West Side Story: There's a place for us - Must Read Alaska
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Friday, October 15, 2021
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West Side Story: There’s a place for us

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One benefit of being incarcerated at home is you get to watch some of those obscure cable channels you pay for. While mindlessly browsing through channels I found “West Side Story” on Amazon Prime.

I think I know my readership pretty well, and I’m pretty confident that most of us know some of the words from every major song in “West Side Story.” “Somewhere” was the class song for a lot of high school graduations in the Sixties.

The story is set in New York in the Fifties. The Broadway play came out in the late Fifties, and the movie debuted in 1961. It is a view of urban America before Camelot. The story centers on conflict between the Sharks and the Jets. The Jets are the white kids, the Sharks the Puerto Rican immigrant kids.

One of the jarring things about the movie is the Fifties gangstas dress better than most white collar office workers today.

West Side Story is an Americanized and modernized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, nobody much under 40 knows what Romeo and Juliet is because it was written by a dead white guy.

Romeo and Juliet are from rival families, the Montagues and Capulets. Tony and Maria are from rival ethnicities, the native-born Americans and the Puerto Ricans. They aren’t allowed to fall in love, but they do.

Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Steven Sondheim the lyrics; that’s about as legendary as you get, at least for the times; no for any time. The music and dance sequences were directed by Jerome Robbins.

A sub-theme is that several of the principals had been hailed before the House Un-American Activities Committee for their alleged communist ties; some co-operated, some didn’t. Some had been black listed. About the only actor you’d recognize is Natalie Wood who played Maria, though her singing was almost entirely lip-synched.

It was filmed in a New York neighborhood that was later leveled to make room for Lincoln Center. The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, won 10, and was the highest grossing movie of 1961.

To me, West Side Story is the apex of the American musical genre; the music is much more adventurous than Rogers and Hammerstein or the more modern Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Sixty year-old songs like “Tonight,” “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere” survive as standards today. The choreography is breathtaking. Who can choreograph a gang fight? My dancing skill is limited to a box step and a halting waltz, maybe a two-step if I’ve had a few, but I know good stuff when I see it. The whole movie is choreographed; there is no random movement.

The times and the politics of the principals are very evident. Romeo and Juliet was about a conflict between two powerful rival families. West Side Story is straight class and ethnic warfare right out of Marx. The Sharks and the Jets are working class kids fighting over the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladder. The white cops roust them both, but are somewhat more tolerant of the white Jets. Tribalism isn’t new.

By today’s standards, the plot and the action are almost boring; think Footloose with a fight at the end. In Romeo and Juliet both die; in Westside Story only Tony dies, and Maria gets to sing at the end.

America had had over 10 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity; the Soviet menace was a distant and abstract thing. JFK had just been elected and America hung on the words of his Inaugural Address.

Back then we were still willing to believe a politician about paying any price and bearing any burden; we didn’t know that the duty only fell to us mere mortals. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and working class whites of all ethnicities could believe that somewhere there’s a place for us.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. 

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Latest comments

  • Oh Art, surely there is a better word to use than incarcerated. Believing in JFK after he stole the election by stuffing ballots leaves a lot to be desired. The Kennedy fortune was made illegally. President Eisenhower started it all. Building the interstate highway system. Come on Art, some us still remember the good ole days.

    • You’re imposing presentism on history. Yes, I know the Kennedys and the mob stole the election. I know the Kennedys were scoundrels. But few in America knew or accepted it then, and there was boundless hope and optimism in Camelot – for one brief shining moment.

      • Then there was the whole court martial thing for the PT109 incident, before Dad bought off whomever. The thing is, before you jump onto a ship, make sure it isn’t sinking first. There was a reason he got his head taken off.

        • With today’s eyes, I’m no JFK fan, but I do remember what America was like in 1961.

      • Pretty sure Eisenhower and Nixon didn’t buy in. Not everyone was a sheep back then.

        • Again, you’re imposing presentism on history. Nixon was no naïf; he knew what the Kennedy/mafia machine was capable of. He could have contested the election and chose not to for the unity of the Country.

          The American people in 1960 had far more faith in their government that people today do, but they weren’t sheep. Presidents from FDR through Eisenhower had led them through the Great Depression, WWII, and the early days of the Cold War. You had the communist fringe on the left and the John Birch fringe on the right, but the vast majority of Americans had faith in their government and civic institutions.

          Today’s capital L libertarians and self-anointed “true conservatives” are every bit as disloyal to this Country as the extremist Left. You’re not contributing to civil discourse if you simply an “aginner” calling everyone who disagrees with you “sheep.”

          • That term is the modern verbiage that we use. The thing is, they were. Mindlessly following anyone with a blow-horn. They had not so much faith as you give them credit for. As soon as FDR’s body temp was below 95 degrees, we changed the term limits for a president. They figured he was more like a king and we were afraid to cross him. That doesn’t sound like trust to me. True conservative may be a dying breed, but I would argue that they are more loyal to the Constitution than any group of people in our country’s past. The document is under constant attack for the leftist movement. Not everyone who disagrees with me is a sheep. Just those who mindlessly play follow the leader over whatever current buffalo jump they are led to.

    • Not much else to call it when unelected officials order your confinement and the destruction of your economy based solely on their bad epidemiological models.
      Maybe “internment” is better?
      National hysteria made internment work nearly 80 years ago. Maybe national hysteria could make internment work today, especially if models are made to show it’s the only way to prevent anyone dying from, or with, China flu ever again.
      If we allow three years of unparalleled economic growth to be wiped out in three weeks with numbers that turned out to be wrong, why can we not allow ourselves to be interned until Chairman Faucci determines enough Americans have died to satisfy the models?
      Who needs Camelot, this is the stuff of good ole days, yes?

  • Thanks for the memories, Art.

    • While entertaining, most were just fiction. Not something we should sell out souls over.

  • Thanks for the column Art, it did bring back some memories. I probably watched that movie in 1962 at age 14. It stayed in theaters for a long time, like Titanic. The story was back on Broadway several years ago. We saw it and we were disappointed. It seemed like a live action presentation of the movie. I understand that a new Broadway version has or will be started soon, virus matters permitting. I read an article about how the story is being “updated” for present times. I know we’ll go see it because that’s what theater buffs in America must do. I hope you do too. I will be interested in your observations, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

    • I don’t know that a new version could be done in any meaningful or convincing manner; see my discussion above about the historiographical concept of presentism. You and I saw it the first time through the eyes and perceptions of the time. Today’s eyes and perceptions are very, very different.

      • I agree. Kind of like True Grit. Presentism isn’t a tell all idea. Some, including this writers views, were shall we say ahead of his time. As a student of history, it is satisfying to know that people never change.

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