West Side Story Delivers

This is a guest post by Sarah Routman, Executive Director of  UMN Hillel
Forbidden love. Star-crossed lovers.  Think Romeo & Juliet.  Tony & Maria.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the Titanic.  It’s a tale as old as time, so how does it stand the test of time? If the names Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins don’t evoke great musical memories for you, you are in for a treat that may just launch you on a musical theater experience frenzy.  The story is universal. The music is catchy and memorable.  The lyrics are poignant and speak to everyone. And the choreography is mesmerizing. Your emotions will soar right along with the very real characters.
West Side Story is a musical that you just don’t get tired of seeing.  It is as timeless today as it was the first time I saw it. (I don’t know how many years ago)  The production at the Orpheum Theatre July 12 – 17 does not disappoint.  From the opening chords to the final standing ovation, I was gripped.  This revival differs from the original in that it “..is a tougher more real production.  Some of the comendy elements have been removed…dialogue that dated the show and made it seem stuck in the 1950’s has been removed.  And the “Puerto Rican characters sometmes sing and speak in Spanish, which gives them more authenticity.”  I did not know until I started reading all the press materials that were given to me that the original action of the musical, “…was to take place on New York’s Lower East Side with tensions flaring between Jews and Catholics during the Passover and Easter holidays.  Years later, when Arthur Laurents proposed changing the basis of the conflict from religion to race, the show gained creative momentum and West Side Story was born.”  What’s so great about this show is that it allows you, almost encourages you, to transport the lovers into any situation of conflict, and it remains relevant.  From the first anticipation of ‘something’s coming’ to the first glimpse of the lovers across the floor of the gym, the audience is drawn into the story. It’s impossible not to get caught up in their emotion while simultaneously thinking of your own personal experience.  How long does it take to ‘know’ if you are in love?  It’s not that the pace of the show is slow enough to encourage this sort of question. Well into the action, you realize that all the deep emotion, the unanswered questions, the conflicts and challenges that lie ahead for these young lovers, are based on an instant of knowing, and falling in love. But long before the answer can even be fathomed, the entire experience has swept you right along with the lovers and you find yourself believing that maybe love can, indeed, conquer all.
One of my favorite songs is “America”, sung by Anita and the Shark girls.  What always resonates for me is how many immigrant groups have had the experience of being the ‘outsider.’  Desperate to simultaneously maintain individuality and yet fit in and become part of the ‘gang’, each of us has struggled to find our place in the world.  The addition of Spanish in this song was noticeable.  While it made it hard to grasp the meaning of parts of the song at times, it felt more genuine. Just as the audience experienced a lack of complete clarity and understanding, it was also a reminder of the universal immigrant experience, of not always fully knowing all that is being communicated around you. Ultimately, it made the song seem more real.
When Tony and Maria meet at the gym, are mesmerized, magically dance, and ultimately sing “Tonight”, there is no choice but to get completely caught up in the positive energy of their love. Caution is thrown to the wind, and the energy is infectious.  The energy and optomism of young love, which allows a couple to feel that they belong to their own group of 2, is what makes the show universal and assures that it will stand the test of time.
When Riff and the Jets sing “Cool” there is a reminder again of the challenges of being the stranger, misunderstood, and how easy it is to let tensions rise and get out of control.  The Jets are the orinigal street gang and as such, seem like they are the insiders. Yet in “Cool” we have a rare glimpse into the fear of even the people who feel they rightfully belong on top. The musical manages to remind us that we are all, each of us, vulnerable, and sometimes scared. If we take control of our situation, ‘stay cool’, maybe we can slip under the radar, not call attention to ourselves, and exert some self control.  In mastering that, perhaps we can master the outcome of difficult situations. It’s amazing what a little discipline and practice will do.
Each time I have seen the show, it speaks to me differently. This time, I was struck over and over again by the positive energy of the love between Tony and Maria. They so desperately wanted their love to be enough to overcome all the obstacles they faced: not just the race issue, but the hatred around them, the difficulty of New York city streets and gang life.  Theirs represents every type of mixed marriage one can imagine.  In the marriage scene in the dress shop, when they role play the wedding, the audience travels with them in their dream of a perfect world, where love conquers all. Yet, as the role play comes to an end, the doubt creeps back in, and the sadness is felt everywhere as the realities retake their proper place, and the lovers anticipate the difficulties that lie ahead.  As Act 1 comes to a close, even if you know what is coming, you cannot help but feel the love, and hope desperately that if the two of them can just make it, it will somehow, magically be enough to make the world a better place.  We route for them, we want them to overcome the hatred, because if they can do it, then there is hope for the rest of us.
Act II requires us to look more deeply into ourselves, and take responsibility for the world around us.  Maria sings, “I have a a love, and right or wrong, what else can I do?” Is love enough? Is it always okay? As we struggle with our own personal love decisions, we recognize the issues.  When two people meet and fall helplessly in love, they don’t stop to think about the ramifications of their ages, their religions, their race, even their sex or gender.  We all want love to be enough, but in Act II we have to begin to face the reality that we don’t live in a perfect world, and it may not be enough.  Doc says to the Jets, “You make this world lousy.  When do you stop?”  When the answer is, “That’s the way we found it,” we remember that it may not be our responsibilty to finish the task of making the world better, but we owe it to ourselves, and the lovers of the world, who really do want to win in the end, to take the first steps by looking at our own actions and at least taking the first steps.
Even before it starts, it is impossible not to anticipate the sadness that Act II brings.  The irony of the girls chatting, not knowing the tragedy that has already happened is staged beautifully. In “I Feel Pretty”, Maria sings, “I pity any girl who isn’t me tonight.’  She doesn’t yet know that it is others who will have to deal with their own personal loss that night.  For the moment, she has been protected, spared.  Is it the love that Maria and Tony share and their blind optomism that protects them, or something else?  We want so badly to believe that love is enough.  For a few moments, even knowing the end of the story, I found myself thinking that those who refuse to get taken in by the hatred that surrounds them can be protected from it, can be immune from at least some of its evil doings.  But then the words change: “…so pretty, I hardly can believe I’m real.”  It is in that moment, that reality comes crashing down, and it occurs to me that love at some point has to come down from the clouds.  Yet the question still haunts me: can optomism overcome evit, if we would all behave as if it doesn’t exist?
As Anybody sings, “There’s a Place for Us” I found myself bombarded with an entirely new appreciation for the song and the message.  Typically, the song is sung by Maria and Tony alone.  By having Anybodys singing it with them, I felt this version of the show took me to a new place.  Anybodys is struggling with her own identity issues and wanting to belong. Though we have come a long way in this country and in the world regarding race relations and accepting sexual orientation, we still have a long way to go.  This song offers hope that the whole world will learn to love – “Someday, somewhere, somehow…we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving…”  How do we put the past behind us, push our hatred and assumptions aside?  “Hold my hand and we’re half-way there…”  The desire is the first step. If we agree to take the first step together, meet at the dialogue table, whether we think of the Israeli Palestinian conflict of the government shutdown in Minnesota, negotiation starts with the desire to come together, to make it work. It starts with hope, and an outstretched hand.  “Hold my hand and I’ll talke you there…”  We cannot do it alone. We must do it together. Whether you experience it as a mere love story, or let other themes creep in to deepen and expand the message, love is at the core of this theater experience and it does not diappoint in any way.
If you have seen West Side Story before, then I don’t have to remind you what an incredible theater experience it is!  If you have never seen it, take the plunge, and I am sure this will become one of many times you will experience the magic of this show that has been called ‘the greatest love story of all time.’
(Nat’l Tour of West Side Story photo credit: Joan Marcus. Used with permission of Hennepin Theatre Trust)