S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. I’m Kurt Andersen and this is the Studio 360 podcast.
S2: 62 years after it opened on Broadway West Side Story is everywhere again. A new movie directed by Steven Spielberg. From a screenplay by Tony Kushner just wrap production in New York and will open in theaters next December a year from now. And this December there’s a new Broadway revival directed by the Tony Award winning director Ivo van Hove. Maybe you yourself were cast in a high school production of West Side Story. Or otherwise remember the story of rival gangs the white ethnic jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks as some kind of quaint 50s nostalgia like Greece. But the show actually was a real groundbreaker in musical theater and the way it has been received over the years is complicated. The same Puerto Ricans with whom the musical really strikes a chord. A lot of times it really also hits a nerve with them. For our latest New York icons feature producer Jennifer Van ASCO brings us the story of how West Side Story was made and why it continues to enthrall and sometimes enrage audiences.
S3: That’s coming up but first I want to remind you to follow us on Twitter at Studio 360 show.
S4: And now back to the podcast West Side Story it was originally East Side Story as in the Lower East Side where a generation of immigrants had settled after arriving from southern and eastern Europe in the early nineteen hundreds. Many of those immigrants were Jewish. Like the family of playwright Arthur Laurence.
S5: He was born. Arthur Levine he changed his name. He said later to get a job. That’s a similar story to choreographer Jerome Robbins. He was born Jerome Rabinowitz on the Upper East Side. So in 1949 Robbins approached Lawrence and composer Leonard Bernstein. With an idea. An updated version of Romeo and Juliet centered on dance. Lawrence died in 2011 but nine years earlier he explained how this East Side Story would imagine a conflict not between families but between different immigrant groups.
S6: And the girl I think was to be Catholic and the boy was to be Jewish. It’s take place on the east side during Easter Passover. Lawrence and Bernstein’s thought.
S4: It was too similar to a play that was a hit in the 1920s called 80s Irish Rose.
S7: Maybe so.
S6: Nothing happened. Then some years later Lenny and I were both in California.
S4: This was in 1955. Lenny is Leonard Bernstein.
S6: He was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Very glamorous. Well he was glamorous. So I went over to have a swim there with him and he was sitting on the edge of the pool dragging our feet in the water. And there had been.
S8: Gang wars the night before in Los Angeles in the six years since Robbins had first approached them.
S9: Urban life had changed.
S10: Gangs were in the news all over the country. This is what a gang fight looks like. Different towns call them by different names.
S4: In New York it’s a rumble. And Lawrence was looking for a story that meant something to urban theater audiences something contemporary.
S5: Ripped from the headlines. People thought that was it. That was a great idea. Bernstein wanted to set it in Los Angeles with a Chicano gang.
S11: I said we can do it in New York Puerto Ricans gives you an indication of their ego and ambition. That’s a story Angela Julia folks. She’s the author of A plays for us West Side Story in New York. They are relatively young still right. They’re not you know they’re not newcomers anymore but they’re in their 40s basically so they’re poised to take on even William Shakespeare at this point. Lawrence M. Bernstein brought a new lyricist onboard a young guy who’d never written for Broadway before Stephen Sondheim.
S5: And Sondheim as well as Lawrence Robbins Bernstein. They were all Jewish. Eventually it was understood that there were all also gay so they knew what it meant to be an outsider could be discriminated against.
S9: To not be able to openly love the person they wanted to love to have to fight to be recognized as American.
S11: There is still this sort of sense of like who gets to be here who gets to claim their place. And I think the story resonates because of that.
S12: It’s not just anywhere. It’s in a densely populated city where people are coming from all different places speaking different languages claiming different heritages and claiming different futures. And it’s like.
S4: I too get to be here all these themes will be woven into West Side Story in place of Romeo is Tony. This is from the 1961 film version. Maria each. Of. These Polish American a former gang member trying for a respectable life.
S13: Instead of Juliet. Maria Rita innocent newly arrived from the island mother and father who wake up. Just bringing.
S4: The two warring sides here are not mounted using Capulets but two gangs the Italian Polish Irish or just white ethnic jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The new Latino is dangerous. You. Know. I’m not one of them.
S14: But you are not one of us.
S9: This new version remained true to Jerome Robbins core concept.
S15: Romeo and Juliet first notes included things like you could have the balcony scene on a fire escape you could have some sort of mock wedding scene in a bridal shop but something else had changed between 1949 and 1955 humanism in reality is not a political party.
S16: It is a way of life an evil and malignant way of life.
S4: Lawrence had been suspected of being a communist and Robbins had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1953.
S15: He admitted to being a Communist Party member for a few years.
S17: He named names all of which were seen by many as a very violent act of betrayal and that he endangered their lives and their jobs and their livelihood.
S4: ROBBINS hadn’t called Lawrence a communist but Lawrence had testified too and he hadn’t named names. And as a result he was blacklisted in Hollywood folks thinks Robbins felt guilty.
S15: One of the things that he’d never pushed against is when Lawrence put in the script a line about being a stool pigeon.
S4: Didn’t nobody tell you there’s a difference between being a stool pigeon and cooperating with the law. Robinson never common it about that line and didn’t take it out or at least not out of the Broadway musical.
S15: It isn’t in the movie and I think that’s because he knew that he had betrayed others and he had betrayed himself on some level as well perhaps so in the making of a musical about rivalry and tension.
S4: There was a bit of rivalry and tension among the collaborators.
S18: And yet once rehearsal started they were a team. Now I don’t know what happened at night you know over the drinks or during the day when there was a meeting they could have knifed each other and rapped their throats in some Chita Rivera is now a Broadway legend.
S4: Rivera was just 21 and starting off as a dancer when a friend suggested she should audition for West Side Story.
S19: So I went and I loved the career. I loved every thing about it. The music blew me away. She was offered the role of Anita.
S20: The Puerto Rican girlfriend the leader of the sharks. Rivera herself is Puerto Rican.
S4: She was only one of two Latino people who are cast in speaking parts. And I called my mother in DC and I said mom.
S19: They’ve just offered me a show.
S20: I think it was two hundred and fifty years that would be good something she knew during rehearsals that West Side Story was something special. The power that came from Leonard Bernstein when he conducted the sound of Stephen’s hands on that piano Jerry Robbins. The genius. And. You. Know those moments.
S21: You know you hear. But.
S19: I dare you hear that and your skin. I go up. Rivera’s character Anita is with the sharks.
S22: One of the original Broadway jets is Grover Dale.
S23: When you’re a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dyin day when it was announced that Robbins was thinking about casting on the gnomes club buzz really went crazy. And those auditions were unbelievable.
S4: In the early 1950s Dale had moved from a steel town near Pittsburgh to the Upper West Side. Were you living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood.
S24: Yes I was Amsterdam and Columbus from 79 up in the high 80s that was gang territory and it was Turkey walking on the street. I kept my mouth shut. I minded my own business.
S4: The city was a tough place to live. But it was better than where he came from.
S23: I mean I was used to being punished for dancing you know. I was told on this jury and Ricky’s four boys play football and chase girls they don’t.
S24: Downs you know maybe that’s why we’re drawn to New York. Maybe why we pursue or are or whatever we dream of doing here. There is a chance for it.
S25: Jeff went way round.
S9: Dale got his big chance when Robins cast him as the jet colored snow boy right away Robin said he wanted the Jets and Sharks to maintain the rivalry offstage because the thing that makes Maria and Tony’s romance impossible is his hatred between the two gangs. He said look.
S23: There can be no socializing outside of rehearsal. This is where it all has to happen. We have to be faithful to it. No socializing. Dale got it immediately. And I remember arriving early backstage and there by the stage door I see a stack of cardboard and I get this goofy idea. So he goes upstairs to the dressing room with a box of crayons and I pick up a largest piece of cardboard I had and I started drawing a big.
S24: Shark with punctured with stab wounds and blood.
S4: Other dead start arriving. He shows them his giant bleeding cardboard shark and at lunchtime they have an idea.
S26: We carried it up to the flight floor over the stage and waited till everybody came back from lunch including Robbins. The sharks are on the stage and juries love them and they say.
S23: Where are the jets.
S27: Quietly the Jets pick up the bleeding shark and drop it from the rafters lands center stage right in front of his feet and we scream. The sharks are dead meat he warns. It’s exactly. The spirit of competition that he wanted to get going.
S9: In those early rehearsals. Robbins was still working out the new steps. Dancers didn’t usually act back then but. HAVENS wanted something new to create characters through movement to have the dancers convey a sense of menace. And he wanted all the major dramatic action. The fighting killing.
S27: To happen through dance. So for three or four hours he just were trying to test our street credentials.
S24: OK you know how tough we could be. How we could snap our fingers.
S4: Robbins was known as a taskmaster but both Dale and Rivera say he might have been tough. But the results were worth it.
S28: I mean when he looked at he gave you know like this and he had you in your eye and he was telling you what to do.
S19: You did things you never thought you could do before you knew what you were doing it because he was talking you through it and you wanted to please him because it looks so good when he did it that you said I want that feeling.
S4: And then after weeks and weeks of work and an out of town tryout it was opening night.
S29: September 26 1957. The curtain comes down on the last scene.
S24: There was absolute silence. Oh my God I’m in a floor.
S30: And then suddenly it erupted. This standing ovation. We had no idea. And it was this mash bam.
S31: Smash hit. But we lost music to Tony.
S4: That’s right. West Side Story did not win the Tony that went to the music man.
S32: Music Man looked and sounded much more like what a typical Broadway musical sounded like. You know a lot of song and dance a romance a happy ending. West Side Story really challenged all of those norms.
S4: Jack Fertel is a Broadway producer and the author of The Secret Life of the American musical. He saw the original production when he was 8 or 9 years old and he still remembers the scene where Maria and Tony’s eyes meet at a dance. And they fall instantly in love.
S33: The moment when those two see each other. Tony and Maria is so poetically done and you know by looking at them as they enter from opposite sides of the stage and they look at each other and you think oh. Fate.
S4: For the end of the first act the Jets and Sharks rumble as the curtain closes for intermission both the head of the Jets and the head of the sharks lie dead on the stage and I remember being actually completely shocked and in tears at the intermission.
S32: I mean I knew the story I knew this was going to happen but I was not prepared for the experience of having it happen in front of me. Performed by live people in a dance sequence. It was really shocking. It may have been the first time I was ever really shocked at the theater and moved in that way.
S4: And remember it’s based on Romeo and Juliet. The play doesn’t end happily. The lovers don’t get together. In fact one of them dies. Neither gang is triumphant. All that’s left is the consequences of violence. And at the end Maria is onstage surrounded by both gangs holding the gun that killed Tony. I mean that scene at the end that shocked town once I think jets and the other day back.
S34: How do you find this gun and Marines in the middle with Tony pulling this little trigger. How many bullets are left. You know she attacks them now. What do you all. You did it and you know all of you all love you.
S35: You want to him and my brother and rape. Not with the bullets and guns.
S34: With hate. I mean goose pimples. When I couldn’t kill you because now I have eight.
S4: How many Fertel says before West Side Story. Serious tragic narratives were reserved for plays and musicals were upbeat but then this story used dance and music to make the tragedy visceral and it challenged the very foundations of what a musical could be. West Side Story pushed something forward that then became unstoppable so that it led to it gave permission for things like cabaret and then things like company and follies and then eventually things like fun home and dear Evan Hansen the musical closed and the cast went to perform it in London.
S13: But then it came back to Broadway in 1960 and was even more popular. And then. Unlike other classics. West Side Story.
S36: The film was released in October 1961.
S4: It became the second highest grossing film of the year and won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture.
S37: It starred Natalie Wood a muddy take the Tom and Rita Moreno sometimes said on the latest thicker guest scowl or your accent.
S22: The opening was shot in San Juan Hill a Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhood. The production was shooting at the same time the neighborhood was being torn down to make way for Lincoln Center and new luxury apartment buildings. The filmmakers wanted to show the rubble to convey a sense of crumbling in the middle of rapid growth. The landscape of New York both physically and demographically are really being ripped into the visual language of the film itself.
S4: The demographics of the city are changing drastically. In the 1950s and 60s you have white folks that are moving out to the suburbs following some of the jobs that were migrating outside of metropolitan areas. And forcing along hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were migrating to New York. All right Dan Choi and a half million migrated between 1950 and 1960.
S38: Continental Airlines announces the arrival of Flight 848 tourists flight from San Juan Puerto Rico.
S15: There was increased use of airplanes and so people were traveling instead of by boat and a much longer sort of voyage. They could go back and forth to the island of Puerto Rico much more easily and faster. Some people sort of described actually the flight from San Juan Puerto Rico as a kind of bus. In some ways just basically a bus with wings.
S4: Movie audiences in New York and elsewhere thought that West Side Story was giving them insight into the lives of the new arrivals.
S39: It’s their entry point in engaging with that Puerto Rican experience. My name is Francis Natoma Bennett. I am a professor at Columbia University.
S4: She says the film portrays Puerto Ricans as violent and also colorful. They’re great dancers. The women are Spitfires or virgins. It uses brown face to make the actors darker than they would naturally be. Also like the play The film has lyrics like this sung by Anita. Maggie shot. Which is not how Puerto Ricans typically see their homeland.
S20: In fact an actual Puerto Rican Song of the time captured by WNYC host Tony Schwartz and translated by someone listening to it criticizes the mainland.
S40: Since I came here the go whether is trying to kill me. This is not my country. I am very disgusted.
S4: Shereen Marisol Marashi is the host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast. Her mother is Puerto Rican and would sing songs from West Side Story to her and her brother at bedtime and on long car trips.
S41: Q We go back to America Marathi spoke on a panel at the Kennedy Center. My favorite song To Love and hate in West Side Story My favorite song to love because I know that that that that is that that you know I love the rhythm the how it propels you forward I want to get up I want to dance and I think the lyrics are the part of that song that are really powerful like life can be bright in America if you can fight in America. Life is all right in America if you’re all white in America. I’m like wow this is 1957 nine some radical stuff to be saying.
S42: But I’m thinking about people who don’t know anything about Puerto Rico I’m Puerto Rican. And listening to island of tropical diseases where the hurricanes are blowing in the populations growing and the natives are steaming I mean there’s just so many things where you’re leg Oh. The stereotype. So that song. I love it and I cringe sometimes when I’m singing it to myself.
S4: All of this may not have mattered if there were dozens of films mining the Puerto Rican experience but there weren’t then and there aren’t now. Which is why Professor Negro Martinez says so many people have Puerto Rican heritage are angry when West Side Story is remade or re mounted because it has nothing to do with the actual Puerto Rican experience. But it’s still the lens through which many white mainland Americans see Puerto Ricans despite the fact that there are major Puerto Rican movie stars.
S39: There are major Puerto Rican stars in music and other areas of cultural production in the United States. The main and still major reference point. Culturally that’s appreciate it. Consider a valuable part of American culture itself is with a story.
S43: My mom is a fan of something she thinks it’s so the songs are so clever and it’s so glamorous.
S4: Radio and Noelle is a poet writer and professor at New York University. He says for many older Puerto Ricans like his mother Westside Story was their first chance to see themselves up on a big screen as three dimensional characters.
S22: Lin Manuel Miranda creator of Hamilton and a Puerto Rican himself has said he couldn’t believe it when he realized the sharks were Puerto Rican. And. After Hurricane Maria devastated the island he raised money for relief efforts by releasing a song that pulled its course directly from the song Maria. While most.
S4: Like Miranda many Latino artists have remixed West Side Story over the decades allowing them to make the musical their own thought reflects how they see their own culture instead of how white people see it.
S22: Newell points to Abdul’s short film West Side Story redux which blends Puerto Rican singing plus sounds of emergency radios and images of police brutality.
S9: There’s iconic Cuban singer Lily Bay who sang America in Spanish in the 1960s.
S44: There’s comedian Suni Reyes as parody video that serves combating immigration growing and that Jones Act stealing and that Congress.
S22: And there’s Bobby Sanabria as West Side Story reimagined which takes Bernstein’s music and sets it to a Latin beat.
S43: Only artists and writers who’ve been really bold in saying I’m not giving up on the style. Right on the fabulous city.
S4: But Noel says for millennials the world is just different.
S43: I think for a lot of younger folks who maybe didn’t grow up right with the aura of West Side Story it feels like what’s the point right. We have all these that we have Sonia Sotomayor. We have all all these other figures right. And so why are we still harking back right to all this stuff from the 60s.
S4: Why are we still talking about West Side Story. It’s just so good the music the dancing. If it wasn’t so technically good it’s a work of art. It would have been forgotten a long time ago. But we also keep coming back to it because while it’s about a clash of cultures and about people’s efforts to bridge them and to find a place where everyone can fit New York has long been celebrated as a city where anyone has the opportunity to make their dreams come true. Historian Julia folks that is not this story. It’s not that story because Brownstein Lawrence Sondheim in Robbins knew that a happy shiny easy City of Dreams wasn’t their own New York. Their New York was one of outsiders of competition of different ideas smashing against each other and that’s why this tale about a few blocks in one neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan has resonated around the world. Because other outsiders from other places who are familiar with the kind of discord that comes with dense cities of diverse populations.
S22: People who just want a place to call their own. They say this is our story too.
S37: This is US and South Africa. This is us on the West Bank. You know these places of such conflict are actually some of the places where it has played the most you know all of that trying to just find your place asking meeting your earning to belong in your own ways defined in your own terms I think is something that really does resonate with a lot of people. That story was produced by Jennifer Van ASCO who was a theater critic for WNYC.
S45: New York icons are made possible by a grant from the booth Ferris Foundation.
S3: And you can find and listen to all of our other New York icons at Studio 360 dot org.
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