There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
This week, in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, the New York Philharmonic hosted a world premiere, performing the entire movie soundtrack as the movie was shown overhead.
As the seats of New York’s Avery Fisher Hall filled to capacity, I heard parents explaining the story to children. I noticed older people sway with the first downbeat, nostalgic. I had to bite my cheek to keep myself from singing along to Leonard Bernstein’s famous melodies. Is there anything more romantic than Tonight?
It all began tonight
I saw you and the world went away
The retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, moves the story of street gang animosity from Verona, Italy to 1950’s New York, replacing the Capulets and Montagues with the Puerto Ricans Sharks and the white working class Jets.
The program notes explain that choreographer Jerome Robbins had first approached Bernstein as early as 1948 with the idea. The composer wrote in his diary: “a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter- Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics.. Street brawls, double death- it all fits.” (Notes by Steven Smith)
West Side Story celebrates the genius of its creators, a collaboration of the talented triumvirate: Bernstein, Robbins and Stephen Sondheim. (L-R: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins.) Their music, movements, and lyrics capture the Romeo and Juliet: first love, teenage angst, and tragic early deaths.
The Broadway show opened in 1957, toured the US in 1959, returned to New York in 1960, and was revived again in 1980 and in 2009, closing last January. Now touring nationally, the musical remains a favorite of school, community and regional theater groups.
Watching the movie again, which I’m sure I’ve seen many times, I found the film dated and almost simplistic. The hatred between these rival groups failed to convince me compared to more modern films that portray ethnic distrust and unrest. The slinging of racial slurs seemed gratuitous as the characters smiled, sang, and danced. The orchestra stole the evening making the film, synched to the live music, unnecessary.
Keeping myself from humming, I thought about how these universal themes deem the show a classic. Another anniversary, the ten-year mark of 9/11, entered my thoughts. I remembered an interview I’d recently read.
Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school, recalled what he witnessed that horrible day. “I don’t think many other communities experienced what we experienced in Harlem. We began to have African-American kids beating up Muslim kids, and it shocked all of us. African-American kids thought they were committing some act of patriotism. We began to reach out to the community of those from Northern Africa who live around 125th Street who are mostly Muslim, and create relationships so those folks weren’t looking at each other through the prism of stereotypes and wouldn’t automatically assume this was a bad person… We, as a community, live side by side.” (Wall Street Journal, 9/6/11)
….Time to learn
Time to care
We’ll find a new way of living
We’ll find a way of forgiving
(lyrics from http://www.elyrics.net/song/w/west–side–story–lyrics.html)
Photo credits: WestSideStorylogo.gif, sweetlyrics.com, Alfred Eisenstaedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images, indpendent.co.uk)