West Side Story is my favourite musical of all time. It has everything you could possibly want from a Broadway show: high drama, Shakespearean tragedy, spectacular choreography, stirring music, and notes every tenor dreams of being able to hit. Yet, the more I find out about the show’s conception and dig into its content, the more I fall in love it. Leonard Bernstein’s seminal work hit Broadway in 1957 and set a radical precedent for Musical Theatre in both musical form and content – so much so that it made it onto the Edexcel GCSE music syllabus!
The American composer and conductor was born 100 years ago into a Jewish family and received no musical education until the age of 10. He followed a remarkable trajectory, however, to write several Broadway musicals and symphonies (On the Town, Candide, West Side Story), and become the first American-born director of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was a confectioner of musical genre whose genius ear brought new combinations of international sounds to the American stage. In the recent BBC documentary ‘West Side Stories’, his daughter Jamie Bernstein fondly notes how he ‘built bridges between genres’, amalgamating bee pop Jazz vocabulary with Latin American beats in West Side Story’s impossibly eclectic score. This weaving of melodic and rhythmic patterns reflects New York’s lively cosmopolitanism and the conflict of identity that came with the city’s rapidly changing make-up.
Yet, beyond its musical genius, the show has an important tale to tell. Following the concept of Romeo and Juliet, the musical tracks the relationship of Tony and Maria who fall in love at a chance encounter, but are kept apart by ethnic differences – Tony a white American, and Maria a Puerto Rican. The show spoke directly into the context of 1950s New York when ethnic tension was rising with the increase of immigration; by 1955 over half a million Puerto Ricans had moved to New York hoping for a better future in the ‘free’ world of America.
The city, however, became more divided than ever; wars between gangs were not uncommon and inter-ethnic relations were firmly discouraged. These demarcating lines of prejudice and community isolationism are masterfully reflected in Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. Anita’s song ‘Boy Like That’ warns Maria of the dangers of mixing outside the Puerto Rican community:
Forget that boy and find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind!
The whole way through the show, the text, music and choreography marry together to create a powerful evocation of the tension that hung in the streets of New York. Very few musicals before had tackled such relevant and palpable issues so boldly on the American stage.
West Side Story has stood the test of time not just because of its artistic mastery, but because of its universal message. As the show’s choreographer Jerome Robbins once said, the show is about intolerance all over the world, not just in 1950s New York. In many ways, the show is more relevant today than it ever has been. With Brexit threatening tighter borders, the LGBTQ community facing discrimination across the world, and nationalism on the rise in both America and Europe, the world seems more divided than ever before. Fundamentally, the “forbidden” relationship between Maria and Tony speaks to those who aren’t allowed to be themselves and love who they want to love. The musical seeks to demolish artificial divisions of identity by conveying the dangers we face when that freedom is taken away. At the heart of the show is a message of tolerance.
This overarching message was also reflected in the real-life politics of the Broadway stage. Bernstein was a major advocate for social justice and tried to reflect this in his music and casting. On the Town was one of the rare cases of inter-racial casting in the 1940s and Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the film adaptation of West Side Story, became the first Puerto Rican to win an Academy Award in 1961. Bernstein’s projects were carving the way for social progress and tolerance by giving a platform to ethnic minorities.
Despite the show’s history, however, many new revivals of the show are still criticised for white-washed casting. Most recently, many people complained to the BBC for its poor casting choices at the Proms this year. Sierra Boggess, however, who was due to play Maria in the August concert, humbly turned down the role to make way for a Latina actress and ‘correct a wrong that has been done for years with this show in particular’. Even 60 years after the show started making waves in the theatre world, casting conventions still have a way to go before we see minority groups fairly represented on stage.
And this is why West Side Story will never be confined to the archives as a “museum piece”. Plans are already in full swing for a new film adaptation from Stephen Spielberg, and in December next year Broadway will see a brand-new revival of the show featuring new choreography and authentic casting. It is continued interest like this that demonstrates the timelessness and universality of the show. Bernstein was not only a master composer, but lay the ground for social justice and diversity in theatre. 100 years since his birth, very few composers have come close to reaching the same force of impact that he made during his remarkable career.