To discuss the historical development of musical theatre, this report will present an analysis of Leonard Bernstein’s musical “West Side Story”. It will demonstrate how the 1961 screen version has been adapted for the stage in the 2009 Broadway revival to suit modern day audiences and show its reflection through time with the use of ideas and different styles as well as social and economic influences affecting the works.
The conflict between the two rival gangs that is so central to the story could be further interpreted as a conflict between Catholic and Jewish communities, which was Bernstein’s intention in the beginning. However, Bernstein seized on the idea that current racial tensions in New York caused by immigrants from Puerto Rico would provide a more powerful story and he undoubtedly saw that this would also offer him the opportunity to use a range of Latin-American dance rhythms, for he later said…:
”it all sprang to life. I heard rhythms and pulses, and – most of all – I could sort of feel the form.”
(Bernstein, 2009, p.58)
Much about West Side Story in that time was new and revolutionary. Instead of the old fashioned romance, akin to the earlier musicals, this is a story of bleak despair. Extended dance sequences convey the drama, and in a place of rousing finals, both acts end in murder. Although Shakespeare’s text is not used, his characters are clearly identifiable…:
‘They say Shakespeare’s plays are timeless because they still speak to the human condition today”
Accordingly Arthur Laurent, author of the original book, got a second chance at his creation, and turned the 2009 Broadway West Side Story revival into the musical he always wanted to make. The Daily Telegraph found…:
”There is nothing new about this production of West Side Story – aside from the hot young cast – and it is a prime example of why new is not always best.”
Social constraints of the time prevented certain usage of language, so some dialogue and lyrics were delivered in Spanish. This made a considerable difference without substantially changing the story. Laurent has given the show a more intimate feeling and made the Puerto Rican Sharks and their girls, more complete as characters. They are frustrated as strangers in their own land, and the use of Spanish immediately evokes their separation from the English-speaking Jets and their girls.
The fundamental problems haven’t changed much since the start of West Side Story 50 years ago, as we continue to wrestle with new cultures arriving. More importantly, though, this production sets the story of the two gangs and a brief and star-crossed love affair between Maria and Tony as a young person’s game. The casting here has made the lovers, both breathtaking in their roles, enormously youthful, which gives us more gleeful moments.
It isn’t to be, of course, but from the moment West Side Story begins with the legendary dance prologue through the neighbourhood, faithfully reproduced by Joey McKneely from the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, the show glows with redolent memories and enchants with brilliant new moments. It plays against a remarkably flexible set by James Youmans, used for maximum effectiveness by director David Saint.
”the fundamental problem with the show is its depiction of gang violence and the mean streets of New York.”…: as being said in the Mercury News.
That was always a signature of West Side Story, even in the 1961 screen version, but still well presented with fantastic dance sequences which were half-danced and half-mimed. This new form of dance became a visual symbol of a mode of thought. What the characters were feeling and thinking was expressed by their movement and their identities became inseparable from it.
However, when the movie was released in 1961 it wasn’t the dance which made a big impression, but the social tensions. It showed a fight for urban space, a space that has already been impregnated with cultural symbols and political significations for the relations, interactions, and social actions according to the “American Way of Life.” In this sense, the movie projected how the Puerto Rican migration to New York City in the forties and fifties not only took over the order of the Anglo-Americans, but how it also constitutes a threat for the assumed monolithic identity of the Anglo-American subject. New York City was shown as a divided territory, economically, racially, and ethnically. Each social-economic group inhabited a space and even neighbourhood border crossings were avoided.
West Side Story is up to date not only because of it’s lengthy dance numbers, emotionally drenched songs and scores, and a contemporary plot that speaks so much of the place and time where the story took place, but also because we are now in a place and time where social-economic issues continue to prevail in every household and community and where racial discrimination is still rampant.
The new Broadway revival speaks not only of this show’s unwavering popularity but also of the timeliness of the message it delivers, a message of love, peace and harmonious co-existence regardless of race and social-economic backgrounds. This message clearly transcends five decades of an ever-changing political, economic, social and cultural landscape and is still relevant up to this day.
West Side Story shows how dancing, acting, singing and design could blend together in unity. Whether it’s an old version of the musical or a new one, we might say that…:
”it marked the most impressive body of choreography in a single show, and it was acclaimed as Leonard Bernstein’s strongest work for the Broadway stage.”
(Garebein, 2000, p.9)