West Side Story is sometimes remembered as an old-school classic—a term that conveys at best nostalgic affection and at worst stodginess—but in fact this tale of rival gangs on the streets of New York broke all the rules. A ragtag band of juvenile delinquents went onstage in sneakers and blue jeans, singing music that was too dissonant about a topic that was too tragic, killing each other, and dancing way too much. It was new territory, and it changed the face of musical theater. Suddenly all the elements of the form—music, lyrics, book, dance—spoke in one unified voice, serving the story. Musicals, even dance musicals, used to be about little more than smiling and doing pretty steps but director-choreographer Jerome Robbins (the first to bear that hyphenated title) inserted an objective into every movement. For the first time, dancers had to learn to be actors too. Characters were dancing because they had to: there was no other way for these inarticulate kids to release the pent-up anger and restless frustration boiling beneath the surface. With the elements of the form so fully integrated, the result was something completely original.
Thematically, West Side Story again broke the rules. Since West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, musical theater has given us many subversive and confrontational shows: Urinetown, Assassins, even Miss Saigon. None of them would have existed had West Side Story not first taught us that musicals could be made from painful stories that force us to confront our most dangerous internalized philosophies. Musicals could reflect the uglier, coarser sides of human nature and warn us of the consequences of not just personal immorality but also larger social issues.
West Side Story is about many things: rage and power, belonging and frustration; but most of all it’s about the scourge of prejudice, and its implications for love. In the musicals of the ‘20s and ‘30s (Babes in Toyland, No No Nanette, Anything Goes) love was predominantly idealistic, naïve, and simple: Boy and girl fall in love, something challenges their affection, but love conquers all. The ‘40s saw the rise of Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites like Oklahoma and South Pacific, in which obstacles became deeper and more complex but love still prevailed in the end. But all that changed in 1957. Not only was Tony and Maria’s love story complex, it was also very adult, very political . . . and impossible. Love wouldn’t win, couldn’t win in the shadow of such hatred and prejudice. West Side Story faced, for the first time in a musical, the harsh reality that things don’t always work out and sometimes hatred has the final say. It’s a painful universal truth that we can still pluck out of today’s headlines.
What really fascinates me about this particular Broadway revival touring to the Flynn is the integration of yet another element: the Sharks’ native tongue, Spanish. Book writer and director Arthur Laurents commissioned Lin Manuel Miranda (of In the Heights fame) to translate a good deal of the Sharks’ dialogue into Spanish, a shift prompted by a production that Laurents’ partner saw in South America. The Jets always came across as likable hooligans in US productions, contrasted with the thick-accented, mysterious “otherness” of the Sharks; but when the Sharks were on home turf and the Jets were the “other, ” the Sharks became ill-used heroes and the Jets seemed vicious and cold. Laurents realized that if he equalized the languages, with each gang speaking their own, the concept of otherness is significantly neutralized, allowing the audience greater access to the core conflict.
Yes, the Spanish gives us more access, not less! I had the good fortune of seeing this production last August while visiting Chicago with the American Association of Theater Educators. I was curious, but I wasn’t all that excited since I’d seen West Side Story countless times and thought that I knew the show, knew the plot twists, melodies, and lyrics, and knew how I’d feel: jaded, and likely alienated by my lack of even grade school-level Spanish.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Immigrants in a new culture are constantly making choices about which traditions to hold on to, which new ideas to embrace, and quite literally, which language to speak. The unexpected but rich outcome of incorporating Spanish into the show is the realization that the Sharks are always choosing their language, and the impact of their choices reveal fascinating new depths of character and subtext. For example: in Act I Maria wants to be “an American girl” and when she falls for Tony, her shift from Spanish to English is complete. In Act II, when Chino tries to tell Maria that Tony killed Bernardo in Spanish, she can’t wrap her head around it; but when he realizes the only way to reach her is in the tongue of her beloved he spits out, “Tony killed your brother!” Not only then does the message hit home, but we feel Chino’s disgust with Maria’s romantic and cultural treachery even more deeply. The tension between English and Spanish within the Sharks further humanizes the gang and helps us register deeper layers of conflict. It’s no longer just Jet versus Shark, it’s also Shark versus Shark—assimilation versus cultural allegiance.