An Out and Out Plea for Racial Tolerance: West Side Story, Civil Rights, and Immigration Politics

Carnegie Hall

Essay by Carol J. Oja

Image from photographer Bruce Davidson's essay Brooklyn Gang (1959)

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When West Side Story debuted on Broadway in September 1957, the show immediately gained fame for its bold artistic vision and unflinching engagement with social concerns of the day: racial unrest, urban gang violence, immigration and altercations with the police. As it turned out, it opened in close conjunction with the forced racial integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas – a landmark moment in the Civil Rights Movement, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to force an all-white school to enroll nine African American students.

Even though aspects of West Side Story can seem dated today, its plea for tolerance continues to resonate, and the show has relevance for ever-new generations of audiences. Currently in the United States, #Black Lives Matter pushes back against racially motivated police violence, while a shocking level of xenophobia defines public discourse in the era of Donald Trump. In the European Union, controversy rages about how to deal with the largest wave of displaced people since World War II. As a result, the opening words of West Side Story’s utopian anthem, "Somewhere," feel as relevant now as they did nearly sixty years ago:


There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
Somewhere.

The power of "Somewhere" communicates as much through sound as through the lyrics, with its initial melodic leap of a minor seventh having become instantly recognizable over time as a sonic emblem of hope triumphing over despair.

Image by Bruce Davidson: Hampton, Virginia, 1962.

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West Side Story grew out of an intense collaboration on the part of its creative team, each of whom had a strong record of advocating for racial justice through performance. Leonard Bernstein, the show’s composer, and Jerome Robbins, its choreographer and director, had been collaborators since their very first Broadway show, On the Town of 1944. In that early production, they took progressive steps in choosing the cast and representing racial issues on stage: they integrated the dance chorus, defying racial taboos of the day by having white women hold hands with black men, and they hired a Japanese American dancer for a starring role. As a result, they put before the public a vision of a mixed-race citizenry, doing so at a time when the entertainment industry and the country at large were rigorously segregated. Their staging choices also pushed back against the rampant vilification of Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II.

As time passed, both Bernstein and Robbins continued to address race. In Bernstein’s case, he consistently defied racial barriers by featuring black performers, including on his nationally televised "Young People’s Concerts" with the New York Philharmonic, which began in 1958. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for West Side Story, had previously confronted racial injustice in Home of the Brave, a play and film from the 1940's that featured a mixed-race cast. Stephen Sondheim, who wrote West Side Story’s lyrics, was a twenty-something when the show was being developed – too young to have established a track record of any sort.

Image by Bruce Davidson: Leonard Bernstein rehearsing for a Young People's Concert. (1959)

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West Side Story aimed for the same kind of here-and-now aesthetic, as I have termed it in Bernstein Meets Broadway, that defined On the Town. Yet it was edgier and angrier – more aggressively contemporary. The show was set in New York City in the 1950s, and it intentionally exposed a gritty side of urban life, almost as though it aspired to be a mockumentary – or fictionalized documentary. The show’s warring gangs represented immigrant groups at different stages of assimilation. The "Sharks" were newly arrived Puerto Ricans, derided for their difference, and the "Jets," who were identified as "Polacks" in the show, had arrived in the U.S. a generation or so earlier and had a cocky sense of being insiders – an ethnic version of nouveau riche. Arthur Laurents later called the Jets "thugs" and "killers." The mutual hatred of these gangs encased the show’s now-famous remake of Romeo and Juliet, producing a doomed love story in which the sexual and spiritual attraction of two teenagers initially transcends the ethnic difference between them but ultimately is annihilated by hatred. By violating ethnic taboos, Maria and Tony were guilty of miscegenation, a common term at the time for mixed-race marriages. As of 1957, miscegenation remained against the law in many states, and another ten years were to pass before Loving v. Virginia, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned all such discriminatory legislation.

West Side Story built on a history of Broadway musicals that confronted racism. Perhaps its most closely related predecessor was South Pacific of 1949, one of the core shows of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Miscegenation runs through both of South Pacific’s main plot lines. The French colonial planter Emile de Becque falls in love with Nellie, an American military nurse raised in the South, and he is exposed for having children with a Pacific Islander. Nellie at first rejects him because of those relationships, but eventually she becomes tolerant and accepting. A secondary plot unfolds between Cable, a white Princeton-educated lieutenant in the U.S. military, and Liat, a Pacific Islander, who are also violating racial codes through their sexual attraction. "You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught," a number sung by Cable, issues a lecture on racism, declaring that it is not intrinsic to humans but rather is socially constructed.

The creative team of West Side Story made their Civil Rights’ agenda quite clear. In his personal copy of Romeo and Juliet, now housed at the Library of Congress, Bernstein wrote that West Side Story was "an out and out plea for racial tolerance." Decades later, in the final volume of his memoir, Arthur Laurents recalled that the show "was about how love can survive in a world of bigotry and violence."

Leonard Bernstein’s copy of Romeo and Juliet with handwritten notes, including the remark “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.”

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West Side Story premiered in a volatile stretch of American racial history. In 1954 the Supreme Court declared the widespread practice of segregating public schools to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1955 Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the "colored" section of a bus, provoking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum steadily, with major events happening in close proximity to West Side Story’s opening. On August 30, 1957, just short of a month before the show’s premiere, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina launched a filibuster in the Senate that lasted over 24 hours. His goal was to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first in a string of legislative initiatives that eventually led to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite Thurmond’s determined effort, the 1957 legislation was signed into law, as school desegregation took center stage.

As a result, the unplanned back-to-back coincidence of the debut of West Side Story with the forced desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School meant that the two were covered simultaneously in the press. On September 27, 1957, when West Side Story received a glowing review in the New York Times, the Little Rock crisis appeared on the front page. The same was true of Time magazine, with its issue of October 7, 1957, featuring Little Rock on the cover and a review of West Side Story on the inside.

Today, we have lost a sense of the systematic thoroughness of racial segregation, even in a liberal northern urban center like New York City, and professional performance was as racially determined as other spheres of employment and public activity. Yet in the 1950s historic changes were taking place. To cite a few key moments: the African American contralto Marian Anderson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in January 1955, becoming the first black singer to be featured by the company. That same year, the African American dancer Arthur Mitchell premiered with New York City Ballet, and in 1958 the Alvin Ailey Dance Company was founded.

The inaugural production of West Side Story played a role in integrating the theatrical world, at the same time as its casting demographics fell short by today’s standards. Chita Rivera (the original Anita) and Jamie Sánchez (the original Chino) were both of Puerto Rican descent, and Donald McKayle, the dance captain, was African American. The Sharks’ Girls included the African American actress Elizabeth Taylor (a separate person from the famed white movie celebrity) and Carmen Gutierrez, who was Latina.

Perhaps most famously, the African American soprano Reri Grist played the role of Consuelo, another of the Sharks’ girls. Grist was the first performer to sing "Somewhere," and the fact that a black singer inaugurated that utopian song deserves to be underscored. For Grist, a trained opera singer with an extraordinary voice, the show launched her career, yet she faced the cruel limits of segregation in the United States. A feature article about her from Ebony, a popular magazine targeted to black readers, appeared in March 1965 and criticized the Metropolitan Opera for its longstanding racial exclusions, maintaining that Grist had been denied an opportunity there on the basis of race. Grist moved to Germany, enjoying a successful career in European opera houses.

Yet as time has passed, casting decisions for West Side Story that appeared progressive within the context of racial politics in 1957 have since been judged as tokenism, and the show has been resoundingly criticized for stereotyping Latina/os. In the original production of West Side Story, many Latina/o characters were played by whites who darkened their complexions with make-up. Carol Lawrence took the role of Maria, representing the most striking case. Another prominent instance was Ken Le Roy, who played Bernardo, the brother of Maria.

The 2009 Broadway revival, directed by Arthur Laurents, sought to address these inequities. Lin-Manuel Miranda translated some of the lyrics for Puerto Rican characters into Spanish, which made a substantive difference in representing ethnicity respectfully. Miranda has since achieved extraordinary success on Broadway with his show Hamilton; in 2009, when West Side Story’s revival debuted, he was known as composer of the Tony-Award-winning In the Heights. In the revival Josefina Scaglione, an actress born in Argentina, played the role of Maria, and Karen Olivo, of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, took the role of Anita, for which she won a Tony Award.

Article in the New York Times, August 1, 1957.

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Another central component of West Side Story’s here-and-now aesthetic focused on gang violence, which captured headlines in the 1950s while a major wave of Puerto Rican immigration to New York City was taking place. At a peak in 1953, 75,000 Puerto Ricans left the island. They tended to favor a couple of New York City neighborhoods, with the heaviest concentration in East Harlem and the second largest stretching from West 122nd Street to West 155th on the edge of Washington Heights. As these demographic changes unfolded, newspapers chronicled a rash of teen violence. "Five youths displaying their prowess before a gang of fifteen girls critically wounded a boy on the West Side last night," reported the New York Times on March 6, 1956. "Four youths were arrested last night in the aftermath of a teenage gang fight in Washington Heights in which one youngster was fatally stabbed," declared another article on August 1, 1957.

Image by Bruce Davidson: "Playing stickball on Seventeenth Street and Eighth Avenue" from Brooklyn Gang (1959)

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In searching for realistic ways to depict the dances of these kids, Jerome Robbins essentially undertook urban fieldwork, including a trip to watch a high school dance in Puerto Rican Harlem. "They do dances that I’ve never seen before, evolving their own style and approach," Robbins wrote to his friend, the dancer Tanaquil LeClercq, in February 1957 while at work on West Side Story. With The King and I of 1951, Robbins had already choreographed a show that depicted the exotic, and he also had a history of conducting on-site research to observe body movement and contemporary social dance. This aspect of his work stretched back to early collaborations with Bernstein in the ballet Fancy Free and the show On the Town, where Robbins observed how sailors carried their bodies on the streets of wartime New York City; he also incorporated movements from the Lindy hop and other popular swing dances of the 1940s. With West Side Story, Robbins’s technique of forbidding the Jets and Sharks to fraternize at rehearsals, which has since become legendary, offered yet another tool for provoking an edgy realism.

Image by Bruce Davidson: "Five figures in Brooklyn" from Brooklyn Gang (1959)

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Much of the fury of the juvenile delinquents in West Side Story gets expressed through dance, spoken dialogue and the orchestral score – more so than through songs and lyrics. But one number in particular – "Gee, Officer Krupke" – articulates their plight explicitly. It is sung by the Jets, the gang of barely assimilated Eastern Europeans, and it is a brilliant outsiders’ anthem, with disadvantaged youth revealing insightful self-awareness. "Krupke" takes place in Act II, Scene 2, between "Somewhere" and Anita’s enraged song, "A Boy Like That." The number is strophic, with each verse delivering a mock session with a different social-service agent or adult authority figure. At the opening, the kids ask not to be viewed as "delinquents" but rather as figures who are doomed by their upbringing.


Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses – natcherly we’re punks!


Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We’ve never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
We’re misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!

"Gang Slang" from the New York Times, October 20, 1957.

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These kids depict a deteriorating social fabric, offering a remix of "You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught," albeit with a completely different tone. For while "Krupke," like its predecessor in South Pacific, delivers a searing indictment, it stands apart by packaging the message in giddy comedy, starting with a tempo designation of "Fast, vaudeville style." Bernstein often turned to camp when the focus shifted to gender difference or hot-button political issues, and true to that pattern, the third verse of "Gee, Officer Krupke" makes an overt reference to cross-dressing. It also utters a plea for jobs and economic security. The overall effect is deliriously devastating, and the number concludes with a sassy step ’n’ kick arrangement. In the last line, the kids flip off a police officer:


Gee, Officer Krupke,
We’re down on our knees,
’Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease.
Gee, Officer Krupke,
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke,
Krup you!

In terms of both historical timing and political messaging, then, West Side Story responded to the Civil Rights Movement by putting race and immigration on center stage. It dealt squarely with social and political crises of its day at the same time as it produced innovative art and engrossing entertainment. Like most works that turn out to be classics, West Side Story has continued to speak to audiences around the world, and its relevance to contemporary politics shows no signs of diminishing.

Image by Bruce Davidson: View of Statue of Liberty with the photographer's reflection, New York City, 1958

Credits: Story

Carol J. Oja is William Powell Mason Professor of Music and American Studies at Harvard University. Her recent book, Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Oxford University Press, 2014), won the Music in American Culture Award from the American Musicological Society.


Cover image by Bruce Davidson: Led by Martin Luther King Jr., a group of civil rights demonstrators marches from Selma to Montgomery to fight for black suffrage, Alabama, 1965


Images used with permission from their respective copyright holders, including Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc., The New York Times, and TIME.

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