Finding New York in West Side Story

West Side Improvement Project, 1937 | Courtesy New York Public Library

In 1993, a Puerto Rican tourism official groused to the Chicago Tribune that West Side Story, the musical-turned-movie that cast Manhattan’s Irish and Boricuas as Montagues and Capulets, had given the island an unsavory reputation. Rare is the work of art so popular and enduring to color the impression of an island with a population greater than 20 US states, but then there aren’t many works quite like West Side Story.

As an artistic impression of New York City, the musical has a lot of competition. But even 60 years after its premiere, it retains a singular place in the pantheon of art that seems to encapsulate some element of “New York-ness.” West Side Story didn’t just give America an image of the city; in thousands of performances from Broadway to the public high school, it has — like all live art — required the complicity of its audience.

In the following feature, Diep Tran asks how this mid-century Romeo and Juliet, in its various iterations, employed (and in some cases, ignored) the architecture and landscape of New York to convey a sense of place. Her piece poses critical questions with implications far beyond West Side Story: How does a work of art come to represent a city? And as the city changes, how does it maintain its relevance?

H.G. 

New York City high schoolers at a rehearsal of West Side Story in February 2016 | Photo by Richard Termine

This year, Carnegie Hall marked its 125th anniversary with a citywide celebration of West Side Story, that old New York tale of allegiance, ethnicity, and turf. “The Somewhere Project,” which featured a free concert in each of the five boroughs and culminated in a production of the musical at Queens’ Knockdown Center, is named after the song “Somewhere” — a ballad in which the lovers Tony and Maria dream of a place free of hate and bigotry. The show starred a mix of professional Broadway actors (including Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Austin) and local high schoolers as Jets and Sharks.

Why West Side Story? “A lot of people feel it is, if not the greatest, certainly one of the greatest musicals ever written,” said Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute, Carnegie Hall’s education program. “It is obviously a story about New York and it’s a story that’s very timely today, that feels very contemporary even though it was written almost 60 years ago.”

Johnson isn’t the first to think of West Side Story as a quintessential New York tale. When the musical opened on Broadway in 1957, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote, “There is nothing mythical about the environment of West Side Story. It is New York today.”

And yet: What is there of New York City in West Side Story? Within the libretto of the piece, no references are ever made to any city landmarks, neighborhoods, streets, or even the city itself. In Carnegie Hall’s production of West Side Story, the names of locations are announced by members of the ensemble, and they’re as generic as could be: “the drugstore,” “the bridal shop.” The rumble between the Sharks and Jets takes place “under the highway.” The one overt reference to New York is in the script, where under “Setting,” the text says: “The action takes place on the West Side of New York City during the last days of summer.”

So while millions of fans — and such city institutions as Carnegie Hall and the Times — have come to see West Side Story as a New York fable, there’s little inherently New York about it. The musical is explicitly a fight over “turf,” and the ownership of a specific urban place, but the location being fought over is maddeningly vague.

Plenty of art makes only cursory reference to its setting; John Updike spent only a week in Brazil before setting a 260-page novel there. Havana was a mere “accident” to Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene later said. But West Side Story is a more curious case: Though it is a play about place – about belonging and escape, about turf and territory — it carries hardly a hint of real, lived New York City. Yet spiritually, it has come to represent “New York today” — then and now.

West Side Story was written by a team of Manhattanites: Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, with choreography by Jerome Robbins. The creators drew on two main inspirations: the rise of juvenile gang violence and the growing immigrant population in New York. But New York, in their process, was never the main character.

Though the idea to modernize Romeo and Juliet was always the root of it, the musical was initially about religion, not race, and was called East Side Story. Bernstein and Robbins, drawing on their backgrounds as Russian-American Jews, set the conflict on the Lower East Side, between Jewish and Irish-Catholic gangs — a real-life rivalry that did lead to bloody turf wars in the early 1900s. By the ’50s, though, the religious conflicts felt passé. It was racism that was splitting America apart.

Then, while in Los Angeles, Bernstein and Laurents saw a story in the Los Angeles Times about gang fights involving Latino youths. It was a more timely subject. Bernstein suggested they set their work in Los Angeles and adopt a Mexican-American gang as protagonists.

In the end, the creative team behind West Side Story did eventually set the show in New York.[1] But its relationship with any one site remained tentative as East Side Story moved west and north to Lincoln Square, a crowded, diverse neighborhood of tenement houses at the start of the Upper West Side. Gang culture was endemic across the city, and at one point the musical bore a name, Gangway!, with no connotations of place. This spatial ambivalence continued: In the five Broadway productions beginning in 1957, New York only seemed present as an impressionistic backdrop of lights, bridges, tenement buildings, scaffolding, and fire escapes.

It was only the film version of West Side Story that placed the action specifically in and around San Juan Hill, a working-class, black and Puerto Rican area between Columbus Circle and the Hudson River that had been the target of the city’s urban renewal ambitions since 1940.

In the mid-‘50s, while West Side Story was still in development, the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, headed by Robert Moses, declared Lincoln Square a slum. Some 17,000 residents were evicted to make way for the 16-acre Lincoln Center performing arts complex and its surrounding residential towers.

As the bulldozers set upon San Juan Hill in 1959 — President Eisenhower himself broke ground on the project — directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise were in the middle of filming West Side Story. Wise had insisted on the famous opening tracking shots of Manhattan (he would go on to use a similar technique for the opening of The Sound of Music). Bernstein disapproved of that decision, finding it too literal.[2]

Wise also wanted the prologue to be shot on location, and found a stretch of tenements on West 68th Street that were set to be demolished. The contractor had already taken out the windows. Wise struck a deal that gave him time for a five-week shoot, and gussied up the emptied buildings with “curtains, clotheslines, flowerpots, window boxes and so on,” according to Richard Keenan’s book about Wise.

Lincoln Towers, built on the site of the West Side Story set, in 2014 | Billie Grace Ward, via Flickr

But Wise still had to convince Robbins; the choreographer thought that “his work was simply too stylized to play believably against real buildings and city blacktops,” according to Barry Monush’s book on West Side Story. Dancing gangsters and lovers bursting into song were at home on a Broadway stage, where that was custom. But in the hyperrealistic world of location filming, asking audiences to suspend their disbelief in that fashion was more challenging. This was especially true for West Side Story, which wasn’t a lighthearted tale like The Music Man, or set, like South Pacific, on a far-off island. West Side Story was a contemporary tale about a violent phenomenon that was afflicting — and continues to afflict — the American city.

Wise had the same fear. Having the Sharks and Jets literally dancing in the street would make them look ridiculous, the opposite of their menacing, real-life counterparts. “Put against real New York streets, playgrounds, and other completely realistic locations, the very unreality of parts of West Side Story becomes something that needs very special handling in order that it not be embarrassing to watch,” Wise said.[3]

At the same time, the creators feared that “too much authentic street ambiance” would “make the kids of West Side Story harsh and unsympathetic,” according to Keenan, and would stretch the audience’s empathy. After all, these kids were killing each other over a stretch of concrete, which, to a nation engaged in a series of global wars, seemed like an infantile conflict (a sentiment expressed by the father figure in West Side Story, Doc).[4]

Their fears were unfounded. West Side Story swept the 1962 Oscars and immortalized San Juan Hill as the home of Tony and Maria. By that time, the real-life neighborhood was gone; its population dispersed. West Side Story was truly a work without a setting now. (It wasn’t the only time that some “obsolete” New York neighborhood, shorn of its residents, would be set up to mug for the cameras. In 1966, Mayor John Lindsay halted demolition of a “slum” on E. 26th Street for the filming of One Night at Minsky’s, turning the block into a momentary tourist attraction. Cultural capital was squeezed from the rubble of urban renewal.)

In the case of West Side Story, the layers of irony ran particularly thick. The old neighborhood had been replaced with, among other things, Lincoln Center, which Jane Jacobs called “a piece built-in rigor mortis,” in contrast to the vibrant streets of yore. West Side Story was filmed there, but the populations who inspired it had been removed to Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. That displacement made it possible for West Side Story to be filmed and performed there, too. In 1993, a small section of West 65th Street – the old northern boundary of San Juan Hill — was renamed for Leonard Bernstein.

Poster for West Side Story at Lincoln Center, summer of 1968 | Via Library of Congress

***

For Carnegie Hall’s 2016 production of West Side Story, which was staged in the round with no backdrops, the only set piece was the long street on which the Jets and Sharks waged their turf war. Despite its lack of tangible New York-ness, West Side Story still resonated as strongly to the teenagers that participated in “The Somewhere Project” as it did to Spanish Harlem youths in 1957, whom Robbins consulted on the Broadway production. If the musical had only a tenuous relationship with its setting, it effectively captured the culture of the street — which has proven to be more durable than the street itself.

San Juan Hill is gone; gang life is not. According to data from NYPD’s Gang and Juvenile Justice divisions, there are 375 gangs operating across five boroughs today, with the highest number of crews in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Forty percent of murders last year in New York City were a byproduct of gang violence. The concept of turf remains real.

For the borough concerts, at-risk high schoolers were shown the West Side Story film and then worked with professional musicians to compose songs inspired by it. At a performance at the La Guardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, Queens, hosted by the reggae band Brown Rice Family, I spoke to 16-year-old named Elijah. He’s a student at Belmont Academy, a school for minors living in group homes while they await court dates for juvenile offenses.

Though Eljiah had never seen West Side Story until “The Somewhere Project,” he eventually found the musical relatable. His song, called “Who Knows,” was inspired by “Something’s Coming,” Tony’s ode to anticipation and possibilities. Elijah had been involved in gangs, and his song reflected that experience. “The first step is: you have to know who you really are and just find a better way to get out of it, instead of staying in,” he explained to me. “Because it’s not going nowhere if you just stay around it.” His song too was optimistic: “The sky is the limit, anything can erupt/I’m tryna stay above. I don’t need to be corrupt.”

To stress West Side Story’s continued relevance, the Carnegie Hall production was set in the present day. It was mounted in the raw space of the Knockdown Center, a former door factory on a commercial stretch of Flushing Ave.; audience members could see wooden support beams in the ceiling and exposed brick on the walls. The characters were in modern dress, wearing crop tops, baggy shirts, miniskirts, and skinny jeans.

The Sharks and Jets were mixed race, containing black, Latino, and white members on both sides. For 18-year-old New Jersey native Morgan Hernandez, who made her professional debut in the production as Maria, this casting decision brought home the universality of the work. “The Jets aren’t all white boys, and the Sharks aren’t all Puerto Ricans,” she said. “It’s the concept of saying, you can be a Shark and you can be a Jet, and have that reflect on the audience member where they’re like, ‘I can be anything, I can be a Shark, I can be a Jet because I’m a human.’ And I think it’s very humanizing for the two gangs to be more mixed race because it’s such a great lesson.”

The Carnegie Hall production touched on the same impulse that Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins had when they created West Side Story. It is not the physical environment of New York, in any meaningful way, that informs the play. It’s something more human. At the production in Maspeth, I saw not the usual white-haired crowd (and trust me, I see a lot of those as an arts journalist). It was an audience made up of black, Latino, Asian, and white faces, old and young, many of them drawn in by their relations to the cast. Where was New York? In the people on stage, and the people watching them.

Diep Tran is an associate editor at American Theatre magazine. Follow her on Twitter @diepthought.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.


NOTES:

[1] So why New York? The city “was considered a locus of gang activity at the time,” says Misha Berson, author of Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination. “But it’s also the place that all four artists called home, and knew like the back of their hands. It’s that simple. Remember, Hell’s Kitchen [home of the Westies, an Irish-Catholic gang] is in the theater district!”

[2] Interestingly, according to Humphrey Burton’s biography of Leonard Bernstein, one reason East Side Story was dropped was because the Lower East Side tenements had already been demolished to make way for high-rise housing.

[3] That may also be why the ballet sequence that accompanies “Somewhere” in the stage show didn’t transfer to film; on-screen it’s a duet between Tony and Maria. A film audience can only take so many metaphors, and dance breaks.

[4] Notably, Laurents had the opposite opinion. In his book, Mainly on Directing, Laurents wrote that the Jets and Sharks were portrayed as “likable tough little thugs,” when in reality, the gangs of the ‘50s were “angry, vicious, and violent, headless killers.” When he directed the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story, he sought to remedy that and made the gangs more ruthless; they didn’t reconcile over Tony’s body at the end of the musical.



One Response to “Finding New York in West Side Story”

  1. Linda Pollak says:

    I have thought for a long time that the sound the wheels of the 2 and 3 subway trains make when leaving a station is the notes of (maybe the inspiration for?) the first line of the song “Somewhere”: “There’s a place for us….”

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