West Side Story

The Making of a Masterpiece: 1984 West Side Story Recording Sessions

It was September of 1984. The New York classical music scene was abuzz with word of a happening–but it wasn’t about a typical performance or show. A hand-picked all-star cast, some of the best orchestral and session players, and an energetic chorus, had gathered in the studios on West 44th Street to record Leonard Bernstein’s incredible score for West Side Story — conducted by the Maestro himself.

The invite-only recording sessions were truly magical. I will never forget watching Maestro Bernstein work with Kiri Te Kanawa, Jose Carreras, Tatiana Troyanos, the orchestra and the chorus. Bernstein’s focus and energy — the way he literally danced the numbers on the podium, drawing everyone into the experience — made the music he’d composed 27 years earlier come to life.

The final recording, led by the brilliant producer John McClure, and the documentary of the process, The Making of West Side Story, are works of art.

Explore several poignant, reflective, and humorous moments from these masterful 1984 recording sessions of West Side Story.

A Lilting, Lovely “I Feel Pretty”

In this clip, Bernstein explains his decision to take “I Feel Pretty” at a slightly slower tempo than audiences are used to hearing. “Kiri,” Bernstein says, ‘just ate that up.”

The Master And His Music

There is a certain type of magic that can only happen when a maestro conducts his own work. While we may never know what it was like to play in an orchestra led by Mozart or Beethoven, in this clip, Te Kanawa thinks it might be something like working with Bernstein on West Side Story.

Te Kanawa says:

[working with Bernstein] … was like having Mozart with you … you were getting it from the master himself…

“You Gotta Do Your Homework”

Musical show business is always a constant exchange between the composer and producers. In this clip, we see the recording session of the gymnasium scene of West Wide Story, in which Bernstein and soundtrack producers trade their thoughts on what sounds best.


“It wasn’t together at bar 31.”


“What?! That’s impossible. It’s really impossible – I’ve never heard anything so together in my life!”

In closing: Bernstein on recording the sessions

Leonard Bernstein:

At the beginning of this project, I was not all that secure about what was going to happen. … And what I found, out of all that insecurity is a tremendous feeling of security. This poetic language of Jets and Sharks that was created by Arthur Laurents is something truly poetic in the sense that it lasts the way a poem lasts. I feel that it is a piece that is, in its funny, little crazy way, a classic.

About this content

This content is used by permission of Unitel and The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. All rights reserved. “The Making of West Side Story” won the Prix Italia and the British Academy’s Robert Flaherty Award in 1985.

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