The Patterns of Grand Opera on Broadway: A Semiotic Approach

Awarded Best Student Paper
Rocky Mountain AMS Student Paper Award Committee: “We commend the interdisciplinary nature of the paper, the breadth of analytical approaches, the historical comparisons and context, and the effective use of examples, video, diagrams, and photos. We find clear presentation of a contestable thesis with evidence leading to a defensible conclusion.”


In his “West Side Story Log,” invented after the events it describes, Bernstein describes the genesis of West Side Story (1957) in terms of “making a musical that tells a tragic story in musical comedy terms, using only musical comedy techniques, never falling into the ‘operatic trap’” (Bernstein, 1957). After its premier, critics discussed West Side Story in relation to Bernstein’s own manufactured criteria: how well did it tread the line between accessible Broadway and sophisticated opera, while still avoiding the dreaded “operatic trap?” In this paper, I argue that the “Tonight” ensemble closely parallels—and even goes beyond—some ensemble finales found in opera.

To illustrate, I offer a brief background on ensemble finales in opera and Broadway and provide a comparative analysis of the dramatic structure of “Tonight” with Verdi’s quartet, “Bella Figlia Dell’amore” from Rigoletto (1851), in the context of theatrical semiosis. Afterwards, I analyze Bernstein’s “Tonight” ensemble in a semiotic framework that involves the second Peircean trichotomy of the sign—icon, index, and symbol—and two terms from William Bright (1963)—endosemantic and exosemantic references. Using this semiotic framework, I detail how deconstructing the variety of references help show how the “Tonight” ensemble walks the edge between the “sophistication” of operatic ensemble finales and Broadway vernacular. What results from this analysis is a more thorough understanding of how Bernstein’s “Tonight” ensemble tightly integrates theatrical and musical paradigms of Broadway and opera, and consequently, challenges our conceptions of both.

Suggested Citation (Chicago 17th ed.)

Posen, Thomas W. 2015. β€œThe Patterns of Grand Opera on Broadway: A Semiotic Approach.” Paper presented at the American Musicology Society – Rocky Mountain Conference, Albuquerque, NM, April 22-23, 2015.