West Side Story is the only Broadway musical I enjoy. Why is that?
July 19, 2014 6:06 PM   Subscribe

The only Broadway musical I can actually, whole-heartedly enjoy is West Side Story. Am I the only one of my breed on this? Why might this be?


I hope someone with a more sophisticated take on this can shed some light here. And, yes, I am of course at least theoretically open to all of you Broadway musical lovers who want to turn me around and show me what a fool I am and how my taste sucks, but please make that a secondary topic to supplement your thoughtful response to my basic query: Why is West Side Story the only Broadway musical I actually enjoy?

It is not from lack of exposure; as a kid I saw Yule Brenner in The King and I, Dick Van Dyke in Damn Yankees, numerous Broadway-touring level of production presentations of Lloyd-Webber musicals, and none of those have ever clicked. I even worked stage crew on a production of South Pacific, and that did nothing for me, either.

I think my situation probably relates to Bernstein being the composer in West Side Story, because he's just coming at this from a different perspective (one in which I strongly identify -- classical and jazz), but then that doesn't explain my "meh" attitude toward other Bernstein things like Candide. My working theory, for anyone here to support or refute, is that Bernstein had one great musical in him, that it is essentially unlike all other musicals in some way, and that way in which it is different is what I happen to like about it, namely that the music was composed to be listened to in a concert setting and not just as accompaniment to a stage presentation.
posted by JimInLoganSquare to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you open to the idea of just random aesthetic preference? I mean, I hate all Led Zepplin, I can't related to them at all, and I think they were wanking assholes, but how can you not love Stairway to Heaven?
posted by latkes at 6:16 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you checked out the Sondheim musicals?
posted by betsybetsy at 6:33 PM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I am open to that as a last resort only. I think we can analyze this question of taste beyond just "whatever floats your boat."
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:33 PM on July 19, 2014

What about alternative type musicals? Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a great one. Also, Passing Strange, tick...tick...BOOM!, and Sunday in the Park with George.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:38 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you checked out any of the more modern Broadway musicals? How about Avenue Q, Wicked or Kinky Boots?

For me the production matters as much as the material; Mr. Arnicae does a lot of Broadway and I have had the fortune (mis?) to have seen almost a dozen versions of 42nd Street. Some I yawned through, some I found electrifying. For me it is all about the cast, the venue and the pit.

I'd just start sampling different things that you can get with rush tickets, I suspect you'll find other things you like.
posted by arnicae at 6:40 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (My last comment was directed toward latkes. Latkes, that's a valid theory, but I don't want to jump right there until other possibilities have been adequately explored.)
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:41 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sondheim, absolutely. (And he did the lyrics for WSS.) Sweeney Todd is where I'd start. He's amazing and not a playwright that fits in a box.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 6:48 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: bettsybettsyHave you checked out the Sondheim musicals?

Other than West Side Story itself (which is a Sondheim musical, at least with respect to lyrics)? Sure. And they seem like more about the lyrics than the music, which may be relevant.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:50 PM on July 19, 2014

Mr. Arnicae says listen to 'Light in the Piazza'. The end of Act 1 "Say it Somehow", if you like West Side Story you'll like that.

He also says "Porgy and Bess, obviously, though the shows were written a hundred years apart they have a sensibility that you'll enjoy."

He suggests you may also like 'Sunday in the Park with George'. From a musical analysis standpoint it is as sophisticated as West Side Story, in for example its development of light motives.

Sondheim actually felt very strongly that the entire cast should not sing the same thing at the same time because that never happens in real life. In 'Sunday in the Park' everyone is singing their own independent thought at the same time but it all works together so it is very operatically conceived. Additionally you could listen to just the orchestra on the soundtrack and still be impressed by it.

If you enjoy 'Sunday in the Park' you will likely also enjoy the original recording of 'Sweeney Todd', also by Sondheim.

He also laughed uproariously when he read my previous comment and says NO you won't like Kinky, Ave Q or Wicked.
posted by arnicae at 6:53 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: arnicae, thank you. And no, I know I agree that I would not like Kinky, Ave Q, or Wicked, and in fact would consider them a form of torture, based on the excerpts I have heard from them. =^)
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:04 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I'm really enjoying these recommendations of the "If you like X, you'll probably like Y" perspective, because I love nothing more than finding new music to love, and I will be checking them out. That said, I would still love it if anyone would share their "West Side Story is Different Because ..." theorizing. Or tell me, with well-reasoned support, that I'm full of crap to think that WSS is actually different in any significant way from the rest. But do go on; this is fun!
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:10 PM on July 19, 2014

A lot of the music on standard musicals isn't very sophisticated musically. Bernstein knew his stuff, technically.

So does Andrew Lloyd Webber. Have you ever listened to anything he's written? It tends to be very complex music while at the same time it is very listenable. Try some of the music he wrote for "The Phantom of the Opera", for instance "The Music of the Night".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:16 PM on July 19, 2014

Are you talking specifically about the film version? Because the film style and choreography were well ahead of their time (while also referencing a lot of 1920s and 30s Bauhaus photography). So maybe what's different about it is the high art visuals?

To which I'd suggest checking out Cabaret and All That Jazz, in that they have a similar kind of high art stylized production.
posted by colin_l at 7:16 PM on July 19, 2014

Response by poster: colin I, no, I was not referencing the movie; in fact, I think the soundtrack to the movie is quite inferior to the Broadway cast recording (and even more so to the recent San Francisco Symphony production). But that's a good observation and thanks for bringing it up. I may just go back and rewatch the movie (it's been a couple of decades, at least); thanks!
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:23 PM on July 19, 2014

West Side Story is arguably closer to light opera than traditional musical. Have you tried Gilbert & Sullivan? Do you like full-on opera?
posted by mkultra at 7:24 PM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

If it's about the musical quality of the numbers, The Wizard of Oz has some great numbers. (Ok, she was only 16 at the time, but....) Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow is almost obscene how sultry it is).

And what about Sound of Music? The goatherd song, while silly, is quite clever, and My Favorite Things is great. And after listening to Contrane's take on it, the original is even better.
posted by colin_l at 7:24 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

That said, I would still love it if anyone would share their "West Side Story is Different Because ..." theorizing

Eh, Mr. Arnicae and I are in accord on this. EVERY musical is different from every other musical. Saying it is different is a fairly meaningless statement. Mr. Arnicae says: Nothing is like WSS just as nothing is like Cats (except maybe Starlight Express on Ice, but that is a different thread). There are a hundred things that set WSS apart from other musicals, but the same can be said for any major musical, and most operas for that matter. Tons of stuff is musically unique - bit it isn't like it is the only musical ever to use a tritone. I's not a different species of entertainment or anything. For example, it's sung using a legit technique. So is Piazza, most Sondheim shows, Porgy and Bess, and two leads in Ragtime. It has a strong latin influence. So does In the Heights. It has extended dance breaks that emerge from the story. So do most shows since Oklahoma. It's an awesome musical, and brilliant in very many ways, and was the first to do a lot of things stylistically in the way it did, but it's not like it's some alien form of theatre to everything else.

My guess (and this is just me, not me and Mr. Arnicae) is that you have had some personal experiences in your life that have really gelled WSS for you as personally significant. So for you, nothing quite measures up. That's ok! That's fine! For me, Phantom is very personally significant for a number of reasons. I've done score studies with Mr. Arnicae and I intellectually understands its limitations, but I still love listening to it. I'd continue to explore but also understand that music, and more broadly art, moves each of us in unique and special ways, and that is something to celebrate.
posted by arnicae at 7:26 PM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

What about Fiddler? That's got some pretty clever numbers.
posted by colin_l at 7:27 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you are on the right track with the Bernstein factor and looking to his background as a symphonic conductor and composer before he got involved with musical theater. The orchestration of WSS really stands up on its own musically--you can take out the vocals and still have great pieces of music. The question becomes, then, why do you feel meh about Bernstein's other musical theater work? Well, some of it just wasn't that good, so there's that. You might compare and contrast WSS vs. Candide--for me one thing that stands out in that comparison is that WSS is a melding of classical symphonic idioms and popular/folk musical styles--in this case Latin jazz. To me, in that regard and taken as a whole, it comes across as fresher and more modern that Candide. Very Copeland-esque in that regard.

So I'm curious--do you like Copeland? Do you like Bernstein's other work for voice and orchestral, such as MASS or Songfest? To nail down a theory it would be just as helpful to know what you do like outside the realm of musical theater to see what it is that WSS captured that's not all that common in most musicals.
posted by drlith at 7:27 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm sure I'm on the totally wrong track here. :) Those who seem the most knowledgeable are focusing on orchestration. And everything leaping to my mind is not just lyrics, but the lyrics of specific film performances.

So with that caveat - I *love* every David Tomlinson number I've ever seen. He's the dad in Marry Poppins and the Huckster magician in Bednobs and Broomsticks. He's a wonderful straight man, and his numbers always have these delightful verbal gymnastics.
posted by colin_l at 7:31 PM on July 19, 2014

Response by poster: drlith, I love Copland. Without reservation. I am pretty much on board with Bernstein's Mass, but generally speaking, other than West Side Story, I have to say I consider Bernstein a great conductor of other composers' works.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:33 PM on July 19, 2014

I would still love it if anyone would share their "West Side Story is Different Because ..." theorizing. Or tell me, with well-reasoned support, that I'm full of crap to think that WSS is actually different in any significant way from the rest.

Well, the thing is, it's sort of hard to pin that down without knowing what else you've tried to listen to and whether you liked or disliked it, and what aspects you liked or disliked. The reason why people are specifically suggesting Sondheim is that his general style/approach/fingerprint still is recognizably of a piece with the a lot with the old-school Rodgers-and-Hammerstein aesthetic, but is just modern enough to be recognizably different and exciting, in much the way that WSS is.

(As for Webber, I kind of think of him as the musical-genre equivalent of baroque music: it's well-crafted, but after a while it starts to sound kind of same-y and affected. There's a very high level of technical skill, but a lot of it kind of takes place at the same sweeping emotional register, and it gets to be diminishing returns, for me*. You might feel the same?

*except for Jesus Christ Superstar. I can always go for more Jesus Christ Superstar.)
posted by kagredon at 7:34 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

But, you can't be alone in your feelings about WSS. For example, on Metallica's 1991 Black album, there's an extended America quote on Don't Tread on Me. It's unmistakable, and works well.

So maybe part of what grabs you about this is that the numbers are catchy and punchy, and the melodies seem to fit the lyrical content very well. They're all very distinctive, and just the right the number for that part of the story.
posted by colin_l at 7:35 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

OMG West Side Story. My husband lived and danced in New York. Then he left to go to Europe to be a dancer. But he grew up in New York during that time.

It's Romeo and Juliet. It's so fantastic. Maybe you should look at musicals based on Shakespeare.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:43 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Hey, OP, this needs to not become a general conversation. You've given plenty of detail on your question - now please just let people answer how they will.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 7:47 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd go with the hypothesis that Bernstein had one great musical in him, and West Side Story is it. Also that its jazz and Latin aspects make it sound more "au courant" than other musicals, which seem either more musically conservative (or "fake modernist," like Sondheim) in nature.

I wouldn't in any way suggest Sondheim musicals to the O.P. (not that the O.P. asked for suggestions for other musicals; he seems quite content to enjoy West Side Story as his Only Musical); Sondheim's music is so so different from Bernstein's (it's irrelevant that Sondheim wrote the lyrics to W.S.S.)

There's also the possibility that the O.P. has some personal associations to West Side Story (the plot, the characters, the music) that he's not totally aware of.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:54 PM on July 19, 2014

I kind of feel this way too (I've taught myself to like certain other musicals through exposure, but WSS is still more entertaining than them all) and I think it's some combination of the attractiveness of young sexy sex (i.e. the reason I like watching Grease), and familiarity-- the way sometimes it's fun to listen to popular classic rock songs because you grew up hearing them in movies and commericals and have known them all your life, and there's a comforting recognition in them. WSS is so popular that I think I just got it under my skin as a kid and then as an adult it's familiar and fun. Other musicals are maybe just campier? Not as much popular saturation?

I think WSS (and Grease) are just more like the spirit of rock and roll music. It's taking all the impulsive sexy feelings of youth and giving them a kind of drama and dignity that is just attractive in some inexplicable way. Escaping into the "firstness" of youth. Adolescence is fascinating.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:06 PM on July 19, 2014

And they seem like more about the lyrics than the music

How do you feel about opera?

I like opera, but I pretty much can't stand musicals. What you've said right here is the difference for me. Opera is music first, plot second. Musicals don't put the beauty of the music first.

I've seen a handful of operas, and the only one I've straight up hated was Die Fledermaus. It was basically just a musical in another language, right down to that exaggerated musical talky voice. Torturous.

I haven't seen WSS but I did a piece from it for a piano recital when I was 9. Maybe WSS is more music-focused than other musicals, and that's why you like it.
posted by phunniemee at 8:28 PM on July 19, 2014

Have you tried In the Heights? It's an all Latino cast with a score that incorporates a very specifically NYC vibe and it's as much about the neighborhood as it is the characters.

I... love this musical.
posted by spunweb at 8:41 PM on July 19, 2014

Mr Arnicae is on the right track IMO, but I would also say a word for Carousel.
posted by Segundus at 3:21 AM on July 20, 2014

You might like Sweet Charity. As with WSS, it's set in New York, and involves someone from the wrong side of the tracks. Similarities in the story end there. The songs are great, in particular "Rhythym of Life" , which is the show's tour de force.
posted by essexjan at 3:30 AM on July 20, 2014

I'm tempted to recommend the recent Paul Simon musical Capeman to see what you think. But essentially I wonder I'd you just imprinted on WSS early and it got under your "this is cheesy" defenses. Me, I got the musical bug early so I can't imagine just loving one musical.
posted by PussKillian at 7:23 AM on July 20, 2014

There's also the possibility that the O.P. has some personal associations to West Side Story (the plot, the characters, the music) that he's not totally aware of.
posted by DMelanogaster

This is what I dropped in to add. OP, how old were you, who were you with, what were you going through in your life, did any of the characters or songs or even the set resonate with you, when you saw that Broadway production of WSS? There are several pieces of art that will always have a soft spot in my heart (though I don't care for anything else the artists have done) because of the circumstances surrounding my introduction to them and/or my initial response to them.

It's the linchpin of nostalgia -- it's not that ____ was so necessarily great, it's your affection for the person you were becoming when you first experienced ____.
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:48 AM on July 20, 2014

One thing no one's mentioned: A lot of musicals are intentionally frivolous or campy, and West Side Story is usually less so. Except for "Krupke" I guess, everything is played tragic and serious. This also depends on the director, and what's in vogue for directing. I love Phantom but also know it's sort of objectively shit, and a lot of this is schmaltzy staging that doesn't take the material seriously. I love Chicago but many productions go less for satire than farce. (This is why I preferred the movie adaptation; as far as I'm concerned everyone involved deserved every single Oscar just for cutting out "I'VE GOTTA PEE!") This is pretty much how theater and opera have worked since the very beginning, though -- the historical periods/genres people tend to think of as "serious" or "refined" often weren't, and if you went back in time and tried to say that they would likely laugh at you.

So I don't know. Probably the best suggestion in here is Cabaret. Or Gilbert and Sullivan, but only if you like Sullivan. Show Boat, maybe, if you can get past the 1920s milieu.
posted by dekathelon at 8:44 AM on July 20, 2014

Maybe WSS is the only Broadway musical you enjoy because you have very high standards, and it's unarguably the best Broadway musical in history. I'm not being facetious (OK, not very), it's very likely the best musical ever written. The music by itself is a combination of jazz, classical and popular that's very hard to find in one place.

I feel the same way about Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris - I don't like classical music, but I very much like them. But I don't consider them "real" classical music. You can't argue that WSS isn't a real musical, but you can certainly argue that it's not a typical one.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 1:06 PM on July 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also completely agree that Bernstein had one great musical in him, and had the help of the best, including Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and of course Shakespeare. Maybe it took them to bring it out. I like Candide, but it took a lot of listens before I did.

I would be very curious to know what you thought of See What I Wanna See by Michael John LaChiusa, and Violet by Jeanine Tesori.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 1:14 PM on July 20, 2014

I'm the 2nd person to mention this, but Romeo & Juliet is a fundamental myth in English-speaking culture. I also adore WSS, and for me it's the collision of great tragedy, great music, lyrics, dancing, and most striking for me, heightened realism.

Sadly we don't all burst into song and dance as we go through the day, but in WSS the cast does, doing ordinary things (getting dressed, pissing off cops) as well as epic ones. The movement from words to song, and standing o dancing, never pauses with a wink to the audience.

R&J has lasted because it captures the dramatic drama of being a teenager in love. So does WSS.
posted by Jesse the K at 4:48 PM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you read the Wikipedia entry on the production period leading up to the release of West Side Story? It was a labor. Bernstein originally was credited as co-lyricist but generously gave it up. Sondheim never collaborated with anyone on lyrics again, as far as I know. 1959's Gypsy had Sondheim lyrics, choreoggrapher Jerome Robbins and was written by Arthur Laurents, both from West Side Story. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for 1965's Do I Hear a Waltz with Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame. He produced lots of musicals with himself writing the music and lyrics, but that's obviously not the same thing. I love Sondheim, but nothing compares to West Side Story.

So part of it was the team never coming together again, but part of it was the "ripped from the headlines" aspect. Broadway occasionally takes on current issues, but usually through the lens of another time. South Pacific (tangentially about WWII) was 1948, which qualifies as current, but for every one like that there are a dozen set in a bygone era. Broadway is closely related to light opera, which tends to revisit the same stories, time periods, etc. It's just not a medium that someone who's looking to make a statement about the modern world would choose. As an extreme example, The Nutcracker is, essentially, the only ballet. It accounts for roughly 40% of ticket sales in the U.S. Opera is a bit more diverse, but the same half-dozen shows make up the bulk of the performances. Broadway is restricted to the universe of plots, songs, and actors that are believed to induce a paying crowd to show up in midtown Manhattan for weeks or months at a time. It's just not usually going to be hard-hitting and topical.
posted by wnissen at 10:07 PM on July 20, 2014

It's just not a medium that someone who's looking to make a statement about the modern world would choose.

Ennhh, I'd dispute that. RENT, Avenue Q, maybe Urinetown, plus a fuckton of interpretations of revivals of various musicals/plays that weren't originally intended to be commentary on current issues. The "current issues revival," actually, is so common as to be a cliche (c.f.) It doesn't sound like the current-events aspect is what you like, though, as opposed to the epic-tragedy aspect.

I had another thought, too: It strikes me that the Broadway-mythologizing aspect of a lot of musicals, particularly older ones, turns you off. If you don't idolize The Theater and Being In Theater and The Big Chorus Number and Making It Big and the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd, etc., then there are parts of almost everything that are going to seem alien to you, because it can be a very in-jokey medium, and people thrive on that. To that end I'd maybe gravitate toward rock operas or, if rock isn't your thing, more through-composed classical stuff that just happens to have stage components?
posted by dekathelon at 11:53 AM on July 21, 2014

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