The legendary American composer, conductor, and music educator Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 on 25th August 2018. His career was marked by its mercurial beginning – at the age of 25, he took on a last-minute conducting gig at the New York Philharmonic, and the rest is history. Bernstein conducted the world’s most renowned orchestras, composed symphonies and musicals, presented televised lectures on music theory, found time for political activism, and cultivated a debonair personal brand. His music is characterised by a synthesis of classical theory and modern styles.


Courtesy of: Sony Masterworks

True to his beginnings, Bernstein focused most of his energies into the concert halls and theatres of Europe and America, only composing one original film score. His leftist leanings, which he made no secret of, may have hampered his Hollywood attempts in McCarthy’s America – he was formally blacklisted in 1950. However, as he found worldwide work and recognition despite the FBI’s best efforts, he may have just been too busy for Hollywood despite his New York Times protestation that he wanted to do it all:

I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to write symphonic music. I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry. And I think I can still do justice to them all.

Furthermore, he never seemed completely pleased with the way his music was utilised in cinema, which may have discouraged his efforts on this front. But that is to be ignored because his music on film is rich, varied, and memorable. Without further ado, let’s look at the ways Bernstein’s music found its way onto the silver screen.

The Original:

On The Waterfront (1954)

This Elia Kazan picture, chronicling an ex-boxer’s crusade against a mob-run union’s corruption on the New Jersey docks, features Bernstein’s only original film score. Bernstein, as well as star Marlon Brando, was initially reluctant to take the job as Kazan had testified before McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, outing ‘communists’ to save his career. However, Bernstein’s personal and artistic concerns were cast aside after producer Sam Speigel showed him a rough cut:

I thought it a masterpiece of direction; and Marlon Brando seemed to me to be giving the greatest performance I had ever seen him give … I was swept by my enthusiasm into accepting the commission to write the score, although I had resisted all such offers on the grounds that it is a musically unsatisfactory experience for a composer to write a score whose chief merit ought to be its unobtrusiveness.

The resulting music, while not showy, is far from unobtrusive – Bernstein pushed his music to share equal space with the dialogue. He opens the film with a solo French horn – an unusual choice for Hollywood scores at the time – whose mournful melody morphs into a noble theme for everyman protagonist Terry Malloy. This is heard throughout the soundtrack, often mixed with a love motif which appears with Edie – notably during their first conversation in the rooftop pigeon lofts. The violence theme – centred around drums and an unsettling alto saxophone solo – comes in right after the titles finish; its appearance throughout the film heralds moments of conflict and death.

When Terry’s mobster brother Charley tries to convince him to cease his fight for the workers, and Terry laments his dead career, an almost-funerial melody – echoing the integrity of Father Barry’s speech in the cargo hold – underscores the lost hopes and dreams before switching to the violence theme as Charley rides off to his fate. It is a masterfully judged moment, the music underscoring Terry’s vulnerability and loss and acting almost as a third character in the drama. The entire scene is below, though the music kicks in around the three-minute mark.

Bernstein, who often conducted his own work (and had a grand time doing so), only conducted On the Waterfront’s main title track – the rest was left to Morris Stoloff, the head of Columbia’s music department, who was more experienced with conducting whilst synchronising the music to onscreen images. Bernstein stood near Stoloff during this process, giving him notes (hopefully less intimidating than it sounds), and attended the final sound mixing.

I was fortunate to be admitted at all to these dubbing sessions… I am told that usually the composer’s work is finished on the recording stage … By this time, I had become so involved in each detail of the score that it seemed to me perhaps the most important part of the picture. I had to keep reminding myself that it really is the least important part, that a spoken line covered by music is a line lost, and by that much a loss to the picture, while a bar of music completely obliterated by speech is only a bar of music lost and not necessarily a loss to the picture.

Despite this philosophical approach, Bernstein was ‘irritated’ that some of his music cues were dropped and that the final edit lowered his score’s volume in key scenes. This fundamental incompatibility with film scoring may have kept him from completing more original soundtracks, instead devoting his energy to platforms where his music could take centre stage.

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Courtesy of: Columbia Pictures

On the Waterfront garnered Bernstein his only Oscar nomination. His other film scores were not eligible as they were not original compositions for the screen; though that didn’t stop MGM’s music department from winning the Academy Award for the Best Scoring of a Musical Picture for both On The Town and West Side Story. Bernstein ultimately lost to Dmitri Tiomkin’s hummable, but less intricate, score for The High and the Mighty.

The Incidental

Rear Window (1954)

Franz Waxman was the credited composer for Hichcock’s mystery thriller masterpiece, but he only wrote the credits music and the piano tune ‘Lisa’. Hitchcock was keen for the sound design to be as natural and diegetic as possible: all music and noises aside from Waxman’s work reflect what could realistically float up through the courtyard to Jefferies’ apartment. Therefore, sections from Jerome Robbins’ ballet Fancy Free – composed by our man of the hour – can be heard in the opening scenes when Jefferies is watching ‘Miss Torso’ get dressed and dance in her apartment.

In the context of Rear Window, this inclusion establishes Hitchcock’s and Jeffries’ New York as modern, cultured, artistic, chic – perhaps even trendy. Had Miss Torso been dancing to Tchaikovsky, the scene would have lost its specificity in time, location, and even socioeconomic environment. Bernstein was, according to film music historian Jon Burlingame, ‘the biggest name in classical music at the time’ – indeed this is the reason Kazan and Spiegel were so keen to attach him to On The Waterfront. His music and career were synonymous with boldness, inventiveness, prestige, and the New York music scene, anchoring the cultural world of Rear Window.

A note on Fancy Free: Bernstein composed the ballet’s music in 1944 as a collaboration with Robbins. This story and score was later reworked into the Broadway musical On The Town – also choreographed by Robbins – proving the pair was not above self-plagiarism. Which brings us to…

The Adapted:

On The Town (1949)

The then 31-year-old Bernstein’s first cinematic credit came with this adaptation of his Broadway show; however, one imagines he would take great exception its inclusion on this list.  After Louis B. Mayer, who bought the film rights when it premiered on Broadway in 1944, decided that Bernstein’s original music was ‘too complex and operatic’ for the average cinemagoer. Mayer had all but a handful of numbers replaced with new compositions by Roger Edens. Bernstein promptly boycotted the film. However, that is no reason not to revisit the film today: while more frivolous than Bernstein’s other on-screen works, it is an enjoyable, easygoing picture with memorable tunes.

There is a noticeable difference between Bernsteins and Edens’ pieces; while ‘Prehistoric Man and ‘You’re Awful’ are toe-tapping numbers, they lack the inventive complexity of the originals. ‘Come Up to My Place’ and the instrumental ‘Miss Turnstiles Ballet’ sparkle. And let’s not forget the iconic ‘New York, New York’ which introduces our dashing protagonists and is sung to rousing perfection by Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin. Lastly, the extended dance sequence ‘A Day in New York’ reveals a wistfulness underlying the guys’ and gals’ harmless revels that is not seen elsewhere in the film; for a few brief moments, the carefree shore leave romp becomes something more – a search for love and connection in a transient world.

It could be argued that the most unfortunate aspect of this adaptation was not the removal of Bernstein’s music – not all stage pieces are meant for a direct translation to the screen, as West Side Story demonstrates – but the displacement in time and whitewashed cast. The stage show is set during World War II, lending a slight poignancy to the sailors’ 24-hour quest for romance and adventure. Updated to more peaceful years, the urgency only pops up in ‘A Day in New York’.

Furthermore, the original Broadway production was the first to feature black and white performers in equal roles as ‘typical New Yorkers’, the first to be conducted by an African-American musical director, and notable for its casting of a Japanese-American actress as the All-American ‘Miss Turnstiles’ (Vera-Ellen in the film) in the last year of World War II. Aside from the sextet’s visits to various ‘exotic’ themed nightclubs during their night on the town, the screen version is overwhelmingly white. Perhaps someday we will get another cinematic version that sticks with Bernstein’s score and diverse vision of New York, or perhaps sailors’ shore leave hijinks are antiquated in other ways.

Despite Bernstein’s part-erasure, this musical film is a lot of fun and deserves a place in this retrospective. The dances are energetic, the hijinks charming, and the location shots of New York City a unique relic in the studio era. Meanwhile, speaking of NYC location shoots and whitewashed casting…

West Side Story (1961)

Easily Bernstein’s most recognisable work, this film adaptation garnered ten (or eleven, if counting the honorary one) Oscars, making it the fourth most-decorated film and most decorated musical film in Academy history. Bernstein’s musical premiered in 1957 and made it to the big screen four years later due to its critical and commercial success on Broadway and the West End. By this point in his career, or perhaps due to the show’s hit status, Bernstein’s music was not subjected to major re-writes or chops as was On The Town. The score is largely intact (if shuffled around) and the film soundtrack is one of the best recordings of the piece, with brilliant pacing (unlike the 2009 Broadway Revival recording) and stronger vocal talent than the original stage cast.

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The brilliant Rita Moreno, winner of of one of the Oscars and the only Puerto Rican in the main cast
Courtesy of: MGM

Unsurprisingly, Bernstein objected to the film’s orchestrations, arranged by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, because he felt that a larger orchestra (courtesy of a major studio budget) killed his score’s subtlety. This fact will be ignored here, however, because to less-trained ears the soundtrack still sounds excellent, and whatever sins have been committed by expanding the orchestra, Bernstein’s score loses none of its energy.

Bernstein had less creative control in this adaptation – perhaps the reason for his disappointment in the orchestrations – than his lyricist and choreographer.  A young, relatively unknown Stephen Sondheim had some fine dramatic sensibilities, slashing reprises and staging that killed the momentum (no dream ballets here) and switching the placement of songs to minimise tonal whiplash. Other stage-to-screen changes were driven by the Hayes Code (look closely – some of the Jets are mouthing the censored lyrics in their first number) and Bernstein’s frequent collaborator Jerome Robbins. Robbins might have been fired not halfway through filming for running horrendously over schedule, over budget, and beyond the physical and mental tolerance of his cast and co-director Robert Wise, but he was able to re-work ‘America’ into a battle of the sexes and choreograph the Prologue’s location shoots. Despite this unceremonious exit, Robbins received a co-directing credit and won two Oscars: Best Director shared with Wise and the honorary Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film.

Bernstein’s score is a sophisticated blend of the classical and the modern, with tonal experimentation and ‘highly sophisticated, chromatic language’ playing against jazz and Latin dance rhythms. Despite having been both performed and parodied to death, the score’s tonal motifs still warrant analysis. This article by Kerry Auer Fergus goes into incredible (and music-theory heavy) detail on the dramatic significance of Bernstein’s intervals and dissonances, but a simple breakdown is as follows: the tritone (heart throughout the score) and the minor seventh and syncopated resolution (heard primarily in the ‘Somewhere’ theme) heighten stakes and add depth to the classic tragedy.

In other words, a tritone is an interval halfway between one tonic (or the key’s ‘home’ note) and the tonic an octave higher or lower. It is a jarring, unsettling, hard-to-sing sound. As it sits right between the fourth and fifth – two lovely, tonally pleasing intervals that resolve nicely – it is often heard before the phase moves onto one of those notes. The expectant tension underscoring ‘Something’s Coming’, the comic tension in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, and the ominous tension of ‘Cool’ are all based around a tritone that resolves upwards or downwards; however, the Jet’s theme (heard in the Prologue at the 1.40 mark in the video below) never resolves, signifying a deep unrest that threatens to explode into violence.

The most famous tritones in the score – indeed, the ones that almost lost the original production its financial backing – are those in the first two syllables of ‘Maria’. The phrase quickly resolves upwards to a fifth, but this fleeting dissonance reveals a nascent threat to the star-crossed lovers – Tony might not even be aware of this danger, but the music is. ‘Maria’ is not the only love song underscored by tonal tension; the orchestral opening of ‘One Hand, One Heart’ is in G flat major before the rest of the song switches to C major – as expected, the tonic of each key is a tritone apart from the other – and orchestral harmonies under the ‘Somewhere’ vocal line are more often than not tritones.

Despite only appearing in full in the second half, the musical motifs in ‘Somewhere’ are heard throughout West Side Story and form some of the film’s most recognisable moments. The song’s minor seventh opening (‘There’s a place for us…’) evokes a sense of reaching and longing; the off-the-beat rhythm of its conclusion (‘Somehow, someday, somewhere’) feels incomplete, adding to the yearning. Unusually for a musical, bits of ‘Somewhere’ are heard in orchestral snatches before, after, and underneath other songs – notably the closing bars of ‘Tonight’ – until it is finally sung in full after the Rumble; in its fully realised form and context, these intervals and rhythms take on ‘a quiet desperation’. When these melodies appear in the first act’s ‘Maria’, they create the joyous, hopeful sense of first love; when appearing in the second act’s ‘I Have a Love’, they are a more urgent plea; when appearing in the finale, they are unattainable.

Like all great musicals, the musical and dramatic themes come to a head in the inevitable finale. As in On The Waterfront, music and dialogue are given equal storytelling weight, but perhaps due to the difference in original medium human voice and instruments are kept almost entirely separate: Maria’s a capella ‘Somewhere’ is cut short by Tony’s death, only to be picked up and resolved by the orchestra, which is in turn cut off by her anger towards both gangs. When that gives way to grief, the orchestra carries the film to its end. The two ‘Somewhere’ motifs intertwine and insistently build, keeping a wide focus on all characters’ reactions – it is only interrupted briefly by a short phrase from ‘I Have A Love’, which both facilitates a key change and foregrounds Maria’s personal heartbreak.

The tritone comes back in the final chords, with a C major chord/syncopated conclusion prevailing over an F sharp tritone in the echoing accompaniment. Ending on the tonic signifies that the series of tragedies have finally brought peace between the Jets and the Sharks. This conclusion is adapted from Bernstein’s original stage score, but in later years he revisited this section and added a final F sharp tritone to close the tragedy, implying the cycle of violence is endless. A more realistic ending, perhaps, but infinitely more nihilist. If Spielberg’s passion project remake progresses, it will be interesting to see which worldview he chooses.

Bernstein’s cinematic legacy exemplified quality over quantity – he does not have a canon as large as John Williams, Howard Shore, or even Philip Glass but the thematic richness of his original, incidental, and adapted film work is worth examination. While Bernstein often ‘failed big’ according to Sondheim, no bad note made it onto the silver screen. Furthermore, considering that his music has not significantly featured in film since the heyday of his career, these four timeless films offer a snapshot into a time when the gap between classical and popular music was much narrower.

Bernstein passed away in 1990 at the age of 72, but in the spirit of what would have been his 100th here is a delightful clip from his 70th birthday gala, with Lauren Bacall singing a revised Kurt Weill classic (with new lyrics by his West Side Story collaborator Sondheim) in his honour.