better—but this time that final, hopeful C major chord is darkened by an F-sharp lurking in the bass fiddles and timpani, bringing back that tri-tone of ambiguity, the one we’ve been hearing all through the show. The C major chord swells with longing for a better world, but it’s offset by that dark warning from below, that maybe what we long for so desperately is out of our reach.

Or is it? We, the listeners, are free to decide.

Jamie Bernstein is an author, narrator, and filmmaker. Her new memoir, Famous Father Girl is available wherever you like to buy your books.