The following is a guest article by Emily Buchanan.
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.
"The story appealed to society's undercurrent of rebellion from authority that surfaced in 1950s films like Rebel without a Cause," writes Time magazine. "West Side Story took this one step further by combining the classic and the hip…[to]…capture the angry voice of urban youth." Indeed, Robbins' vivid portrayal of testosterone-fuelled angst, of knife fights and, inevitably, of murder, was gritty in its realism and yet startlingly beautiful in its artistry. At a time when authority was being duly challenged and young people were establishing an identity distinctly removed from their parents', West Side Story gave teenage rebellion power through representation.
There’s no doubt, of course, that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet had a conscious significance to the plot. Although playwrights and directors have been reworking the timeless text since it gained notoriety after Shakespeare’s death, no one managed to contemporize it as much as Robbins. Shakespeare's characters and narratives are often universal in their themes (hence their longevity) and yet, when disguised by the troubled backdrop of a 1950’s NYC and a full orchestra, the plot becomes intrinsically attached to its historical own moment. Simultaneously, West Side Story also manages to embody the same timelessness of Shakespeare, as characterised by its Broadway revival and consequent commercial success.
Natalie Wood played Maria in the 1961
film adaptation of West Side Story
.Media publicity photo
. Public domain.
Covered by the likes of Little Richard, Barbara Streisand and the less likely Tom Waits, the cultural influence this "juke-box Manhattan opera" has had on its contemporaries continues to permeate today. The original soundtrack has been recorded, rerecorded, re-mastered and reimagined almost as many times as it’s been performed (well, not quite), making this musical one of the most significant in the history of theatre (nothing can quite surpass The Phantom of the Opera, of course).
From jazz versions to tribute albums to big band performances, there is seemingly no end to the potential of West Side Story. Most recently, the treasured score was immortalised by the musical television series Glee. In Season Three, the high energy cast of adolescent misfits took to the stage to perform an impressive homage to Bernstein and his boys (check it out here) which, interestingly, stimulated a resurgence of the original movie’s popularity on YouTube (much to the distaste of "diehard fans" who rebuked the episode and its fans as poor imitators, but even so).
If the enduring nature of this musical can even tackle the cultural saturation of the Digital Age, there really is no end to its cultural significance. From the music scores to the distinctively essential choreography, West Side Story is as relevant today as it was fifty-five years ago; despite (or indeed because of) it's harrowing historical moment.
Long may it rein as one of the finest achievements in musical theatre.
By Emily Buchanan, a West Side Story fanatic who frequently recites songs from the score and works for Musicroom, the UK’s leading on and offline music store.