David and Art - "West Side Story"

Aug 19, 2019

Next year the Jets and the Sharks will again square off in a remake of one of the twentieth century's great works of art.

Politics on the island of Puerto Rico is unsettled lately. Last month after overwhelming protests, the governor resigned, dogged by accusations of corruption and general mismanagement of recovery efforts following hurricane Maria.  A few days later the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled that his successor had been installed unconstitutionally and decreed that a former Secretary of Justice should be governor.  And so now she is but not without detractors. 

Puerto Rico became a US possession in 1898 but didn’t really enter mainstream American consciousness until the 1950s, when a revolutionary Broadway musical put the island at center stage.

Chances are you’ve at least heard of “West Side Story,” and would probably recognize a song or two.  Others might already be snapping your fingers and telling yourself to just play it cool.

The idea of an up-to-date, urban version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was something that composer Leonard Bernstein had been thinking about since 1949, but it always remained on the back burner in light of his other projects. But news stories about juvenile delinquency captured the nation’s attention in the mid-1950s and rekindled his interest, along with that of writer Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in September 1957, and received 6 Tony nominations.

Then in 1961, it was made into a movie that won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Last year it was announced that superstar director Steven Spielberg was going to make a new production of it. 

My initial reaction to hearing about all this was perhaps predictable: Why do we need another “West Side Story?” But then I considered the musical’s classic status, and the fact that it’s been almost 60 years since the movie came out.

When you think about it, every generation needs to be reintroduced to the classics or they will pass into antiquity as dusty heirlooms that appeal only to a dwindling number of devotees. Art needn’t be like that, because through a new production, people will discover something from the Eisenhower era that still has the power to speak directly to them.  Recently in Puerto Rico, Spielberg pointed out that the musical, though written in the 1950s, is still very relevant today, especially in the context of what’s happening on the borders.

Filming began last week with Paterson and Newark, New Jersey standing in for the upper West Side of manhattan in the late 1950s.  The movie is currently set for release on December 19, 2020, at which time a whole new generation will be introduced to West Side Story.  That, as Tony might sing, would be something great.