Some sixty-two years after its Broadway première, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’s musical and geographical updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet continues to pack a powerful dramatic punch. While not without its weaknesses, such as the reliance on now-dated street slang and ethnic stereotypes, West Side Story remains a masterful fusion of musical and dramatic elements set to a score of operatic intensity. The work indeed has the distinction (albeit an increasingly less rare one at Opera Australia under the artistic direction of Lyndon Terracini) of finding a place in the repertoire of both opera house and music theatre.
Another stand-out feature is the unprecedentedly high level of dance elements integrated into its plot. West Side Story gives its dancing ensemble named, individualised, roles, and the dance sequences that unfold are central, not incidental, to the storytelling and overall character of the work. The success of these elements is also grounded ultimately in Bernstein’s score, and in particular his command of popular and jazz musical idioms (mixed in with what he had learned from his close familiarity with the music of Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Mahler). The suite of music that Bernstein eventually drew from West Side Story has now become a staple orchestral work in its own right.