Markers of the Modern Soundtrack
West Side Story
1963 - Robert Wise (USA)
Opera & lyric drama
Plasticity; mise-en-scene; transposition of stage musical;
From stage to screen
for WEST SIDE STORY: musical score by Leonard Bernstein
who has composed 3 other stage musicals: ON THE TOWN, CANDIDE
and WONDERFUL TOWN (the former two made into screen musicals);
book by Arthur Laurents; screenplay by Ernest Lehman; lyrics
by Stephen Sondheim; choreography by Stephen Sondheim; production
design by Boris Leven
The film WEST SIDE STORY is based on the Broadway musical
of 1957 and was two years in production from '59 through
to '61.The plot is basically Romeo & Juliet re-set against
a backdrop of West Manhattan street gangs' territorial battles.
WEST SIDE STORY marks a mythopoetic peak of the JD movies
(juvenile delinquents) which started in the early 50s (from
THE WILD ONE to THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE to REBEL WITHOUT A
CAUSE - the latter containing similar epic-tragic proportions
with the characterizations of the 'family' of Dean, Wood
and Mineo). The JD movie continued on through various cycles:
High School movies, Juke Box movies, Hot Rod movies &
Apart from being the first movie to treat youth themes and
symbols in operatic style and form, WEST SIDE STORY is also
historically footnoted as being the first major musical
to fully utilize outdoor locations for whole numbers, such
as in the long prologue sequence with the Jets and the Sharks
baiting each other. It was also the first musical to tackle
contemporary social themes in modern settings, considering
how musicals from the 30s up through the 50s were predominantly
either Fantasy, Period or Theatre in their settings and
As a musical (or more precisely, a cinematic adaptation
or reconstruction of a stage musical) WEST SIDE STORY tells
its story through the form of lyric drama and mise-en-scene.
1. Lyric drama involves a narration which is effected through
the stylization of various elements such as body movement,
speech/dialogue, gestural interpretation, etc. Theatrics
are thus highlighted rather than subsumed into modes of
2. Mise-en-scene refers to the organization of meaning and
conveyance of effects through set design, art direction,
visual production, etc.
Shape, colour, form, space, depth, texture are all manipulated
to form a network of narrative commentaries on the fiction's
contents - psychological motivation and reflections of character;
poetic description of characters' environments; intonation
and suggestion of the causality of the plot's developments;
etc. In summary, lyric drama involves theatrics while mise-en-scene
Close analysis: WEST SIDE STORY
The following close analysis notes on the musical soundtrack
of WEST SIDE STORY illustrate how the melodic and symphonic
construction of the score describe, reveal, suggest, imply
and basically narrate the plot action in operatic form.
Visual abstraction functions like the drawn curtain of the
stage musical while the orchestra plays the Overture (condensation
of the numbers you are about to hear). The visuals are then
revealed to be an ariel view of the isle of Manhattan. This
sequence was designed by Saul Bass - note its similarity
to NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO). To accent this relationship
with PSYCHO (filmed a year before) note how this film then
moves through a series of ariel shots which gradually zoom
in and focus on one block, and then the playground in the
block (PSYCHO starts with the extreme long shot of Phoenix,
Arizona and ends up in the hotel room of the couple making
love). Whilst this set of dissolve-shots gradually homes
in on the Jets' territorial space, their whistle call-sign
(a distinctive three note motif which identifies them throughout
the rest of the movie) hovers above the soft sound of the
traffic below. It's almost as if the musical motif is searching
for its location, and finding it - settles there.
This long sequence defines in total the marriage of theatrics
and plastics that mark WE5T SIDE STORY as a fusion of opera
and lyric drama. Note the multiple rhythms (visual, musical,
temporal, etc.) produced by the dynamic movement within
the frame; the movement of the frame itself; the movement
from scene to scene/shot to shot/etc. Note the importance
of clicking - the physical production by the body to produce
a sound that symbolizes the body's psychological rhythm.
(The tempo of clicking throughout the film reflects the
rate of adrenalin flow of the character doing the clicking.)
The only spoken dialogue through this whole section is "Beat
it!" which signifies two distinct concepts which linguistically
reinforce the operatic state of play with rhythm throughout
A . the beat as the control of rhythm and tempo into a standardized
form, whose repetition reinforces the display of control;
B . a directive to "get lost" because of territorial
transgression, of crossing over onto the wrong 'beat' or
3. "Jet Song"
Note the rhythmic exchange of dialogue in the council meeting
immediately preceding the song. Although it is spoken, the
semantic interactions are primarily framed in musical counterpoint
and syncopation. This exchange is then blended into the
askew bebop rhythms of the actual song. (The chorus from
this song is occasionally played in fragments during the
4. "Dance At The Gym"
This scene is divided into three separate musical numbers
(the first of which is interrupted by what would make up
a fourth number which we'll discuss shortly) :
A . the initial dance - in full swing when the gym scene
starts, this number signifies a split synchronism of both
gangs as they are each dancing as discrete partner-units
across the dance-hall with no territorial divisions evident
B . the musical chairs number - an attempt to control a
fusion between both gangs; to let music dictate a redistribution
of territorial allegiances (you dance with whoever is in
front of you when the music stops)
C . the Mambo number - where each gang segregates itself
by a display of power and control to the other gang, demonstrating
their store of energy in dancing to the up tempo Latin-Jazz
The 4th dance is not strictly connected to the space of
the gym. This is the number that `arises' as Tony and Maria
see each other for the first time from opposites sides of
the floor. Both sound and image melt away to allow them
to dance their own waltz minuet oblivious to the musical
and territorial divisions that propel the energy of the
initial dance number. Note how their relationship with one
another is one of 'rising above' their surroundings; of
ignoring territorial boundaries and crossing them; of `rising
above' the over-determining reality of living `down in the
ghetto' etc. (Note also how the start of this whole number
features a musical equivalent of the optical effect dissolve
- the transition from abstract swirling colours into the
kids dancing is replicated by the `twirling' violins that
harmonically lead up to the brassy burst which signals the
start of the dance number.)
Note how the object of Tony's desire is conveyed to him
through the sound of her name. As he utters it continually,
it repeatedly triggers his emotional response. (A good example
of the aural replacing the visual, in that a non-musical
would more likely accent the `memory-image' of the desired
object rather than its 'sound'). Note also the reverb of
the voice which goes with the fade-up at the start of the
number, as if he is dwelling upon the sensation he experienced
at the dance. When the number properly commences, it's as
if he is fully conscious of the fact that it is Maria who
is responsible for his strange feelings.
Note structural form in terms of how soloists and choruses
relate to one another. This number displays dynamic movement
through space articulated through the roof-top choreography.
Note how the verse's melodic construction is based on call-and-response,
and how the prologue to the number leads up to the `argument'
between the girls and the boys.
As Tony and Maria meet on the fire escape (suspended `above
the street') they harmonize about an ideal situation; a
temporal zone where they can be together. The word "tonight"
- apart from making a future allusion which symbolizes the
erotic of something about to happen - echoes Tony's wondering
in a previous number ("Something's Coming") which
he finishes singing "maybe tonight". The last
two notes there are exactly replayed for the start of "Tonight",
giving us an example of how the melodic construction of
notes works to symbolize plot sequencing.
8. "I Feel Pretty"
Example of basic operatic relationship between soloist and
chorus. Note the relationship between the two textual 'voices'
- Maria and the three seamstresses. Note how their harmonic
interaction symbolizes their dialectic relationship with
one another concerning the issue of Maria's love affair.
Note also spatial play and movement, plus ritualization
of different scenes (Miss America, etc.).
9. "One Hand One Heart"
This number extends the playing-out of social rituals as
in the previous number. Here Tony and Maria perform a symbolic
marriage because such an actual ceremony is a `social' impossibility.
This reinforces their relationship as being `above' their
social reality, accented by the whole notion of them with
their heads 'up in the clouds'. Throughout this number they
'harmonize' with one another and eventually resolve those
harmonies into unison, symbolizing their `oneness' with
one another. Note how their call-response itself is a recreation
of the vow exchanges in a marriage ceremony. Note also how
at the end of the number, the melodic motif of "Maria"
slightly upsets the harmonic resolution. This motif - which
it must be remembered alludes to Tony's desire to get in
on with Maria, and which therefore constitutes a social
transgression which works to move the plot along to end
tragically - symbolically suggests that their wedding will
not take place because `it shouldn't happen'.
10. "Quintet (Tonight)"
A reworking of the melodic contents of the "Tonight"
theme so as to fracture it into a set of different plot
action flows, harmonically treating the theme differently
for each plot flow. Each character is connected by time
and space - the omnipotent 'tonight' where each of them
shall consume their desires - The Jets will get the Sharks
; the Sharks will get the Jets ; Anita will get Bernado
(he's better in bed once he's let off steam in a rumble)
; Tony will get peace (by settling all the trivial territorial
differences between the two gangs) ; and Maria will get
Tony (because the sealing of racial tension in the neighbourhood
will allow her and Tony to get married with no problems).
Of course not everyone will be granted their desires. Note
how time and space are collided in the editing to convey
feelings and effects of simultaneity and inevitability.
The notes that make up the first three words of this number's
opening phrase ("There's a place for us") are
the same three notes that are worked through the "Prologue".
In that number, the notes convey extreme tension ; in this
number they convey a sense of resolve. This transformation
of mood by using the same notes demonstrates how Tony and
Maria perceive the reality differently from the gang members
and their girlfriends.
If ever you needed an explanation as to what 'cool' is all
about, it's all here in this number. The notion of 'cool'
is essentially the controlled containment of energy, keeping
it in check as well as displaying the fact (in the form
of a gesture) that you have it in check. This number works
through the dilemma of having to let off steam to keep sane,
but also keep it all under control for the purposes of display.
The gang thus hide out in the garage to work it all out
so that they can emerge with a cool front to deal with the
cops. As they sing the number, each member individually
comes to terms with the pressure of their own steam - and
note that this psychological 'release' is musically signified
by the same three note motif that starts the "Prologue"
number. (On reflection, we can now read the effect of those
notes in that number as symbolizing the built-up tension
that can so easily explode into a gang war.) Once each individual
member has let off his own steam in isolated choreographic
displays, the whole gang then dance the "Cool"
melody with full orchestration. Here, the gang energy is
let loose in a communal ritual, where they work out all
their tension together in the form of a musical catharsis
or exorcism. Once completed they can then go back to the
Jazz-combo instrumentation of the number - signifying that
everything is back under control.
13. "I Have A Love"
As Maria and Anita confront each other over their love and
allegiances for their respective boyfriends, they finish
up singing the following verse : "When love comes so
strong ; There is no right or wrong ; Your love is your
love." They harmonize on every word except for the
last word "love". This symbolizes their difference
in 'angles' on the issue of love-relationships (and note
the texture of each of their voices during the harmonizing)
as well as how they fundamentally agree on the 'power' of
love and how personal it is to each individual's viewpoint.
Reprise of the original number. Note how Tony first starts
singing it without any musical accompaniment (he's dying).
Note also how the high strings harmonically resolve the
melody, but lower strings go out of key, throwing doubt
on the hopes for that 'place' where life works out well.