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West Side Story By Leonard Bernstein And Stephen Sondheim

1847 words - 7 pages

Musical theatre is a type of theatrical performance combining music, dance, acting and spoken dialogue. Written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, ‘West Side Story’ is a classic American musical based on William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The through-composed score and lyrics are used to portray different characters and their cultures, the rivalry between the Jets and Sharks, and the emotions felt as the story progresses. This essay will be exploring the music and how effective the score is in realising the world and characters of the musical. Furthermore, it will discuss how Bernstein and Sondheim relate characters’ diverse ethnicities to particular musical ideas and motifs.

In the opening prologue, Bernstein quickly establishes the tension between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks with the use of syncopated staccato major and minor third chords. This is intensified when the Jets start clicking their fingers in time to show unity within the gang. The upbeat to bar 12 marks the entry of the Jets’ leitmotif consisting of an octave jump, a falling minor 3rd, a falling major 3rd, and finally a falling augmented 4th.


Figure 1: The Jet’s Leitmotif (2000: 115)

This leitmotif is used throughout the musical and is even seen in ‘America’ which is the Puerto Rican’s comical song. This recurrent use of the same leitmotif keeps the audience focused on the conflict between the gangs through to the last note. The use of bitonality is another technique Bernstein uses to demonstrate the ongoing rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. In the opening of ‘Tonight (Ensemble)’, which is sung by both Americans and Puerto Ricans, the lower part of the orchestra are providing a steady bass line in E major, with the higher-pitched instruments playing in A minor. This creates suspense as the dissonant sound created is unpleasant like the meeting of the Jets and Sharks.

Figure 2: Bitonality seen in ‘Tonight (Ensemble)’ (2000: 115)

In ‘Dance at the gym’, Bernstein uses the score and choreographed dance to illustrate the tension created between the two rival gangs. The motifs from ‘The Jet Song’ can be seen in bar 32 of the blues which is typical of jazz music and elements from ‘America’ are placed into the mambo which is percussive and typical of Latin-American music. The constant use of these motifs represents each gang and their characters by using characteristics of the music from their own country. The last method Bernstein uses to create tension between the gangs is the use of asymmetrical rhythms with pauses over rests which is unnerving to the audience. This can be seen in the opening of ‘The Jet Song’ when the chords are placed in unexpected places from the start of the song.


Figure 3: Asymmetrical rhythms and unexpected pauses create tension. (2000: 13)

Bernstein and Sondheim use the score and lyrics to depict individual characters using traditional music and speaking styles from their individual cultures, which can...

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