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West Side Story - Notes on the History of a Musical Phenomenon

Updated on January 13, 2015
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A Musical Broadway Legacy

The year 2007 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Arthur Laurents’s, Stephen Sondheim’s and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a modern re-imagination of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Set against the backdrop of an impoverished 1950s New York borough, the initial production’s conception and development prove as intriguing as the musical itself. Much of the credit for West Side Story goes to Bernstein who, from an early age, sought to infuse theatrical performance with social relevance and a wide array of musical styles. One of Bernstein’s first experiences as a director was a revival of the controversial Cradle Will Rock, a musical comedy depicting a labor strike, originally written by Marc Blitzstein at the height of the Great Depression. Bernstein received his formal music training from legendary European conductor Serge Koussevitzsky, who emphasized the primacy of classical form and the vulgarity of modern trends like jazz and folk. Despite Koussevitzsky’s protestations, Bernstein pursued ways to join his classical acumen with newer sounds.

These two influences combine in arguably Bernstein’s most enduring theatrical legacy, West Side Story. The piece remains a welcome fixture of the American repertory for its blend of technical mastery and modern appeal. Just as Bernstein modernized Shakespeare’s “star crossed” tragedy, so he also married his formal expertise with popular modes of song to compose his “modern classic.”

From a historical perspective, the technical innovations of West Side Story prove as significant as its characters and story; among the most prominent are its use of dance, mixture of dramatic and comedic motifs and its demanding performance requirements. Until Jerome Robbins’s groundbreaking choreography, it was unprecedented for dance alone to drive the plot of a musical production. West Side Story’s choreography not only develops its plot but sustains its dramatic momentum for several scenes with only incidental segues of dialogue. The production’s merger of drama and comedy legitimized new paradigms for musical theatre. The medium had hitherto thrived upon comedic plots and simple characterization. The success of West Side Story derives in part from what Bernstein dubbed a “fine line” between opera and Broadway, ballet and “just dancing” and comedic tropes and genuine human experiences. West Side Story also raised the expectations for musical performance (according to legend, the musical initiated the term “triple threat”—singer, dancer, actor). Add to this the one of the largest orchestra requirements in musical repertory (as many as thirty pieces) and one can recognize why West Side Story lingers as both a theatrical and spectacular triumph.

West Side Story "America"

(Im)migrant Goes to America

The Washington D.C. and Philadelphia previews for West Side Story experienced several challenges as the musical refined itself for Broadway. Its perhaps greatest controversy came from threats by various Puerto Rican organizations in New York that were enraged at their representation within the piece. In particular, Puerto Rican critics decried lyrics like “island of tropical diseases” (“America”) for portraying their homeland as an inhospitable environment. Puerto Ricans also disagreed with being depicted as wholly street thugs since only a small portion (144 teens) had been identified as delinquent—compared to nearly three thousand Italian immigrants and over six hundred Poles, the accepted constituency of the Jets’ “rank and file”. The incident speaks to the “mono-lingual” composition of West Side Story’s initial performance. The work was written and developed by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent who, admittedly, held little intuitive knowledge of the Nuyorican (a name generated by New York Puerto Ricans to describe themselves) movement or its influence on the world’s most culturally diverse city.

This should not suggest that the portrayal of Puerto Ricans within the musical is entirely fabricated. In fact, Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents struck several accurate notes with their characterization of Bernardo, Maria, Anita and Chino. Many Puerto Ricans relied on the hospitality and protection of relatives upon arrival in the United States. Nuyorican communities were necessarily tightly knit conclaves of individuals in similar socio-economic circumstances, joined by their mutual needs and racial identity. It is also true that the Puerto Rican family had traditionally depended on male authoritarianism for security and survival. This tradition was beginning to dissolve with growing opportunities for women in the United States. This intra-cultural conflict resides at the core of Bernardo’s relationship with his little sister, who is becoming an adult at a time when women were given more choices in both work and tone.

The years between 1945 and 1965 have been called the “Great Migration” of Puerto Rican into New York’s various boroughs. It is generally regarded as the largest of the three Puerto Rican migrations and inspires the cultural background for West Side Story. The exploitation of rural laborers by United States’ businesses and the territory’s inability to enact necessary tariffs on its host country drove many Puerto Rican to “the new world” for sound prospects and the hope of a better life. Indeed, that Puerto Rico was a province of the United States continues to raise questions of whether Nuyoricans should be called immigrants or merely migrant workers. On average, 34, 165 “foreign” workers arrived in New York every year of the “Great Migration” so that by 1973, forty percent of the entire Puerto Rican population lived in the United States. This population surge saturated the low rent districts of New York and strained the very individuals who relied on cheap Puerto Rican labor for their quality of life. These circumstances frame the conflict of West Side Story and explain the hostility of both Sharks and Jets for one another; each posed a direct threat to the other’s potential for realizing an increasingly diminishing American dream.

Contemporary productions have attempted to mount a more “bi-lingual” production of West Side Story. This endeavor cannot be underestimated during a period where issues of immigration and its resultant conflict between different cultures remains at the forefront of “hot-button” issues. The theatre continues to be a space where such conflicts can be discussed openly with a gesture toward resolution. As theatre historian Oscar Brockett states, “in a world given increasingly to violence and tensions among ethnic and other diverse groups, the value of being able to understand and feel for others as human beings cannot be overestimated, because violence depends on dehumanizing others so that we no longer think of their hopes, aims and sufferings but rather treat them as objects to be manipulated or on whom to vent our frustrations…”

West Side Story "Gee Officer Krupke"

Society's Played Him a Terrible Trick

The song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” continues to elude superficial interpretations some fifty years after its composition; perhaps because it captures the entire dramatic project of West Side Story. The song at once displays the work’s comedic sting and capacity to address issues of ongoing social relevance. One of the most far- reaching problems West Side Story confronts is the emergence of the juvenile delinquent as an idea and urban phenomena in the twentieth-century. The term juvenile delinquency developed in the United States as a legal prescription, a way to distinguish between adult criminals and the emotionally or socially immature teens guilty of identical crimes. It is a term that designates preferential treatment and special consideration.

The significance of West Side Story resides in its magnification of this term in songs like “Krupke.” The musical continuously asks whether or not delinquency can be classified wholly within the confines of the law? Whether juvenile delinquency also exhibits its own emotional and social reality that merits as much scrutiny as the crimes it produces. West Side Story develops the exhibitionist qualities of the typical delinquent by infusing such behavior with song and dance to more fully expose the quality of social maladjustment and its adverse consequences.

It must be understood, however, that Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein were theatre artists, not sociologists. As such, several of their presumptions regarding the juvenile delinquent require critical scrutiny. This predicament raises questions concerning the staging of numbers like “Gee, Officer Krupke”: should the Jets narrate their impoverished backgrounds with irony or sincerity? By proxy, are audiences to empathize with their plight or dismiss it as paltry excuses for negligent behavior? Certainly, Bernstein and Laurents were initially inspired by the violent headlines surrounding delinquent gang behavior. The story behind the delinquent as dramatic template proves far more complex than simple black and white judgments.

Many urban delinquents in the mid-twentieth-century were not, for example, raised by delinquent parents. These individuals often came from hardworking, whole families that had become increasingly overwhelmed by chronic financial problems. The most authoritative descriptions of delinquent behavior in the 1950s suggest these problems corroded the traditional family unit and influenced the rise of juvenile delinquency more than cultural or environmental factors. One may argue that the Jets both signify a surrogate family and the dissolution of the family itself; that the emotional satisfaction the rank and file, ace men and rocket men receive from their gang has replaced a greater familial deficit only satirized in pieces like “Krupke.”

A Jet All the Way!

Break a leg with your next performance. I sincerely hope these provoke a thoughtful conversation between yourself and like minded performers. In the meantime, I look forward to your kind feedback and hope you'll check out my other Hub Pages related to the performing arts and drama.

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      mplo28 9 months ago

      Thank you for an excellent and thoughtful post, Barrett. Keep up the great work!

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      mapol 14 months ago

      I love this film! It's so great, and it has everything in it, if one gets the drift. The dancing, the cinematography, the richly-colored costumes, the cast overall, the brilliantly intense Bernstein musical score, the Sondheim lyrics, and the very story behind West Side Story all blend into a dynamic package that, for me, is hard to resist!

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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting and thought provoking analysis. I haven't watched the West Side Story musical for many years. It's time to see it again!

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