The musical rumble that makes listeners love ‘West Side Story’

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1961:  Actors Natalie Wood actor Richard Beymer perform balcony scene in 1961 film "West Side Story" directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. "West Side Story" won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture.  Permiered  October 18,  1961 New York City, New York. Los Angeles, California premiere December 13, 1961.  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, on a light note: On this day in 1957, “West Side Story” debuted on Broadway.

Composer and musician Rob Kapilow is back to tell us why the music has withstood the test of time.

Jeffrey Brown sat down with Kapilow recently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ron Kapilow, welcome back.

ROB KAPILOW, Composer: It’s great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, “West Side Story,” one of the most famous musicals in history, but not quite what it was intended to be, I guess.

ROB KAPILOW: I think that’s true.

You know, Leonard Bernstein had already written two his musicals, “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town,” and those shows are filled with Bernstein’s love, facility, and affection for the popular music of the day. But they’re lighthearted musicals, fundamentally.

And now he wanted to do something serious, and he got together an incredibly serious crew of guys. I mean, we had Jerome Robbins, who did serious ballets. We had Arthur Laurents, who wrote serious plays. We had Leonard Bernstein, and they wanted to do something serious.

That was the amazing thing about Bernstein. He could actually do both, and he crossed over. And this whole piece is really about, in a way, the conflict between those two worlds, between the serious world.

This is going to be, he called a tragic musical comedy, if that’s not an oxymoron.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tragedies get turned into operas all the time.

ROB KAPILOW: All the time.

In fact, tragedy is the lifeblood of opera. It’s not really an opera unless somebody dies at the end. But people don’t usually die at the end in a Broadway musical.

And this one had a body count of three, with two of them dead at the first act curtain. I mean, that is not the stuff of a Broadway musical, not to mention a classic Shakespeare play, “Romeo and Juliet,” as the background.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most people, of course, know “West Side Story” from the film, the musical version.

ROB KAPILOW: True. True.

JEFFREY BROWN: So use the song “Maria,” a famous song.

ROB KAPILOW: Famous song.

JEFFREY BROWN: Show us what turned out there.

ROB KAPILOW: Well, there’s a great moment in the middle of “Maria,” which shows this battle intention between opera and Broadway.

The orchestra is playing the music of the opening as if it’s become somehow Tony’s subconscious mind.

ACTOR (singing): Maria. I have just kissed a girl named Maria, and suddenly I found how wonderful a song can be.

ROB KAPILOW: Beautiful chord, and all the warmth.

Now, that’s what the orchestra is doing, but, above it, in the film, Tony, as if rhapsodizing about this Maria, the sound and the single word gets higher and higher in pitch, until finally climaxes up here, Maria, and then in the film, sings this.

ACTOR (singing): Maria. Maria. Maria. Maria. Maria.

ROB KAPILOW: Now, that’s kind of operatic, but it’s lower in pitch.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re not holding you to just sing it again.

ROB KAPILOW: But — exactly. No one’s vocal chords are straining. No one’s blood vessels are bursting. It’s doable eight times a week, and for the public, it was perfectly successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, but that’s not the opera version that Bernstein wanted.

ROB KAPILOW: That’s not what he wanted. He comes from the world of being one of the great opera conductors.

I mean, was there ever a more over-the-top, larger-than-life, operatic personality than Bernstein? So, he writes a version that goes higher, and higher, and higher, and finally climaxes on a high B-flat held for 10 beats.

ACTOR (singing): Maria!

ROB KAPILOW: This is something right out of “La Bohem” or “La Traviata.” You literally see the vocal chords bursting.

Now, eventually, they had to get rid of it, and Bernstein was so depressed because he was constantly writing to his wife, they’re getting rid of all my favorite parts, the operatic parts. But he realized that for a tenor to sing a high B-flat for 10 beats eight times a week would be hospital-casualty material.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s gone from the musical.

ROB KAPILOW: That’s gone. They lowered it in pitch. He doesn’t have to sing the high notes

But, interestingly, later in his life, in his head, he thought, I really do want to hear this with opera singers, and he actually went back later and recorded it with opera singers, with the incredibly high B-flat.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your argument is that somehow in the tension between this opera and musical, high and low, I guess, something great happened.

ROB KAPILOW: Yes.

One of the great things about Bernstein was that he moved so effortlessly between the worlds of serious music and popular music, and he spoke both languages absolutely as if they were vernacular.

And what’s interesting is the tension between what he brought to the world of the Broadway musical was the entire world of serious classical music, yet he also spoke it in a natural way that other classical composers didn’t. And the end of this piece is a perfect example.

ACTOR (singing): The most beautiful song I ever heard.

ROB KAPILOW: It ends with opera, but not the high opera that we think of opera, but the intimate world of opera, a floated voice, a falsetto voice, not the first Maria, Maria, not the second one, Maria, but a final one that resolves Maria for the first time in the piece, Maria.

ACTOR (singing): Maria.

ROB KAPILOW: And while a tenor, only an operatic tenor can do it well, floats this high note, the orchestra goes, and we end the perfect merging of Broadway musical and the world of opera.

JEFFREY BROWN: “West Side Story.”

Rob Kapilow, thank you so much.

ROB KAPILOW: Thanks, Jeff.

GWEN IFILL: You should have heard Judy and I singing along. It was something.

(LAUGHTER)

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