This excerpt is taken from Chapter One, “Have you heard the voice of my city” 1949–1955, and covers the inception of the idea, the formative years of discovery, and the environment in which the project that would become West Side Story would be created.
We print this excerpt from Julia L. Foulkes, A Place for Us: “West Side Story” and New York (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) in celebration of the new Broadway production of West Side Story that opened at The Broadway Theater on February 20, 2020.
The choreographer Jerome Robbins and the actor Montgomery Clift overlapped in nineteen-forties New York. Artistic, theatrical, sleeping with men and women, they might have met each other through a mutual friend or at a party or in an acting class. By 1946, they were lovers. They lived a block from one another in midtown on the east side and shared ambition, talent, and emerging fame.
They also shared an artistic challenge. Around 1948, an actor friend of Robbins, probably Clift, as the legend goes, was struggling to bring to life a monologue from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Both Clift and Robbins were students of Method acting, which directed the actor to plunge into a character’s background and emotions to fully inhabit the role. This immersion in character, Method taught, would ignite the belief of the audience; the electricity of live performance depended on personal conviction on both sides of the stage curtain. Such in-depth knowledge was hard enough to achieve in any situation, even when the topic was contemporary. How was a gay man in the mid-twentieth century to understand the iconic young heterosexual lovers caught up in family feuds in sixteenth-century Verona? How could an actor get to the emotional core of a character written so long ago, caught up in conflicts so distant from the contemporary moment?
Just a few years earlier, Robbins had burst onto the choreographic scene with Fancy Free (1944), a saucy tale of three sailors on leave that mixed pirouettes with bravado fist-pumps and competitive camaraderie. The piece captured the desperate need for relief in a war-weary city and revivified ballet by featuring everyday movement and scenarios that could be seen right outside the stage door. The challenge of enlivening Romeo and Juliet thus called on Robbins’s strengths. He specialized in taking the ordinary and making it newly relevant. Robbins suggested that Clift place Romeo and Juliet in modern-day New York, to see the age-old story in the new day.
This insight prompted Robbins to dash off a cryptic scene outline, noting a street carnival as the setting for the star-crossed lovers’ meeting, a mock marriage in a bridal shop, and a fight on a playground. The development of the idea required compatriots. Robbins called upon the young composer Leonard Bernstein. Their first collaboration, Fancy Free, had created a splash for both of them and was followed by the musical On the Town (1944). With Bernstein on board, Robbins enlisted playwright Arthur Laurents, best known for the play Home of the Brave, which depicted how the army was ensnared in the underlying anti-Semitism of the era. (Bernstein and Laurents also cruised the homosexual arts scene of the city.)
The first meeting did not go well. Bernstein proclaimed the possibilities in the story. In it he could see the makings of a great American opera — a homegrown version of the classical European art form, which Porgy and Bess had moved toward ten years earlier. Bernstein’s mix of classical and popular flavors in music had yet to sustain a full evening’s performance. And then there was the opportunity to entwine dance and music with a brilliant partner. Laurents bristled. He did not want the music to outshine the story he would write. Neither he nor Bernstein saw himself playing second fiddle. “They did not get on!” Robbins remembered. But Robbins was determined to focus on the idea — and what could come of the combination of these partners’ talents.
The trio emerged quickly with a fuller scenario initially titled “Gang Bang,” then “Romeo, ”and, eventually, “East Side Story.” The first crisp two-act outline set up the conflict on the Lower East Side between Jews and Italian Catholics at a street festival, possibly in Chinatown, and situated the famous balcony declarations of love between Romeo and Juliet on a fire escape. Even in this early version, the collaborators emphasized movement and space; a “stylized prologue” would show “the restlessness of the youths and indicat[e] the various areas in which they let off steam.” Within a couple of weeks of the first meeting, the New York press proclaimed a new musical in production.
It was January 1949. The musical did not debut until September 1957.
For the creators, fame and other projects intervened. So too did politics and a changing city. In the 1950s, New York was ascendant: home to the United Nations; to Abstract Expressionists, a school of poets, jazz, and rock ’n’ roll; to a dizzying number of newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and television programs that broadcast all the action to the world. Swaths of the city were demolished and rebuilt with urban renewal funds and private investment; public housing projects and office high-rises sprouted, linked by networks of bridges, roads, and tunnels. While the city’s total population remained largely stable in the postwar period, it was also in flux, with African Americans and Puerto Ricans claiming a larger presence; increased Puerto Rican migration, in particular, became a wedge that exposed questions of space, housing, and discrimination.
These changes in New York infused the creation and production of West Side Story and tied the musical to an evolving sense of place. A network of white gay men dominated much of the arts, particularly on Broadway, and created coded stories of longing, such as West Side Story’s update to Romeo and Juliet. But aligning the star-crossed lovers with 1950s New York street gangs instead of elite families in Verona shifted the meaning of the classic tale, raising the stakes of loving across lines. The gangs claimed turf in the city as part of their dogged fight to be full citizens, to be embraced as worthy individuals, to define the world they wanted rather than accept the one they were given. Fights over whose block, whose city, and whose nation molded the fevered dancing, discordant sounds, and escalating conflict. Rather than the blinding power of love evoked by Shakespeare, in nineteen-fifties New York, the theme became the quest to find one’s place, to belong, in an ever-shifting city.
This competition over “who belongs” makes up much of the history of the United States. The country and its opportunities are rhetorically and ideologically open to all, even as barriers have continually been erected to deny some and embrace others. Once here, establishing a sense of belonging — and gaining recognition of the attendant rights—has often remained a battle in the face of prejudice. The contest is often an oppositional one: the Jets versus the Sharks. And the fight becomes more material and clear when it is about belonging somewhere, taking up and possessing a particular space. West Side Story reveals this more fractured tale, in which prejudice mangles opportunity, pierces communities, and dooms love in the bustling, diverse, dense, and often bruising conditions of New York. The story exposes the costs of the struggle played out every day on city streets, rooftops, and playgrounds.
The battle over finding a place in the city brought together groups separated by difference and prejudice — Puerto Ricans and those understood as white; men and women; old and young; gay and straight; American and international. Prejudice and bigotry were the bywords of the day, the language the creators used to describe the new twist in the plot of Romeo and Juliet. These words reflected the common belief of the era in the power of judgment, of changing preconceived ideas of others. The language of discrimination, primarily modified by the word “racial” in the case of civil rights, shifted the debate to highlight actions that resulted from particular prejudice. (Now the more common frame of reference is justice, to highlight lack of parity and demands for retribution.) This distinction comes into focus in looking at the complicated impact of the show on Puerto Ricans. The production pointed out prejudice but may also have perpetuated it, replicating stereotypes rather than ameliorating them or exploring responses other than revenge. In the show, the resolution of strife is incomplete. But it is this chastened portrayal of New York that creates a believable place that still holds out hope that one day there will be “a place for us,” a testament to the fragility of aspirations that encompass sustenance and challenge.
The creators of West Side Story knew personally of the struggle to define and realize a place in America, against the resistance and discrimination that shaped the country. Director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and playwright Arthur Laurents were born within little more than a year of each other, in 1917 and 1918. (Stephen Sondheim, thirteen years younger, joined the team as lyricist years later.) Robbins, Bernstein, and Laurents are part of what has been called the Greatest Generation — Americans who grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and rose from immigrant or lower-class backgrounds to middle-class status. This generation has come to exemplify the American dream of rising prosperity and opportunity. But just as West Side Story shifted the meaning of Romeo and Juliet, these men cast a new perspective on the Greatest Generation. Sons of Jewish immigrants, they leaned to the left politically, toward men sexually, and excelled in the arts, a realm far outside the norm of business or politics.
Their experience of World War II encapsulates their battle to define the America they believed in. Robbins received a formal exemption from service because of an asthmatic condition, although there is little evidence he had the illness, but also declared his homosexuality. (When Robbins admitted in his army interview that he had had homosexual encounters, the officer asked how recent. “Last night,” Robbins reportedly announced.) Bernstein also received formal dispensation because of chronic asthma but also probably because of his early prominence as a conductor and composer. Laurents served. He did not see active duty, instead using his talent to write radio scripts and propaganda. He used his experience as the basis for his first play.
West Side Story is largely these men’s story — about the fragility of love, the power of prejudice, the betrayal of hope and opportunity, and, especially, the fight to be recognized as Americans. They battled against discrimination prompted by their Jewishness and homosexual inclinations and achieved rousing artistic success with a story that directly addressed prejudice and the ways it robbed people of their place in the United States. In telling it, they exposed the sacrifice and cost of their personal achievements in a society fraught with bigotry. They are a kind of Greatest Generation of the arts, with West Side Story as a pinnacle of artistic achievement for them personally and for the genre of musicals as well.
Julia Foulkes is Professor of History at the New School in New York and senior editor at Public Seminar. She is also the author of Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey and To the City: Urban Photographs of the New Deal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
Reprinted with permission from Julia L. Foulkes, A Place for Us: “West Side Story” and New York (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) All rights reserved. Except for the rights conveyed above, all other rights protected by copyright are retained by the University of Chicago Press. Any further use, including requests to reprint this excerpt or any portion of thereof, requires additional permission and must be referred to the Permissions Department of the University of Chicago Press