Fifty years ago this week, the musical West Side Story opened on Broadway. Marya Mannes, an American journalist writing for the BBC’s Listener, opened a piece on the play with the comment that “the people of this great city are turning dark while the buildings are turning light—a complete reversal of values from the days when I was a child and New York was a town of white faces and brown buildings.” Then, as now, racial and ethnic differences and conflicts are central to the fascination of the play. But it hasn't always been easy to recognize that or talk about it.
When West Side Story opened, some Puerto Ricans complained that play stereotyped them as criminals and mocked them in songs like "America." At the same time, New York critics recognized the animosities of the Jets and the Sharks but tended to see them as "juvenile delinquents"--teenage hoodlums who represented a deviant youth culture, not shock troops of ethnic conflict in a changing city.
There was plenty of racial and ethnic conflict in New York City during the summer of 1957, but people didn't always find it easy to identify it.
Indeed, in the summer just before West Side Story opened, a white youth from Washington Heights, Michael Farmer, was killed by a mostly Black and Hispanic gang. The nub of the matter was that a mostly Irish gang, the Jesters, saw it as their job to keep mostly Black and Hispanic gangs, the Dragons and Egyptian Kings, out of the pool. The conflict culminated in the slaying of Farmer, who may or may not have been a Jester.
But coverage of the story in the metropolitan press, courtroom procedures in the trial that followed, and a deliberately low-key response by Democratic Mayor Robert Wagner muted discussions of racial and ethnic conflict in the city. People emphasized the "crazy kids," and not the larger structures of power and prejudice that motivated them.
In this climate, West Side Story raised subjects--ethnic conflict, juvenile delinquency, and murder--that New Yorkers preferred to avoid: they clashed with the image of a liberal city that could solve all its problems. Still, the play is imperfect. The accents in "America" still make me cringe, and the paucity of well-rounded depictions of Puerto Ricans in the popular culture of the Fifties made the Sharks loom large in unfair and distorting ways. Nevertheless, as Frances Negron-Muntaner noted in her book Boricua Pop, the play still draws people in--Puerto Ricans included.
Fifty years old, West Side Story gives us glorious dance and song--and more. Drawing on the Thirties tradition of socially conscious plays, alive to the issues of the Fifties, and committed to the musical as an art form that was both brilliant and popular, Leonard Bernstein and his collaborators created a work of enduring power.
Partly that's because the play recognizes an issue that is still part of of our time: ethnic conflict. More important, it looks at ethnic conflict in a spirit that we still need: a belief that a great work of theater can help us understand the tragedy of hate and move us toward making a better world.