You can dismiss “West Side Story” as a racist musical that serves up all the negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans, and demeans women too. Forget the inspired choreography by Jerome Robbins, the jangly-nerved moves crackling with angry adolescent energy. Ignore Rita Moreno’s dancing. Stop your ears so you’re not moved by Leonard Bernstein’s score.
Or you can enjoy the movie on its own terms, and in its proper context.
Think about it: the play had been in the works for almost a decade before its 1957 premiere. During this period, the civil rights movement was gathering steam. You’ve got the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision outlawing segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The signing of the Civil Rights Act guaranteeing the right to vote to all Americans in September, 1957. These were significant milestones, but had the immediate effect of exacerbating racial tensions, provoking violence against African Americans and against other minorities as well.
The fifties was also a period of trying to understand troubled youths. It comes across in films like “The Wild One,” with Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle gang, and “Rebel Without a Cause” with James Dean (indeed, the playwright Arthur Laurents wanted James Dean for the lead, but he had died by the time the production was being cast). Turf wars were common between rival gangs; the New York tabloids were full of stories about shootings and stabbings by juvenile delinquents.
Puerto Rican migration to the United States took off after World War II, with the majority settling in New York City. Viewed as “foreigners” and “colored” by whites, Puerto Ricans faced discrimination in finding jobs and housing. Add these ingredients together and you understand the motivations of Bernstein, Robbins, and Laurents.
We have Bernstein’s copy of “Romeo and Juliet” — the source of “West Side Story’s” story — with the composer’s annotation at the top of the first page: “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.” We have journalist Martha Gelhorn’s letter to Bernstein (or “Lenny Pot” as she calls him): “With the visual picture there, and the murderous city outside, and in America, where ‘West Side Story’ becomes a sociological document turned into art, they made me cry like a sieve, from heart-broken pity.”
Audiences were shaken by the musical, with its bleak ending. The hijinks of Gee, Officer Krupke and the lively, bitter humor of America can’t compensate for the sadness of this modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers. And nothing in musical theater comes close to the haunting beauty of Somewhere.