Sondheim was always critical of his own lyrics for West Side Story. For example, in the song “Somewhere” he didn’t like the way the opening line sat on the melody. Here’s what he wrote in his first volume of lyrics, Finishing the Hat:
As with “One Hand, One Heart,” this was a melody that was dear to Lenny, one that he had tried to find a use for in other shows and instrumental pieces and, like “One Hand, One Heart,” hell for a lyricist to set, particularly the opening motif, with its rhapsodic upward leap on the second note.
What word is worthy of such a climax at the beginning of the thought? I couldn’t, and didn’t, solve the problem. In fact, the most unimportant word in the opening line (“a”) is the one that gets the most important note. Burt Shevelove was fond of referring to this song as the “a” song. But then, he was a lyricist.
“Somewhere” was also the occasion of a dramatic confrontation in Washington. During the orchestra readings of the score, Jerry had objected to the way Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal had orchestrated the song under Lenny’s supervision and with his approval. When Jerry realized during the dress rehearsal that Lenny had no intention of changing it, he simply stopped everything, walked down the aisle to the orchestra pit and proceded to dictate the alterations he wanted directly to the conductor and the musicians. I had witnessed the arrogance of directors before, watching Agnes de Mille in operation on Allegro, but not on this scale.
I turned in my seat to get Lenny’s reaction, but he was nowhere to be seen. I left the theater and, on a hunch, looked around for the nearest bar; sure enough, there he was in a booth, glumly staring at shots of Scotch lined up on the table in front of him. Despite the global awe and respect he enjoyed, it turned out that he couldn’t stand confrontation any more than I could, particularly with Jerry Robbins, who intimidated everyone he ever worked with, except for Arthur Laurents and Jule Styne. It may be one of the reasons Lenny was so loved. And Jerry so hated.
Here’s a short video that delves into where Leonard Bernstein came up with the music and analyzes Sondheim’s lyrics:
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