West Side Story

Letters from Bernstein: On West Side Story

With just months before the August opening in Washington D.C., Leonard Bernstein struggles to put the finishing touches on what would later become his signature piece.

In this audio clip, Jamie Bernstein, eldest daughter of Bernstein and Felicia Cohn Montealegre Bernstein, recounts what it was like for her father and mother that hot, sleepless summer of 1957, through the lens of some of the many letters they wrote to each other.

In the summer of 1957, my father was sweating out the final months of preparation for the August opening of West Side Story in Washington, DC. And I mean sweating! …

July 19, 1957

Leonard Bernstein: “Darling: the work grinds on, relentlessly, and sleep is a rare blessing… it’s going to be murder from here on in.”

July 23, 1957

Leonard Bernstein: “The show — ah yes. I am depressed with it. All the aspects of the score I like best — the big, poetic parts — get criticized as ‘operatic’ — and there’s a concerted move to chuck them. What’s the use? The 24- hour schedule goes on — I am tired and nervous…This is the last show I do.”

Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 23, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 23, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 23, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 23, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)

July 28, 1957

Leonard Bernstein: “A RUN-THRU of Act One! Imagine — already! Where does the time all go to? In a minute it will be August, and off to Washington — and people will be looking at West Side Story in public, and hearing my poor little marked-up score. All the things I love most in it are slowly being dropped — too operatic, too this and that. They’re all so scared and commercial success means so much to them. To me too, I suppose — but I still insist it can be achieved with pride. I shall keep fighting.”

Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 28, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 28, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 28, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, July 28, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)

August 3, 1957

Leonard Bernstein: “We ran through today for the first time, and the problems are many, varied and overwhelming; but we’ve got a show there. And just possibly a great one. But the work is endless: I never sleep: everything gets rewritten every day: and that’s my life for the moment. And imagine, we open two weeks from Monday.”

Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 3, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 3, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 3, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 3, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 3 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 3, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 3 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 3, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)

August 8, 1957

Leonard Bernstein: “These days have flown so — I work every — literally every — second… it’s murder, but I’m excited. It may be something extraordinary. We wrote a new song for Tony that’s a killer… it’s really going to save his character, so that he doesn’t emerge as just a euphoric dreamer.”

Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 8, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 8, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 8, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 8, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)

August 13, 1957

Leonard Bernstein: “Well look-a me. Back to the nation’s capital and right on the verge. We open Monday. Everyone’s coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals… I tell you this show may yet be worth all the agony. As you can see, I’m excited as hell.”

Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 13, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 1 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 13, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 13, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
Page 2 of letter from Leonard Bernstein to Felicia Bernstein, August 13, 1957. (Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division / Used by permission from Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)
About this content

Audio clip provided by Jamie Bernstein. Letters used by permission of the The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc., courtesy of Marie Carter, VP Licensing and Publishing. For more of this amazing collection, visit the Library of Congress Digital Archives.

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