By Cynthia Zarin
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of “West Side Story,” which opened in 1957, on Broadway, with music by Leonard Bernstein, a libretto by Arthur Laurents, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim—it was Sondheim’s Broadway début (Oscar Hammerstein convinced Sondheim to give it a go). The choreography was by Jerome Robbins, who had begun thinking about a “Romeo and Juliet” musical, set in present-day New York. At the beginning, Tony was Irish Catholic and the girl who became Maria was a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. When the curtain went up, Maria was Puerto Rican, Tony was Irish Catholic and Polish, and the setting was the West Side. The critic Walter Kerr, in his opening-night review, wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “The radioactive fallout from ‘West Side Story’ must still be descending on Broadway this morning.”
For a segment of children who grew up in New York in the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, and were taken to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts at the brand new Lincoln Center, at what was then called Philharmonic Hall, Bernstein was a Pied Piper who explained the world to us. (I can’t think of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” without Bernstein’s voice-over, quietly preparing a small concertgoer for terror.) As teen-agers, my friends and I listened to the cast album of “West Side Story” again and again, until, when the needle touched the LP, it made a hissing noise, like the sound of the subway gearing up. If you listened carefully, we knew, especially on the Fifty-third Street platform, the E train sang the opening bars of “Somewhere.” This “West Side Story” echo was part of the mythology of our city, like alligators in the sewer and the archway at Willowdale Bridge, in Central Park, which sang back to you when you whistled.
From “West Side Story” I learned about tragedy, and love, and sex—there were broken hearts all over the place, like broken glass—and the idea that things can go very, very wrong, in an instant, but that the most important thing in the world was that we all learned to get along. That is what we called it then. It was an American idea: that the future is somewhere we are all going to, somewhere soon, together. Tony sings, “Something’s coming, something good . . . come on in, don’t be shy, meet a guy, pull up a chair!” We were going to the moon.
In a mirror image of “West Side Story,” seen through a glass, darkly, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written in 1960 (and also made into a movie that, like “West Side Story,” I was allowed to stay up to watch on television), Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Jean Louise, “First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” At the 1964 World’s Fair, in Queens, “It’s a Small World After All” was piped in at the pavilions.
As I sat in Alice Tully Hall, at Lincoln Center, for a performance of “West Side Story” music, by the Julliard Youth Orchestra, whose members hail from every borough, I realized that I still knew the lyrics of the musical by heart. Almost everyone in the audience was humming under their breath. “West Side Story” is the anthem of New York City: an incendiary story about two rival gangs, two kids in love, about neighborhoods, about Puerto Rico, and New York, and betrayal. Bernstein, whose centenary this is, whose own life was complicated, and who knew something about the exigencies of love and sorrow, once said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” The night’s program included Samuel Barber and Mozart; when I spoke to Willie Swett, age seventeen, who plays the double bass, before the concert, he told me that “ ‘West Side Story’ Suite” was the piece the orchestra was most looking forward to.