Saturday, May 16, 2009

"West Side Story" - The Theme Still Fits the Times

There’s currently a Broadway revival of my favorite musical, West Side Story. Since its original 1957-1958 stage presentations on Broadway and in London, productions of West Side Story have been endless, from amateur high school drama to professional touring companies.

The 1961 movie version of West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (George Chakiris, Rita Moreno), Best Score (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim) and Best Director (team of Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins). Legendary choreographer Robbins also won both an Oscar and a Tony for his groundbreaking dance moves. Songs like “Maria,” “When You’re a Jet,” “America” and “There’s a Place for Us” are unforgettable.

But enough about the credits; why is this story still so powerful?

West Side Story is based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Both stories challenge us to look at our own biases and prejudices. Instead of feuding Italian families, the setting for West Side Story is 1950’s New York City. “Tony,” a white young man of Polish descent, falls in love with “Maria,” a Puerto Rican whose family has recently come to New York. To understand why their love is taboo, here’s a bit of real history:

Puerto Ricans became automatic citizens of the U.S. in 1917, and Puerto Rico was officially declared a Commonwealth of the United States in 1952. After this, thousands of Puerto Rican citizens came to the mainland seeking the American dream. The streets of New York and its burroughs were already being bullied by gangs. Now these gangs felt their "turf" was threatened by the new Puerto Rican arrivals.

In West Side Story, The Jets are the prevailing white gang and The Sharks are the Puerto Rican threat. Brawls, war councils, and “rumbles” to see who was the best and therefore worthy of ruling the streets were commonplace.


Like Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight. There's nothing but trouble from then on. A rumble is set to take place, so Tony tries to stop it. But Maria's brother Bernardo (a parallel to Tybalt, Juliet's cousin) kills Tony's best friend Riff (Romeo's best friend Mercutio) and Tony accidentally kills Bernardo. More tragedy occurs when Maria's intended husband Chino, a matchmaking set up by her brother and parents like Juliet's betrothed Paris, kills Tony.

In the touching last scene, members of both the Jets and Sharks unite to carry Tony’s body off; drawing the conclusion that life is vulnerable when people don’t get along for reasons of bias and prejudice.

Maria doesn’t die as Juliet did, but she delivers the key closing line while waving a gun at the circle of young men:
“You all killed Tony. And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, but with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate.”

Things hadn’t changed much since Shakespeare wrote this in Romeo and Juliet: “Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague? See what a scourge is laid upon your hate…All are punished.”

Bigotry and prejudice can last so long that we don’t even know why we’re fighting anymore. It can be handed down to our children because people refuse to hear what someone else has to say. Pretty soon, we lose sight of fairness and think just because someone doesn’t agree with us, they must “hate” us. Sound familiar?

In West Side Story, Tony and Maria sing "One Hand, One Heart" in front of a stained glass window with bars resembling a cross. Some people blame all of the world’s problems on organized religion wielding power and force. But it’s not religion itself – it’s the heart’s condition and the desire for one-upmanship. Whether it’s Cain vs. Abel, Montagues vs. Capulets, Jets vs. Sharks, North vs. South, Hatfields vs. McCoys, conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white, Crips vs. Bloods, rich vs. poor, and sometimes even denominations against each other in the same faith. For some reason, we all want to be “the one who’s right.”

These problems continue because of man’s will, man thinking himself superior and ultimately rejecting God’s love or abusing the faith of others. No, I’m not talking about needing “religion”- just simply acknowledging there is a God.

I'm convinced that people can’t truly, deeply and unconditionally love their fellow man until we fully appreciate how much God loves us. Will everything be perfect? No, humans can't satisfy each other all the time or put every difference aside. But developing a deeper respect and love for each other and God could help make life more tolerable.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5 in the Old Testament, Mark 12:30 in the New). And next, love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31) (NIV). Without personal interpretations and regulations, these verses can help us love and respect each other, even if we don’t agree on everything. Imagine that.

(c) 2009 Sheryl Young

1 comments:

April Lorier May 21, 2009 at 8:26 PM  

Very good analogies, girlfriend! Bravo!

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