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WEST SIDE STORY: Michael Reflects on the 60th Anniversary

It’s no secret I love West Side Story! The storyline, the drama, and of course, the music. It seems unreal to me that this musical turned 60 years old this month. Every time I hear the music it sounds fresh and new, as if I was just introduced to it yesterday. I have had the divine privilege to conduct this musical in both theatrical and concert versions, as well as workshop it, vocal coach actors for it, and perform versions of the tunes in Jazz, Latin, and Blues styles. As many times as I have been able to do the music in whatever form, it never gets old. It continually inspires me.

My first introduction to West Side Story was actually not through the musical, but rather two different jazz albums attributing the score. The first was Dave Brubeck’s 1961 recording and then Oscar Peterson’s 1962 album. The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic force behind these two recordings really hooked this teenage kid into the music of Leonard Bernstein. I finally experienced the musical itself seeing the movie and later the stage version when I was in college. The music, so cool and funky, made me a fan for life. How many musicals can you say that basically every song became a hit in their own right? That’s incredible artistry in composition and storytelling. Because of West Side Story, Bernstein has become one of my absolute favorite composers, and studying his art of conducting and teaching, one of my greatest influences in musical interpretation.

The impact West Side has had on me not only comes from the music, but the experience of presenting the work to others. Especially music and theatre students for the first time. The tapestry of lessons that can be explored through the storyline is amazing, and the freedom that allows actors and directors to share their vision and interpretation with audiences is quite remarkable. As an example, I have seen the ballet scene many times and done many ways. Yet, to this day, it has never been more profound on me then how my wife choregraphs this scene with Tony and Maria coming together through the effects of lighting and ribbons between the two, touching in our hearts the deepest measure of forgiveness. I can still hear that intense silence from the audience as the last notes came to an end. Who knows if Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim knew the impact their work would have on an entire world or not, but I am most grateful for their creation.

With October celebrating the 60th anniversary of this great work, I encourage everyone to breakout their soundtracks or watch the movie again. Make a date and check out the new movie coming out later this year. Sing along with your favorites like America, Cool, I Feel Pretty, Somewhere, Maria, Tonight, and others. While the story may be dramatic, so is our world – yet, there is many lessons in this tale to find renewal, reconciliation, hope, and love. Perhaps right now we all need a little West Side Story to remind us that “someday, we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving…somewhere.”

Wishing you good health and peace!



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