julia foulkes

West Side Story: A Life

A writing experiment: to describe the book as a biography.

Biography (A Life). Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. James Joyce: A Life by Edna O’Brien. West Side Story: A Life by Julia L. Foulkes? That is the central idea.

The biography of an object fueled by people but not quite willful on its own is like a wind-up toy that circles around the table and then falls off it, mechanical legs stuck up in the air still whirring. For this unusual object, I choose a conventional chronology to structure its life, from the 1940s to today with the 1950s and ‘60s as the peak of the meandering circle from birth to afterlife. The narrative follows the men who create and wind up the toy. Three of them form a cohort of the Greatest Generation, those who have come to exemplify the national dream of rising prosperity and opportunity. You beat the Great Depression and World War II to buy a home in Levittown for a wife and two kids. These greatest, though, made art instead of children. And their art made America, narrating the country’s ideals to itself and the world. The conflict of the life, then, is between the dreams of the nation and those of the parents. The child tells of the sacrifices and costs necessary to belong.

A Twinkle in the Eye (Gestation). Conceived out of Romeo and Juliet, the story takes root in New York with parents choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents, and a younger stepfather, lyricist Stephen Sondheim. If children are the twinkle in the eye of parents before conceived in the womb, then the spark of West Side Story was an artistic challenge. Take something old and make it new. See the present in the distant past. And create a musical that combined music, book, and dance to tell a tragedy on Broadway. Set it all on the west side of Manhattan as master destroyer-creator Robert Moses bulldozed neighborhoods for gleaming skyscrapers that sold the idea of city revival even as the foundation crumbled. White folks flew to the suburbs and children ducked under their desks in rehearsal for a nuclear explosion. Visit ganglands, watch teenagers move, and imagine Puerto Ricans as yourselves, fighting discrimination (faggot, spic) to belong (my block, my city, my country, my love).

Labor (Birth). Just as the show goes into rehearsals, the producer drops it. (The obstetrician resigns). The talented team gets producers more willing to aid a risky birth. Eight weeks of rehearsal, instead of the typical four, and they keep Robbins from abusing the cast and fellow creators too much, but they can’t stop it all. The raging father separates each gang so that they do not talk to the other (poor neglected Anybodys sits in the corner by herself, not belonging to either). He slashes, spitting out biting insults (especially at men who might sleep with men), cutting to build up and excel, supposedly. His fellow parents are not excused from the abuse. Unaware that Bernstein was sitting in the back of the theater during a rehearsal, Robbins wailed at the orchestra to remove treacly notes. Bernstein retreated to the bar across the street, soaking sores in whiskey. Asked to imagine the bodily form of a lyric – “but what is she doing?” – Sondheim-the-neophyte learned a life-long lesson in staging a song. Finally, the show auditioned in Washington, DC, in August 1957. The parents got keys to the city and then went on to another try-out in Philadelphia. No city keys there, but still excitement. Birthed on Broadway on September 26, 1957.

Reaction (Growing Up). “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” The critics were not quite sure what to say about the explosion, except to say that “everything contributes to the total impression of wildness, ecstasy and anguish” and, oozing unsurety, “it has a searching point of view.” Critics went back a second time and were more sure this show was “an incandescent piece of work that finds odd bits of beauty amid the rubbish of the streets.” Tickets sold, actors became famous, and the producers offered seats to social workers so that gang members would see the show. “Very real, comes from life itself,” they judged, even as they got mad at the blame of their crimes on their parents in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” and were discomforted by seeing actors-as-gang-members backstage in rouge. Proposals came in for international tours, a movie; the parents let the child go first to London and then around the U.S. The toddler not only walks but dances, snapping its fingers.

Raging Hormones (Adolescence). The tensions of the world seeped into the life of the show through a gang called the Jets, an escalating arms race in the run-up to the rumble, and “Atom Bomb Baby (a Mambo),” a sketched-out song never finalized. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev raged at the United Nations; the British ambassador told him to “get cool, boy.” Yet the musical’s home state, the United States, did not embrace the conflicted story. “Gore, bloodshed and mayhem would add to the poor opinion of America that Europeans already have.” The State Department refused to sponsor tours of the show anywhere but certainly not in enemy territory. The Soviets kidnapped the story anyway. They translated the script, mimicked the music and dance, and belabored the harsh discrimination, skewering the other side of the divided world.

The Fraternal Twin (Re-birth). The story changed place from stage to screen, re-creating it anew. In the hyper-realism of celluloid, capturing what is rather than the stage’s what might be, Robbins worried that gang members dancing and singing would never be believed. A tug of war between this twin’s parents, Robbins and co-director Robert Wise, led to battles over how much abstraction was necessary to make the story real. Robbins troubled over every shot, wanting to make the camera dance. New obstetrician-producers balked at the cost, the delay, and the ego, and kicked Robbins off the soundstage. The parts that Robbins directed – the dance scenes of “Prologue,” “America,” and “Cool” – burst out of the screen because of his choreography of the camera. Even more than gangs dancing or Puerto Ricans yearning, New York leapt to life on screen. The film opened with a birds-eye view of the intricate motion of a complex mechanical operation, all buzz and hum. The zoom in to the streets enlarged the buzz, made human the hum — and painted a picture of the costs of a mechanical operation that loses sight of its human parts.

Travels (Seeing the World). Londoners loved the show even more than New Yorkers. So did Israelis, then Parisians, who mostly considered American musicals a mess of sentiment and foolery. Germans were a bit indifferent. The Japanese, though, swooned, bowed, wept, and kept West Side Story living five years in the film theaters and over and over again on stage, from tours of American companies to homegrown Japanese casts and re-staging by famous women-acting-as-men acting troupes. Finnish high schools and Israeli kibbutzes produced the musical. The film played in Gujarat, the western territory of India. The twins evoked rhapsody around the world, with a view of America that others could believe – unvarnished, chastened, the rags in the riches of a country with opportunity as its beacon.

Afterlife (Immortality). West Side Story has had a life of its own. The production birthed by its creators has traveled around the globe, creating new meanings in different places and spawning offspring. Some shows have mined the same mountains; Paul Simon’s flop Capeman dramatized a real-life case of juvenile delinquency. Others have built a higher mountain on the same ground; Lin-Manuel Miranda affirmed a home for Latino/as in In the Heights. It has not always had a grace-filled immortality, though, because a show about the wrongs of discrimination has also perpetuated them. Spitfire, skirt-swishing women and knife flashing, rumbling men are the only Puerto Ricans many know. And yet the story cannot be contained by prejudice only, the condemnation or prolonging of it. It reaches to joy, to pain, and to an urgency of life that makes the cold concrete streets of the city move. It lives on in this increasingly virtual and migratory world because belonging to a place — and to each other – is necessary for dancing.