In the introduction to his 1966 book, The Infinite Variety of Music, Leonard Bernstein argues that there is no musical equivalent to the radical artistic modernism of the 20th century. Painting can eliminate representation; literature can banish character and plot; but music “is abstract to start with.” It contains no words, images, or other real-life referents, only tones arranged in patterns of “up-and-down, long-and-short, loud-and-soft.” As for the death of tonality celebrated in the most avant-garde composers, Bernstein likens it to the death of God proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche: “neither death is true; all that has died is our own outworn conceptions.”

This perspective was shared by the three other artists—playwright Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who collaborated with Bernstein on his 1957 Broadway masterpiece, West Side Story, a musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the mean streets of New York. I call it Bernstein’s masterpiece because, however brilliant the contributions of his collaborators (not to mention the original Broadway cast), they were outshone by the sheer refulgence of the music. The same is true of the hundreds of thousands of revivals of West Side Story over the past 65 years, in English and 26 other languages. Regardless of what changes are made, the challenge is always to live up to Bernstein’s music. It sets the bar, and it sets it high.

Success in a Sweet Spot

West Side Story grew out of mid-century Broadway, where, mirabile dictu, good music was popular and popular music was good. Bernstein flourished in that sweet spot, collaborating with Robbins on a ballet called Fancy Free in 1944 and a year later turning it into a hit musical called On the Town. But Bernstein was ambivalent about his success in that realm. His musical formation had entailed a sharp distinction between the “high” culture of Europe and the “low” culture of America—which is why, when he and Robbins first toyed with the idea of West Side Story in 1949, he did not follow through. His mentor, the distinguished Russian conductor Serge Koussevitsky, considered “show business” a waste of his protégé’s talent.

Bernstein was a great conductor, but as a composer, his finest work moved in the direction Koussevitsky warned against. It was in show business that Bernstein learned to fuse the melodic and harmonic riches of the classical canon with the rhythmic wealth of jazz. This is not easy, as evidenced by two performances of “Something’s Coming,” the first song in West Side Story performed by Tony (Romeo) a short time before meeting Maria (Juliet). In the original cast recording, the role of Tony is played by Larry Kert, a dancer whose untrained voice falters on the sustained high notes of the melody but darts effortlessly through the complex rhythms. By contrast, the same song is performed by the renowned Spanish tenor José Carreras in a grand opera version directed by Bernstein in 1984, and while Carreras soars effortlessly through the high notes, he stumbles on the rhythms.

Odd as it may seem today, when everything that moves gets captured on video, there is no readily available visual recording of West Side Story as originally staged. There is only the 1961 feature film, which swept the box office that year and is still considered the gold standard of how Bernstein’s masterpiece should look and sound. This is a mixed blessing, because while the movie highlights certain elements, notably Robbins’s choreography, it diminishes others. In particular, it upsets the delicate balance between acting and singing that almost always works better amid the obvious artifice of the stage than in the illusory reality of the screen.

Apart from a few stunning aerial shots, the 1961 movie also fails to exploit the camera’s mobility and fluidity, such as they were at the time. The result is a stagey film made stagier by the eerie emptiness of the run-down neighborhood where most of it was shot. That neighborhood, Lincoln Square, had recently been depopulated as part of a “slum clearance” project that would subsequently raze several acres to make room for the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. That glittering complex would later become the artistic home of both Robbins (founding choreographer of the New York City Ballet) and Bernstein (renowned music director of the New York Philharmonic). One need not be a tenants’ rights activist to detect the irony of a socially conscious film literally dancing on the grave of its own urban setting.

Poetic License Justified

Speaking of social consciousness, when Robbins and Bernstein first pondered a musical version of Romeo and Juliet in 1949, the idea was to have an Irish Catholic boy and a Jewish girl in the Lower East Side of Manhattan fall in love against a backdrop of intergroup tension during Easter and Passover. By 1957, when the show premiered on Broadway, Tony was Polish-Irish Catholic but Maria had become Puerto Rican, and the intergroup tensions were between rival youth gangs on the Upper West Side. As it happened, there were no such gangs in that part of New York at the time. So Robbins and Bernstein borrowed the idea from a news item about Mexican youth gangs in San Bernardino, California.

Today such borrowing would be nipped, or rather cancelled, in the bud. Back then, though, there was a quaint idea known as poetic license, which allowed artists to take certain liberties for the sake of a good story. For example, when writing Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare set the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues in the city of Verona, when the historical record suggests the Capulets lived in Cremona. He also made a big deal of one petty feud without addressing the larger political conflicts in 13th-century Lombardy. Perhaps most triggering of all, the Bard disrespected any number of local Italian dialects by making his characters speak English.

There was also a fair amount of social consciousness in the 1957 stage production of West Side Story. The troubled state of 1950s youth, especially male adolescents whose fathers had been away at war, was a national concern. And although the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” pokes fun at the meddling of adult authorities, it also makes “juvenile delinquency” a live issue. In a similar way, Bernstein and his team did not include any African-American characters, but they did include racial prejudice in the stew of hatreds leading to the tale’s tragic outcome. Still, social consciousness was a relatively minor ingredient in this production. It was challenging enough to fuse not just two different musical traditions but also the diverse art practices involved in any Broadway musical at the time. These included the basic outline of the story, known as the “book”; the composition of the songs; the writing of lyrics to fit the songs; the orchestration and arrangement of the music as a whole; the choreography of the dance sequences; and the casting and directing of actors who could also sing and dance.

Not to sound too grandiose, this process brings to mind the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) envisioned by Richard Wagner. To be sure, Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk was created on a different cultural planet from Bernstein’s. Wagner aspired to fuse all the arts, led by music, into a mighty expression of the German soul (as opposed to the shallow pleasures of Italian-style opera). Bernstein, by contrast, was lending his talents to an art form capable of pleasing the popular audience while also passing muster with a discerning cultural elite. This has always been the sweet spot in American culture. A favorite phrase of the songwriter Cole Porter was that in a democracy art should be “a leveling up, not a leveling down.”

It is of course easier to level up when the work in question is a comedy, and the majority of the musicals created for mid-20th-century Broadway were comedies. Either that or they belonged to what the novelist William Dean Howells identified as America’s favorite genre: “tragedy with a happy ending.” West Side Story has its comic moments (“Gee, Officer Krupke,” most notably), but its ending is clearly tragic, like the ending of Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, West Side Story follows Shakespeare in finding a note of retribution and redemption amid sorrow. The retribution is delivered by Maria in her passionate speech over Tony’s body, which echoes Prince Escalus’s line in Act V of Romeo and Juliet: “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate.” The redemption is found in what Escalus calls “glooming peace”: the sight of rival gang members jointly bearing Tony’s body from the scene.

The Rear-Guard Avant-Garde

Despair in its modern garb of cynicism, absurdism, and nihilism arrived on Broadway in the 1970s, when Stephen Sondheim, who passed away in November, became the dominant figure. Sondheim was enormously gifted, but his talents were more verbal than musical. With regard to his overall artistic sensibility, I cannot improve on this passage from a 1979 essay by the eminent theater critic John Lahr: “The limitations in Sondheim’s music—its cold technique, its nervousness about emotion, its stylish defensiveness—match the brittle world [he] describes.” To explain this “lack of heart,” Lahr quotes a 1974 comment by, of all people, Leonard Bernstein, about Sondheim’s “fear of corniness, of being platitudinous, or whatever. Steve has very strong feelings and therefore must invent correspondingly strong defenses to guard against those feelings…. He’s always been a little bit afraid of the word ‘beautiful.’”

This sensibility plays well in Europe, where the rear-guard of the old avant-garde still defines artistic seriousness as the erasure of high spirits, hope in the future, true love, and meaningful self-sacrifice. Needless to say, any production of West Side Story that erases these elements will be a damp squib indeed. And that is what happened in 2020, when two Belgian rear-guardists, director Ivo van Hove and choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, transformed the Broadway Theater into a funeral parlor for Bernstein’s masterpiece.

In a reversal of the original demand for talented actors who could also sing and dance, Hove and De Keersmaeker filled their blank stage with young people whose talents, to the extent that they had them, were reduced to tiny gifs dwarfed by a gigantic screen showing close-up video of their hair, lips, noses, eyes, piercings, and straining tattooed muscles. In the wry observation of New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, these details “look[ed] less like don’t-mess-with-me emblems of tribal membership and more like fashion choices. We might have stumbled into a casting call for a Calvin Klein fragrance ad (‘Rough—for the man who likes it that way’).” At relevant moments, these images alternated with documentary-style videos of white cops roughing up black people, an attempt at social commentary that makes cable news look subtle.

The best that could be said for Hove’s gigantic screen is that it served to remind the audience of the one art practice—cinema—that had yet to be successfully fused with the others in West Side Story. I say successfully because, as noted above, the 1961 movie was too stagey to work cinematically. When Hove’s stage version premiered in late 2021, the reviews were full of chatter about the upcoming release of Stephen Spielberg’s new film of West Side Story. Because we live in an era when social consciousness takes priority over art, much of that chatter condemned Spielberg in advance for failing to represent the Puerto Rican characters in a culturally—and politically—correct manner.

A Masterpiece Based on a Masterpiece

Among Spielberg’s attempts to neutralize these critics, the most salient appears in the opening sequence of the two rival gangs skirmishing in a busy (as opposed to depopulated) urban neighborhood. (The film’s locations include Harlem and Brooklyn in New York, and Paterson and Newark in New Jersey.) When police break up an escalating scuffle, the Puerto Rican Sharks break into the official anthem of Puerto Rico, “La Borinqueña.” Only instead of the bland lyrics adopted in 1903 after Spain ceded the island to the United States, they sing the fiery revolutionary lyrics from 1868. This might seem an unwelcome intrusion. But the early 1950s were a high-water mark in the movement for Puerto Rican independence, so it is possible, if not probable, that a gang leader in New York might defy the police in this way.

Spielberg also enlisted the aid of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical Hamilton, to add more Spanish dialogue, while announcing that the film would not privilege English by adding subtitles. Predictably, this announcement set off a flurry of boneheaded bickering that ground to a halt when the film was released, for the simple reason that the characters speak more Spanglish than Spanish, and constantly repeat themselves in both languages while chiding one another for it. As a monolingual Anglo, I can attest that it is all perfectly comprehensible.

But enough about social consciousness! Such concerns are more important than they used to be, which is not a bad thing. What is bad is the cowardice of artists and arts institutions who lack the vertebrae to prevent these concerns from taking over completely. It is one thing to identify and encourage the artistic achievements of this or that marginalized group. It is quite another to level the arts down to the lowest common denominator in the name of representing” that group. American culture is full of brilliant works by members of marginalized groups, and West Side Story is no exception. The artists who created it were Jewish Americans who came from relatively unprivileged backgrounds and found it necessary to hide their homosexuality. We may of course sympathize with these struggles, but they are emphatically not the point. The point, as any serious artist will tell you, is the work.

As noted earlier, the bar of excellence in West Side Story is set by the music. Spielberg understood this from the beginning and recruited some of the finest musical talents out there. For example, the composer David Newman adapted and updated the score; the conductor Gustavo Dudamel recorded it with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics; and the choreographer Justin Peck magically transformed Robbins’s dance movements into pure cinematic spectacle. Spielberg also spent months searching for the right young performers whose singing and dancing arise naturally from their acting.

But most important, Spielberg brought to bear his own artistry as a filmmaker. The medium of film has come a long way since 1961, not just technically but aesthetically. So it is understandable that a titan of Hollywood would decide to make a state-of-the-art movie that can lift not just the traditional performing arts but the cinema itself to the high bar set by Bernstein’s music. Just a few weeks ago, I would have doubted this was possible. Now that I have seen the film, I know it is. Spielberg’s West Side Story has not found its audience at the box office, but I predict it will do so when it finally becomes available to stream. (Seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director, will probably help.) The film is a masterpiece based on a masterpiece, whose power is nicely captured in Bernstein’s own words from The Infinite Variety of Music:

I wish there were a better word for communication; I mean by it the tenderness we feel when we recognize and share with another human being a deep, unnameable, elusive emotional shape or shade. That is really what a composer is saying in his music: has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release? And when you react to (“like”) a piece of music, you are simply replying to the composer, yes.

In this spirit, I offer my verdict on this new and indispensable film: yes.