Composer's daughter shares his Story

03.26.07
Jamie Bernstein
The Daily Free Press

Through ambiguous harmonies and clashing melodies, American composer Leonard Bernstein put music to the words of characters in West Side Story, said his daughter before BU on Broadway cast members opened Friday night's performance of the world-renowned musical.

Jamie Bernstein Thomas, 54, discussed the composer's split personality in a College of Arts and Sciences classroom, describing him as an "introverted lonely dreamer" and "communicator extraordinaire" who reflected his personality into the music of West Side Story.

"The very different music clashing together represents the clash between the gangs," she said.

"I want to introduce my father to a younger generation," she later said.

West Side Story, a 1957 musical take on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, transports the classic story and setting to the streets of New York City, said Bernstein Thomas, who has spoken to many theater groups over the past five years about her father's work.

The story pits the Jets, an American gang, against the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and describes the tension that arises after two members of the opposite "houses" fall in love.

By combining Latin music with jazz, Bernstein represented the characters' backgrounds together, Bernstein Thomas said.

"Ambiguity is something that can represent two ideas at the same time," Bernstein Thomas said. "My father used a tri-tone -- three notes -- to represent the lovers and street gangs."

The music also represents the characters' emotions, presenting "nervous" rhythms when lovers Maria and Tony first meet and snapping noises before the Jets rumble with the Sharks.

"The music can describe characters' feelings even if the characters themselves could not put it into words," Bernstein Thomas said.

Bernstein Thomas read excerpts from her father's letters to her mother, who referred to the music as his "poor, little marked-up score" because "everything gets rewritten everyday."

"This show may yet be worth all the agony," Bernstein wrote in his letter. "I'm excited as hell."

BU on Broadway members performed the musical three times last weekend in honor of its 50th anniversary.

"It was a very well-done production," said College of General Studies freshman Meaghan Moraes. "The cast was very talented, especially [actress Emily Shoen], and the choreography was sharp."