The curtain rises on a bleak scene somewhere on the west side of the South Bronx. For the next 12 minutes, not a word is spoken. Instead, the finger-snapping hooligans emerge in a dance sequence. The mood is sinister, establishing the emotional climate and a warning of the impending doom of both the Jets and the Sharks.
In 1961, the film “West Side Story” captured 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Overnight, the gang culture was elevated to iconic status. In the neighborhoods, you were either a Jet or a Shark.
Throughout the Bronx, the gang kids began to flex their muscles, appearing more brazen in the tactics of intimidation.
Being schooled by the strictest taskmasters at Mount Saint Michael Academy, my gang persona began to wane. I was able to find clarity and began to understand the psychosocial issues of the gang culture. As a young adult, I would become a street-gang counselor and attempt to prevent the inevitable.
“West Side Story” was like a web that captured the soul of who we were in the ’60s. It is considered one of the undisputed masterpieces of musical theater. Composer Leonard Bernstein and chorographer/director Jerome Robbins resurrected Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” moved it to New York and into the characters of lovers Maria and Tony, and exposed the blatant prejudices involved in the bard’s story against the Puerto Ricans on the Westside. I knew every song because ultimately, “West Side Story” was our story.
Although we have attempted to legislate morality by enacting civil rights legislation, the message of “West Side Story” is still relevant. Thus, this musical speaks to us today.
The chorographic talents of Robbins broke new ground as dancers conveyed story and drama through movement. Bernstein's romantic ballads, “Tonight,” and “Somewhere,” are recognized worldwide. Their song, “America,” includes “West Side Story's” strongest element of social commentary. It is a give and take between the Puerto Rican women, who cling to their dream of America as a land of promise, and the men, who are disillusioned by discrimination.
Within the music, as within the various ballet episodes, much of the ugliness, agony and neuroticism of slum life in New York is portrayed. But also some of the beauty and poetry that sometimes touches the lives of tortured adolescents evolves through music and dance.
Last week my daughters and I watched “West Side Story” together. I’m trying to wean them from the senseless films that are part of the pre-teen genre. I keep quoting Forest Gump: “Stupid is as stupid does,” trying to convince them that their intellectuality will not rise above that to which they are exposed. Consequently, I expose them to the ageless classics.
The movie provoked myriad questions about gang life, morality, tragedy, romance, culture, social issues and immigration. The girls were not enthralled by this movie. However, the next morning I heard them singing, “Maria.”
Eventually I went back to the streets as a street-gang counselor. Nothing had changed since “West Side Story.” The Jets and the Sharks were replaced by other names and kids still defined themselves by toughness. This would be a battle I would not win.
In the movie, Maria and Tony never find their “Time together with time to spare.” Anything to do with Shakespeare never ends well. But the words of the lovers’ last ballad, “Somewhere,” speaks to all social misfits. “Somewhere there’s a place of peace and quiet and open air.”
But that place is not easy to find.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com.