Broadway Features and Reviews
The Birth Of West Side Story
By Daniel Luzer, Broadway Magazine
Romeo and Juliet is puzzling. Written between 1591 and 1595, and heavily based on an earlier Italian story, it is a virtually universal tale. But it has always been a little unclear how to treat the story. Most first encounter it in high school and take Shakespeare's concept of young love very, very seriously. But as people age they come to see that the story may be sort of a joke.
" From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here's to my love!
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die. "
So exits Romeo. The passion of the adolescent relationship looks outlandish to adults. Isn't Romeo taking this all rather too seriously?
But with West Side Story, playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents decided to make the story somber on a different level. Laurents decided that the important part of the story was not the lovers, but the
" Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. "
In Romeo and Juliet the two families hate each other for no obvious reason; indeed, viewers have a hard time telling them apart. But by converting them into Jets and Sharks, Laurents turned the aristocratic rivalry into a story about race in America.
Oddly it took the producers of West Side Story almost six years to figure out which ethnic groups would battle in the new production.
In 1949 director and choreographer Jerome Robbins began to talk with Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein about a musical based on Romeo and Juliet. Robbins planned to set the story in New York's Lower East Side; it would be about young Catholics and Jews fighting during the Easter and Passover holidays. Robbins called the nascent project ''East Side Story.'' But the people involved had other projects and by the time they returned the story didn't quite work. Jews vs. Catholics seemed archaic.
But in the 1940s hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland U.S. to work. Many resisted assimilation and caused tension in the neighborhoods they occupied. Puerto Rican teenage gangs were becoming front-page news.
Meanwhile, on November 1,1950 two supporters of the Puerto Rican independence movement accidentally killed a White House guard while attempting to assassinate President Harry Truman.
Bernstein and Laurents decided to change the story from a conflict based on religion to one based on race. Puerto Rico was in the news; Puerto Ricans it would be.
The result was exciting. The new production, which restaged the iconic balcony scene on a tenement fire escape, was political but preserved the awkwardness of adolescent romance. Romeo and Juliet-now the Italian-American Tony and the Puerto Rican Maria-stage a mock wedding at the bridal shop where Maria works. This is, of course, is the sort of thing that only children can do seriously.
West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in September, 1957. The performance recognized a new look at Romeo and Juliet as a story of gang violence. Robbins, who directed the performance, did not allow the actors playing members of opposite gangs (Jets and Sharks) to socialize or even mingle during the rehearsals. Early reviews praised the choreography: "It also suggests that the salvation of the serious Broadway musical may lie in neither text nor music... but in dancing," said the Time review. One of the innovations of West Side Story was the innovative use of dance to express emotion.
West Side Story ran for 732 performances on Broadway before going on tour. The performance encouraged a number of remarkable interpretations. The menacing dance of the gang members, in particular, has inspired decades of parody. ("Hey, bro, why are you snapping your fingers like that?") But it's still a compelling musical. Even long after the Italians have moved out of the Upper West Side, even though our fears of gangs have gone far beyond knives and zip guns, it continues to speak to viewers as the true tale of the American melting pot. Laurents' revival of West Side Story will start previews on Broadway at the Palace Theater on February 23, 2009.
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