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Historical Markers of the Modern Soundtrack

11   West Side Story   1963 - Robert Wise (USA)
  Opera & lyric drama   Plasticity; mise-en-scene; transposition of stage musical; harmonic territorialization

From stage to screen

Credits 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 & Rock'n'Roll 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 visualizations.

Lyric drama

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 realism.
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 involves plastics.
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.

1. Opening
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.

2. Prologue
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 the movie:

A . the beat as the control of rhythm and tempo into a standardized form, whose repetition reinforces the display of control; and
B . a directive to "get lost" because of territorial transgression, of crossing over onto the wrong 'beat' or turf.

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 "Prologue".)

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 rhythms.

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.)

5. "Maria"
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.

6. "America"
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.

7. "Tonight"
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.

11. "Somewhere"
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.

12. "Cool"
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.

14. "Somewhere"
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.

Complete contents of this page Philip Brophy