Leonard and Felicia Bernstein entered the glittering Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria on Sunday evening, April 13, 1958, with high expectations. It was his time, after all. He had inaugurated a new concert hall in Tel Aviv; he was in the middle of his first season as music-director designate of the New York Philharmonic; his first Young People’s Concerts were a smash on national television; and on this night his fourth Broadway musical, West Side Story, was up for six Tony awards, including the big one: Best Musical.
“And the winner is … The Music Man!”
The sting of this loss never subsided. “I never win awards,” he said to me 20 years after that night. (The fact that his former piano teacher Helen Coates kept an entire room full of Bernstein’s awards was irrelevant.) But as someone who saw both original productions, the decision was the right one. The Music Man was the better show.
All of this would merely be ancient history but for the fact that both shows are very much alive 64 years later: The Music Man recently opened in a new Broadway production, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster (and will surely be nominated for a Tony as Best Revival of a Musical), and Steven Spielberg’s recently released West Side Story is currently up for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Together, they still represent a vivid and relevant picture of America—from the multicultural challenges of our cities to that “special chip-on-the-shoulder attitude” of our rural areas. And not just in 1957 but also today.
West Side Story had no overture. The houselights at the Winter Garden Theatre slowly went down, and as our eyes adjusted to the dark, a single streetlamp came up in silence to reveal six teenage toughs in front of a chain-link fence, one of whom was smoking.
Dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, they shifted their positions, one at a time and precisely synchronized to the orchestra, which gave sound to their wordless boredom and simmering rage.
The Music Man, by contrast, began with a spotlight on music director Herbert Greene. Two piercing whistles “à la drum major” got our attention. A snare drum began pianissimo, as if coming from a distance, and soon was at full volume. Then the entire brass section stood up to play the thrilling introductory fanfare, which led into the march that would be given words later in the show: “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
West Side Story gave the impression that it had been done on a shoestring budget. Director and choreographer Jerome Robbins needed empty space for dancing and had not yet mastered the art form he was envisioning. Thus, scenic designer Oliver Smith created “wagons”—large set pieces on wheels—that were pushed in from the left or right for much of the drama, reserving the empty stage for the big numbers, such as “Mambo” and “The Rumble.”
The Music Man, on the other hand, was an ever morphing kaleidoscope of old-fashioned stage magic, giving the impression that we were seeing it in 1912, when it takes place. The sets moved this way and that, with foliage on semi-transparent scrims painted in beautiful colors to frame the stage.
West Side Story felt like it was trying to do too much: Larry Kert was a lovely performer and an empathetic Tony, but he came to grief with “Maria,” which was just too high and operatic for him. The Music Man aimed lower, perhaps, but achieved its goals in a seamless and technically perfect production. That’s why it won.
The story, however, does not end there. A movie musical of West Side Story in 1961 changed everything, whereas the 1962 movie of The Music Man merely preserved what had been on Broadway a few years before.
West Side Story represented a contemporary global phenomenon of angry, violent teenagers who had been born during World War II and were, in the 1950s, confronting the war’s after-effects: missing fathers, terrifying warnings of nuclear war, traumatized refugees, and unemployment.
The Music Man was totally rooted in the American past. Its themes can be traced to our first century as a country and the various “Great Awakenings” in which revival meetings, snake-oil salesmen, and mesmeric preachers offered rural America hope, moral order, and a sense of divine protection. (“Friends! The idle brain is the devil’s playground!”)
West Side Story is something people in Liverpool, Berlin, and Moscow could understand, but to those same audiences The Music Man was inexplicably alien.
Still, seeing The Music Man in 2022 reminded me just how astonishing it is. The play, the lyrics, and the music were all composed by one man, Meredith Willson, while West Side Story was the result of a collaboration of four argumentative and gifted men. We think of Lenny as the more “serious” musician, but Willson played flute in Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic, and if you think he wrote simple ditties, listen to his score for William Wyler’s 1941 The Little Foxes, which was nominated for an Oscar.
The Music Man’s message—how easy it is for people to believe lies and con men, turning their insecurity and anxiety into moral outrage—is as powerful and relevant as ever. But The Music Man is also about music. Harold Hill sells the power of performance to civilize at-risk boys; the school-board members are brought together by singing as a barbershop quartet. The composition of melodies with countermelodies that fit beneath them brings the townsfolk together. “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” works with “Goodnight Ladies”; “Lida Rose” fits beneath “Will I Ever Tell You.” And Hill’s “Seventy-Six Trombones” is “Goodnight, My Someone,” first heard as a melody that fit over a piano exercise … an amazing compositional feat.
Willson emulated the popular music of 1912, but Bernstein had no interest in writing the “real” music of white or Puerto Rican teenagers in 1957. His mambo is a musical metaphor, and the Jets would have expressed themselves with rock ’n’ roll, whose symbolic position had been solidified in 1955 by Blackboard Jungle and its use of “Rock Around the Clock.”
Bernstein found his music from film noir’s urban musical landscape, the music of Miklós Rózsa (The Naked City), Franz Waxman (Crime in the Streets), Leonard Rosenman (Rebel Without a Cause), and himself (On the Waterfront). To this he added reminiscences of Beethoven, Blitzstein, Wagner, and, above all, the toxic masculinity of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (“Somewhere”).
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have kept Bernstein intact—complete with the glorious symphonic orchestrations of Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. They have kept the dramatic arc of Arthur Laurents’s play but removed its humor and its language. No more Dead End Kids. No more placeholders for profanity (“Cut the frabberjabber”). Instead, it fills out backgrounds, explains history to those who did not live in the 1950s, and sharpens the Jets’ rage by evoking racist replacement theory. With all the adjustments, major and minor, it remains both new and true.
Fear of losing what we feel we own is as timely today as it was when West Side Story’s plot was ripped from the headlines of 1957. We still have gangs. We still have smug and ignorant communities looking to have their worst fears confirmed. The warnings of both The Music Man and West Side Story remain apt. One does it with a laugh, the other through tears. Miraculously, they both have won something beyond Tonys and Oscars. They have won a permanent place as classic masterpieces of the American musical theater.
John Mauceri is the winner of a Tony, a Grammy, an Olivier, and three Emmys. His latest book, The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century, is available from Yale University Press