At eleven years old, as precocious community theatre kids are singing the “Jet Song,” belting it out word for word perfect, I want to be like them and have what they have. I want to know that song! A year later, sitting in a movie theater, captivated completely by Natalie Wood and these tough guys dancing on the big screen. As the story ends, I hear a teenage girl across the aisle sobbing uncontrollably, “Oh, Tony!” I sit in shock that he’s dead. Cotton mouth, can’t swallow my spit. The violence, adventure, romance, “surround sound” and Panavision! Fighting and killing and singing! This suburban boy’s life will never be the same!
The West Side Story that audiences love is the version I remember from my childhood. Now, it’s a different story. The social condition of two 1950s teenage street gangs, Puerto Rican immigrants versus American whites, in a turf war that wounds with racial slurs and switchblades has escalated to hate speech and shootings posted on social media, while on the nightly news we face political crisis on immigration and citizenship. It is a stunning realization to reference the very month and year the original production opened on Broadway, September, 1957: Jack Kerouac’s first novel, On the Road, defines the Beat Generation; The Civil Rights Act of 1957 (a voting rights bill for the disenfranchised black and white poor) is enacted establishing the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends federal troops to Arkansas to provide safe passage to “The Little Rock Nine” integrating Little Rock Central High School.
Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic jazz score, Arthur Laurents’ book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics challenge us now more than they ever imagined. Original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, wrote of a shared “aspiration” of us “long-haired artists” to “bring our deepest talents together” as “the true gesture of the show.” And now, here you are attending the most enduring musical in American Theatre, as Bernstein composed this tragedy like an abstract expressionist, with the percussive and dissonant expanding into the lyrical, poetic and beatific. Yet, our contemporary reality is brutal. In Shakespeare’s star-crossed tale, Juliet’s and her Romeo’s deaths end the feud. Not so in our daily lives. How and when will the killing end? Is there any hope for us at all?
— Jim Corti, Director of West Side Story & Paramount Artistic Director