West Side Story is 60 years old--why is it still beloved? Or is it?
West Side Story spread around the world on stage and screen as an exemplary musical of both Broadway and Hollywood. Its story of juvenile delinquency entered political debates around the world as well, and its portrayal of the world divided into two camps fit the ongoing Cold War between the super-powers of the U.S. and the Soviet Union as much as the bitter local fights around the world, such as that between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
But the story was also almost immediately nostalgic. Gun shoot-outs replaced rumbles with knives; drugs escalated the stakes in battles over city blocks; and New York faced not only heightened racial and ethnic tensions but a growing fiscal crisis by the end of the 1960s. The 1968 revival of West Side Story marked the changes: it took place in the theater at Lincoln Center, the marble performing arts complex that was the centerpiece of the largest urban renewal project that transformed the Upper West Side. Re-creating the iconic picture from the original production of Maria pulling Tony down a city street, the young actors look out of place and almost embarrassingly naïve. A tough-guy picture with a fence separating the lovers did little to make the forbidden love more relevant to the moment.
Not only was urban life changing, so too were musicals. The 1968 revival occurred at the same time as Hair appeared on Broadway, blocks south of Lincoln Center. Hair was a new picture of youth with stories of drugs, rock ‘n roll, biracial sex, homosexuality, and, of course, long hair. West Side Story confirmed the genius of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Oliver Smith, all of whom continued their prominence in dance, music, playwriting, and set design. But it launched the career of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Sondheim as composer, lyricist, and librettist, with direction by Hal Prince, would establish the next revolution on Broadway. In Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), Sondheim banished sentimentality from the musical form.
The most challenging legacy of the production has been the impact on Puerto Ricans. In updating Romeo & Juliet, the creators had picked up on the dramatic increase in migration of Puerto Ricans to New York. The story propelled Puerto Ricans onto stage and screen but also became the dominant representation of them for decades. The musical’s worldwide success made it hard to see Puerto Ricans beyond the characters of Bernardo, Anita, and the Sharks. Puerto Ricans on the mainland began to assert their rights as part of the broadening of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and denouncing the stereotypes of West Side Story was a central rallying cry. West Side Story became marked as distributing prejudice against Puerto Ricans—not unraveling it.
There was not a major revival of the show on Broadway from 1980 to 2007, an indication of its discomfiting issues of representation, naïve politics, and the turn to spectacle in musicals with the high-grossing Cats (1980), Phantom of the Opera (1986) and Les Misérables (1987). West Side Story’s ongoing less controversial fame was as a story of wayward, longing youth. Michael Jackson saw this and featured competing, dancing gangs first in “Beat it” (1982) and then in a New York subway station in his video for “Bad” (1987). By the early 2000s, the production was more likely seen in bits of commercials and parodies, from three widely-celebrated commercials for the Gap in 2000 (with the Khakis as the Jets and Jeans as the Sharks) to references in television shows and movies ranging from Robert DeNiro caricatures in Analyze That (2002) to spoofs on Scrubs (2002), Family Guy (1999), and The Simpsons (2011). More recently, both Ugly Betty (2007) and Glee (2011) have incorporated West Side Story into plots that put its nostalgic view of youth alongside more contemporary realities. West Side Story is common enough to be known, well-worn enough to poke fun at, and survives through reinvention.
One of the most recent reinventions has been a Broadway revival in 2009, which incorporated Spanish into the lyrics and dialogue. This change required the talent and skills of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who leapt to Broadway fame just a year earlier with In the Heights (2008), a heart-warming tale of love and longing among Latino/as on the far upper west side of Manhattan in the neighborhood of Washington Heights. Miranda had played Bernardo in a 6th grade production of West Side Story, and directed his high school version; he also had the typical ambivalent Puerto Rican response to the show, understanding it as both a blessing and a curse. In the Heights was his riposte: Miranda created a vision of home on a corner of a New York City street (recreated in a set by Anna Louizos).
West Side Story is not a vision of New York today. The west side is one of the most expensive areas of the city, with Lincoln Center as a temple to the high arts at its heart. Drugs have changed the purpose of gangs. Minorities are the majority in the city. And yet as Carnegie Hall’s “Somewhere” project has demonstrated, the story still defines us, by showing what we are not but also what remain. Yearning to belong, and to love.
Images from New York Public Library and Carnegie Hall.
Images curated and text written by Julia Foulkes.