Thursday, January 23, 2020

Creating "West Side Story"

The Times is running a long piece by Sasha Weiss about a new production of West Side Story, which relates the new effort to the creation of the original. I think is one of the best things I have read about artistic collaboration. The coming together of the new team
replicates an important aspect of the original “West Side Story,” which sprang from a group of ambitious, restless artists who recognized, in one another, forces of equal and opposite weight. For years, Robbins had been talking to the composer Leonard Bernstein and the playwright Arthur Laurents about a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” that would seamlessly combine dance, music and storytelling. Discussion of the project began in the late 1940s — they first toyed with a story about Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side. Over the next several years, as the three were diverted by other projects, none of them entirely lost sight of it. It was a shared fantasy — still inchoate but somehow powerful.

One day in 1955, according to most accounts, Bernstein and Laurents were lounging by a hotel pool in Los Angeles. Bernstein was in town conducting; Laurents was working on a screenplay. The subject turned to the headlines in that day’s paper about Chicano gang violence. The two fell to talking. What if they revised their original idea of an East Side story and made it about white and Latino teenagers? Bernstein, who was married to Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean, was immersed in Latin music, and he could immediately hear rhythms and melodies. When they told Robbins of their new idea, he seized on the dance possibilities. Getting away from their own experiences, as descendants of immigrant Jews, and mapping their sense of outsiderdom onto a different set of tribal animosities proved freeing. All three were gay men in various states of acceptance of their sexualities, and a story of forbidden love may have been a way to write clandestinely about their own lives. They set to work.

Soon after a pair of experienced lyricists turned down the project in 1955, Laurents ran into Stephen Sondheim, who was then only 25, at a party and remembered having heard him play a few songs from an unproduced musical shortly before. He invited him to audition for Bernstein. By that point, Bernstein had written lyrics to a number of songs, but he quickly understood that Sondheim was the superior lyricist and was eager to work with him.

All four men had uncompromisingly high standards but different strengths. . . . Working together was not always easy. During the rehearsal period, Bernstein would sometimes retreat across the street to a bar to avoid Robbins after a particularly unpleasant argument. . .  Robbins was a fierce editor of the material until the very end, scrapping and reworking songs (“Something’s Coming” was written just a few weeks before the play debuted) and driving the actors to tears. The four collaborators gradually arrived at a shared vision, discovering what Sondheim later called “a wholeness” — a synthesis of dramatic language, music and dance.
This sort of shared creation is utterly foreign to me; my art is writing stories, done alone, and I find the thought of shaping a play through bitter arguments in the midst of rehearsals downright scary. But this seems to be the way a lot of plays, movies, television, and ensemble music are made. I was reading recently about Miles Davis' famous jazz record “Kind of Blue”, which has spawned a 60-year argument among fans over who was responsible for what and even a lawsuit among heirs. Davis himself ended up attributing it more or less to the spirit of the age:
“So What” or “Kind of Blue” . . . they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over; it’s on the record.
I wonder about all claims for truly original creation. Art springs from both a broader culture and a narrow circle of friends and collaborators; it is made in an era, an hour, a day. Robbins, Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim were all individually brilliant, but they were also all men of a certain time and place, knowing many of the same things, responding to the same artistic world, and especially responding to each other.

The same I think holds even more for science and technology. Watson and Crick worked out the structure of DNA because the equipment needed to solve the problem was available and the broader progress of organic chemistry provided the necessary background; ten years earlier the problem could hardly have been defined, and ten years later it would have been trivial. Things like the circular saw, the steamboat, and the computer have dozens of putative "inventors;" they appeared when the state of technology and business was right for them, rather then from the efforts of some lone genius.

We are, first and foremost, social beings, and everything we do makes sense only in light of relations with others.

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