Musicroom recalls the legacy of West Side Story

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The following is a guest article by Emily Buchanan.

Tony and Maria in a 2001 production of West Side Story
Tony and Maria in a 2001
Pacific Repertory Theatre production.
By Smartpt at Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0

When it made its stage debut in 1957 (exactly fifty-five years ago last month), West Side Story redefined the theatrical landscape. Unlike other musicals bedazzling Broadway at the time (Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Peter Pan), West Side Story did not attempt to ease the heavy hearts of a post-war audience. Instead of sugar coating theatre to relieve social anxiety, West Side Story dared to turn the social mirror on New York itself, revealing a city wrought with socio-political depravity.

As typified and culturally defined by Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, New York was unrecognisable from the decidedly polished locale it is today. Following The Great Depression and after World War Two, it is estimated that 124,000 Puerto Rican migrants arrived in New York City (1946 to 1950), seeking out the many job prospects left vacant by deployed or deceased U.S soldiers. This Great Migration, as it's known, caused the racial tensions and gang turf wars that are essential to the West Side narrative. At the time, youth crime was an emerging social concern that divided the streets and dominated the press. Through its evocative, impassioned melodies and significant attention to contemporary concerns, Bernstein's iconic score (not to mention everything else) effortlessly captured the conflict of a generation, at a time when many were too war weary to try.