Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is perhaps one of the most beloved American composers, conductors, and educators of the twentieth century. He studied with Walter Piston as Harvard University. He is remembered most for his time as music director of the New York Philharmonic, for his televised Young People’s Concerts, and of course, for his musical theatre work, West Side Story. Let’s spend the rest of today looking at this famous and much-loved modern telling of Romeo and Juliet.
During the mid-20th century, New York City existed in a state of unrest as Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. Juvenile delinquency became a popular topic in the press as street gangs formed and rivalries developed between Caucasians and Puerto Ricans. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and the team that worked behind the making of West Side Story decided to use this contemporary and real problem in society as the basis for their new musical, a show based in the Upper West Side of New York City and involving two gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets.
When writing the music for West Side Story, Bernstein traveled to Puerto Rico for inspiration. The musical indeed draws on Hispanic elements in both music and dance. In her book West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical, Elizabeth A. Wells states “the adoption of a specific ethnic style in a serious and self-consciously ‘American’ work has ultimately, and perhaps unexpectedly, earned for the Hispanic style a level of recognition in American culture it had never before achieved.”
Two popular Latin American dance forms are found in the gymnasium dance scene: the mambo and the cha-cha. During the mambo, Bernstein chose to use bongos, cowbells, and trumpets in order to resemble a Latin jazz band. The performers yell “Mambo!” from the sidelines of the dance floor, directly referencing the flamenco tradition in which dancers are urged on by onlookers. The choreography during this scene is also based on conventions of Latin social dancing.
You can watch the “Mambo” clip from the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story here.