The Jets & the Sharks & Me

As musical comes to The Smith Center, our arts critic recalls its impact and the life lesson it taught

westsideillo.jpgImmigrant goes to America/Many hellos in America/Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America

– “America,” from West Side Story

Who’s an outsider, who’s an insider, do the distinctions matter, do they even make sense?

Still-relevant questions—sadly so—we continue to ask ourselves as the tour of West Side Story arrives at The Smith Center for an eight-show run, 55 years after the landmark musical danced and rumbled its way into the American consciousness.

Questions not considered decades back by this enthralled fan—not immediately—but if the deeper underpinnings of West Side Story escaped this New York kid growing up in the ’60s, its intersection of gritty street life and theatrical magic electrified me.

West Side Story was a stick of dynamite detonated in my heart. As often happens when one particular piece of pop culture burrows into your soul, West Side Story, it seemed, belonged to me, and only me. It still does.

Given that the original play turned Broadway upside down in 1957, the year I was born, it was the 1961 movie I compulsively consumed on TV, while the Broadway soundtrack was a perennial on the family turntable. Gorgeous ballads (“Tonight,” “Maria”), explosive production numbers (“Dance at the Gym,” “America”), even a comic classic (“Gee, Officer Krupke”) were woven into my DNA.

Juxtaposing dreamy romanticism and dark impulses, it embodied the contradiction I would become: naïve optimist wrestling his inner cynic.

Re-watching the movie as I aged, however, the themes of bigotry and blind, reason-defying hatred finally soaked through my teenage brain. As the 1970s dawned, New York, while nicknamed Fun City, was Fear Central, rife with rampant crime, much of it blamed (by whites) on minorities, particularly Puerto Ricans—West Side Story’s “foreign” interlopers.

So it was in my home.

Though a devoted father and honorable man whom I loved deeply, my dad, like many of his generation struggling in the trenches of a grimy, despondent and paranoid New York back then, found scapegoats in those other people. Scratching out a living as a wine salesman, he’d take what Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman called “a shoeshine and a smile” to liquor stores in many of the poorest, scariest neighborhoods—Puerto Rican neighborhoods. A middle-aged Jet amid the Sharks.

Wariness followed him during the day. Resentment returned home with him at night. And as parents pass ideas down to children, and children feel solidarity with parents—and my dad was sapped of energy bit by bit, physically and emotionally—resentment began inching into his son, too.

Yet art proved redemptive. West Side Story stayed with me—as it does to this day—as a cautionary tale of irrational fear of “outsiders” and its consequences as a life-and-love destroyer. While it’s too simplistic to credit a musical as a complete attitude-leveler, West Side Story helped me avert a mindset that would’ve poisoned my heart and clouded my life.

Immigration opponents are doubtless angered by—and frightened of—the sentiment expressed by lyricist Stephen Sondheim in a comical, musical exchange between down-with-America Bernardo and his go-America gal pal, Anita.

More than a half-century old, it’s as relevant as tomorrow/mañana:

I think I go back to San Juan/I know a boat you can get on/Everyone there will give big CHEER!/Everyone there will have moved here.

Welcome. May you enjoy “many hellos in America.”

And I love you, Dad.

Click here to read an interview with David Saint, director of the West Side Story production coming to The Smith Center later this month.

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