West Side Story
The story is Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in the old West Side neighborhood that was redeveloped into Lincoln Center beginning in 1959. Instead of the Montague and Capulet families, we have Sharks and Jets, rival neighborhood gangs.
The original Broadway musical of 1957 became a movie in 1961 and has been in several revivals since, most recently on Broadway in 2020. Steven Spielberg is releasing his version of the story on December 10, 2021.
The original creative team is legendary with Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography). These are all great artists and this is considered their masterpiece. Robbins in particular is interesting because of his stylistic adaptation of African American dance traditions and role as a founding choreographer at New York City Ballet.
The “West Side Story” is a wonderful mix of great storytelling and the irrational prejudice of the times. It’s surprising how some of the issues sung about are still true today. The creative team understood the immigrant experience in the most eloquent way.
We love Natalie Wood, but the casting of White actors as people of color, use of brown face, and implication that all Puerto Ricans are gang members is a shameful legacy, but then we got Rita Moreno.
The only starring Latin who was actually Latin – stole the whole show. Rita Moreno won an Academy Award and went on to an illustrious career at the pinnacle of film, theatre, television and music. She is still at going strong and both stars in and executive produces Spielberg’s 2021 film version.
The opening sequence of the original movie is a beautiful look at old New York City. Much has changed in the last sixty years. One of the most surprising changes is that today “West Side Story” isn’t just a New York story. It’s a story of America.
By enabling us to reflect on the past from the present, the movie begs the question of what kind of country we want to be in the future.
Go see “West Side Story” in the cinema. Take your kids and talk with them about it. Ask them what attitudes they recognize that we consider inappropriate today. And ask them what they loved about the story because there is lots to love.
“I want to live in America…”