PNB program has cachet of Bernstein in its choice of 'West Side Story Suite'
"West Side Story Suite," on Pacific Northwest Ballet's bill for its "Director's Choice" program Nov. 5-15, has a rich musical history thanks to Leonard Bernstein.
Seattle Times theater critic
Performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Thursday-Nov. 15, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$160; (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).
Can't get enough of "West Side Story"? Neither could its composer, Leonard Bernstein, or its choreographer-director, Jerome Robbins.
In 1960, Bernstein wove together a piece of symphonic highlights from his score for the landmark 1957 musical. Titled "Symphonic Dances of West Side Story," it debuted at a gala benefit for the New York Philharmonic — the illustrious orchestra he then led.
At the time, the realms of Broadway, classical music and ballet were drawing closer — thanks to such versatile composers as Bernstein, and such eclectic choreographers as Jerome Robbins.
But rare is the musical that can spin off a stand-alone orchestral work, let alone a classical ballet piece.
In that sense, Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" and Robbins' "West Side Story Suite" (introduced some 30 years later, and part of Pacific Northwest Ballet's upcoming "Director's Choice" program), have a special cachet.
Yes, there are three other enticing works on the "Directors Choice" bill: the PNB premiere of "Petite Mort," choreographed by Jiri Kylian to the music of Mozart; Marco Goecke's "Mopey" (with music by C.P.E. Bach and The Cramps); and "The Seasons," created by Val Caniparoli to music by Alexander Glazunov.
But anything with "West Side Story" in the title is sure to be the main attraction for many patrons — including some ballet newbies.
"West Side Story," you may well recall, juxtaposes an urban romance (adapted by Arthur Laurents, from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"), between Maria (a young Puerto Rican immigrant) and Tony (a white former gang member), with the escalating war between two New York street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.
Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances" and Robbins' "West Side Story Suite" are not simply rehashes of numbers from the original musical (now in revival on Broadway), or the hugely popular 1961 film, but distillations of the entire show.
For Bernstein, the creative lure of reworking the music for a symphony three times the size of the original Broadway pit orchestra for "West Side Story" must have been irresistible.
Also, it was a chance to embed his Broadway score into the standard repertoire of major orchestras, thereby giving it the stature of "serious art" that Bernstein always craved as he straddled the worlds of classical and popular music, symphony hall and Broadway stage.
Though Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and Laurents' book are closely integrated parts of "West Side Story," the dances are the most extended musical elements in a show which, quite radically at the time, had no overture.
With his trusted orchestrators Sid Ramen (to whom "Symphonic Dances" is dedicated) and Irwin Kostal, Bernstein reworked the music from six dance numbers into one composition.
But the piece deliberately traces the dramatic arc of the entire show, from the jazzy prelude that sets up the Jets-Sharks rivalry to the poignant ballad "Somewhere," the vivacious "Mambo" and "Cha Cha" from the dance at the gym, et al.
For musical cohesion, Bernstein shifted the order of the theatrical numbers and linked the sequences with some added material. And today, "Symphonic Dances" is indeed part of the standard orchestral literature, with scores of recorded versions available.
Hearing that glorious music in a sweeping, enriched instrumental setting can help listeners better appreciate what Bernstein achieved in "West Side Story," and the sonic palette he worked with.
As his biographer Humphrey Burton points out, Bernstein was influenced by Aaron Copland's groundbreaking music, but "had a much deeper experience of jazz. On the classical side, like pretty well everybody else, Bernstein admired Prokofiev and Stravinsky."
But what makes his "West Side Story" score so distinctive, suggests Burton, is the composer's use of Latin American rhythms, absorbed during his sojourns in Mexico, Cuba and South America.
Robbins' ballet suite
The dance piece "West Side Story Suite" has a different lineage. It grew out of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," a 1989 musical that includes numbers from a variety of Robbins shows.
For the "West Side Story" segment, Robbins reordered the dance numbers in a new but faithful orchestration of Bernstein's music, and added another element: singing.
Like Bernstein, Robbins also straddled two artistic realms. But when his colleagues at the New York City Ballet (which he was associated with, as choreographer and ballet master, for many years) urged him to adapt the Broadway pastiche for their repertoire, he was leery at first.
His dance "suite" would require performers who could act, speak and sing some of the Bernstein-Sondheim songs. And he worried he'd have to "change [the suite] a little bit ... because the dancers were not trained for it. But I didn't."
He clearly didn't need to. Critics hailed the suite's City Ballet debut in 1995, with Dance Magazine raving that"the dances ... seem fresher and more exhilarating than ever."
And when the "West Side Story Suite" later was available to other ballet companies, PNB artistic director Peter Boal snapped it up.
Boal has a personal tie to the piece: He worked with Robbins at the City Ballet and danced the suite in his farewell program when he retired from the company. PNB's artistic honcho since 2005, Boal first presented the Robbins suite in last season's "Broadway Festival," and it was a hit. This season, he wisely programmed it to follow the season-opening ballet, "Romeo et Juliette."
In all of its manifestations, "West Side Story" still has the power to beguile and excite. And whether performed in a Broadway theater, a symphony hall or McCaw Hall, the magic wrought by Bernstein, Robbins and their collaborators lives on.
Misha Berson: email@example.com
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