Wednesday, September 14, 2016
September 14, 2016: MusicalStudying: West Side Story
[September 12th marked the 150th anniversary of the first performance of The Black Crook, generally considered the first stage musical (although opinions vary). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy both Crook and other exemplary stage musicals—and will ask you to share your solos and choruses for a crowd-pleasing weekend post that’s sure to garner a standing O!]
On the musical’s surprising history, and its limits and strengths as a cultural text.
If the original 1947 plan developed by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents had come to fruition, this post might make more sense as part of a series on Holocaust history or Jewish American identities. Robbins’ original concept, as fleshed out in collaboration with those two artists, was for a musical he called East Side Story, a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet that would focus on the forbidden love between a Jewish immigrant girl (a Holocaust survivor) and an Irish Catholic boy in New York’s Lower East Side, as well as the parallel communal conflict between the Jewish “Emeralds” and the Catholic “Jets.” Robbins’ completed a first draft, but the project didn’t go further—until nearly ten years later, when other work brought the three men back together. By that time re-emerging Chicano American communities (such as those in New York’s “Spanish Harlem”) had become more prominent in national media, and when Laurents revised the prior book for the version that became West Side Story (1957) he made the heroine Puerto Rican. The rest, of course, is musical theater history.
The fact that the heroine’s cultural and ethnic identity shifted so dramatically, relatively late in the creative process, might suggest that the specifics of her heritage were not crucial to the musical. Indeed, I would argue that in many ways Maria could have remained Jewish in the final version without much else changing (the Holocaust history would of course have been a significant addition, and one that would have to be handled in ways that would certainly change the musical’s tone). There is one place in the show that does focus very overtly on Puerto Rican identity, however: the song “America,” and the debate it features between Anita (who prefers the US to Puerto Rica) and Maria (who favors the latter). Partly because Anita has a far more significant role in the musical (as the girlfriend of Maria’s brother and the Sharks’ leader Bernardo) than Maria, and partly because she consistently gets the last word in the song’s call-and-response form (ie, the closing exchange, “Everyone there will give big cheer!”/”Everyone there will have moved here!”), the song largely endorses Anita’s perspective on the island. And it’s a pretty negative perspective, one that opens with “Puerto Rico … you ugly island” and continues with lines like “Island of tropic diseases” or “And the babies crying/And the bullets flying.” Not the most inspiring pop culture portrayal of this American community.
Yet the song also includes, in a chorus voiced by the entire group of girls rather than either individual speaker, an image of precisely that Americanness: “Immigrant goes to America/Many hellos in America/Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America!” Seen in that light, the choice to make Maria Puerto Rican is a far more significant one: an acknowledgement of this New York and American community, one as much a part of the nation’s fabric as those of European American heritage exemplified by Maria’s lover Tony (Anton); if not, indeed, more so, since coming from Puerto Rico to the United States does not constitute an international act of immigration like those undertaken by Tony’s ancestors. And along those same lines, both the musical and film versions of West Side Story brought prominent Puerto Rican actresses into mainstream popular culture: Chita Rivera, who played Anita in the original Broadway version and went on to a long, groundbreaking career in musical theater; and Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her Anita and went on to become the first Hispanic performer to win an Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Emmy Award. Robbins and company might not have planned to make their musical into a Puerto Rican and American milestone—but in some unexpected and key ways it became that nonetheless.
Next musical tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other musicals you’d highlight and analyze?