Charles McMahon, meet Arthur Laurents

‘Julius Caesar’ vs. ‘West Side Story’

4 minute read
What ethnic group did the Jets belong to?
What ethnic group did the Jets belong to?

The rap against Lantern Theater Company’s recent production of Julius Caesar boils down to two basic complaints: First, director Charles McMahon set Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy in feudal Japan without consulting experts about feudal Japan; and second, he neglected to cast any Japanese actors. (For Alaina Mabaso’s interview with McMahon about the controversy, click here).

These criticisms strike me as historically and sociologically valid but artistically irrelevant. They remind me, in fact, of the very sort of parochial gripes I once expressed about another Shakespeare adaptation that was equally clueless about its adapted setting: West Side Story.

When this American musical transferred the Romeo and Juliet story to teen gangs on the West Side of Manhattan in 1957, I was in fact a teenager who lived on the West Side of Manhattan. At first I was blown over by the fact that my (then) obscure neighborhood had been singled out for such attention on the Broadway stage. But then I got to thinking.

I knew something about the two primary teen gangs on the West Side. The Aces consisted of Italians (except for their decidedly non-Italian leader, a wiry kid named Bernie Bernstein) who liked to curse, pick fistfights, bully younger kids, and scare old ladies. The Saxons were known for swooping down en masse from Riverside Drive into Riverside Park to break up baseball games and run off with kids’ bats and balls.

Generic white gang

They were adolescent jerks whose synapses hadn’t entirely grown together, to be sure. But at that time, I knew, there were teen gangs in Brooklyn that fought with switchblade knives and used ice tongs to punch holes in their rivals’ cheeks, and coed teen gangs in Harlem whose female members sprinkled ground glass in their hair, the better to shred their enemies’ hands during hair-tearing fights. Next to these terrors, the Aces and Saxons were tame folk indeed (even after they merged to become, they claimed, “the biggest gang in Manhattan”).

So why, I wondered, had Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim settled on the West Side as the epitome of teen gangdom? Hadn’t they researched the sociopathology of New York gangs before investing all that money and talent in a show about New York gangs? Was it possible that I knew more about New York gangs than they did?

In short order I noticed another factual weakness in West Side Story: Although the real West Side then consisted entirely of just four demographic groups — Irish, Italians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans — the show’s white gang, the Jets, seemed devoid of any ethnic identity. Unlike the Sharks, who were clearly Puerto Rican, the Jets were just sort of generically white. Tony, the hero, explains at one point that his name is derived from the Polish “Anton” — but there were no Poles then living on the West Side. How, I wondered, could Leonard Bernstein et al. have overlooked this tidbit?

East Side becomes West Side

Another objection to West Side Story was raised in print at the time by some adult critics: This allegedly groundbreaking show about racial and ethnic hatred on the gritty sidewalks of New York had not a single black actor or dancer in its cast. Were there no black people in New York City who knew how to sing or dance?

Years later, I learned that as early as 1949 Jerome Robbins had toyed with the idea of a Romeo and Juliet musical set on Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the Easter-Passover season: His Juliet would be a Jewish girl and Romeo an Italian Catholic. Of course this scenario was at least a generation out of date. Six years later, while Robbins was conferring about this project with Bernstein and the librettist Arthur Laurents — not in New York, but in Hollywood — newspaper headlines about Puerto Rican riots in Los Angeles triggered their imaginations anew, and East Side Story now became West Side Story, focusing not on Jews and Italians but on whites and Hispanics.

In other words, these collaborators didn’t care a thing about the West Side or authenticity. They weren’t journalists or sociologists; they just wanted some excuse to transplant Romeo and Juliet to America and the Broadway musical stage. And in retrospect I’m glad they proceeded without wasting their creative energies on my nitpicky objections.

Thanks to the rare collaboration of Shakespeare with Bernstein, Robbins, and Sondheim, West Side Story is a timeless work of art, albeit a work written in total ignorance of the actual West Side. Sometimes you just have to let artists follow their visions, instead of trying to impose your vision on them.

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