Friday, March 28, 2014

Tony and Maria

We happened to watch West Side Story over Purim and it is still in my mind.  The music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are wonderful, brilliant and memorable.  That West Side Story is based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is clear.  But, there is one subtle difference between them.  In Shakespeare's version Juliet dies, while in Bernstein's version she lives and survives Tony's death.  Why did they do this? 

The easiest explanation is that they needed a credible figure to argue for brotherhood and mutual understanding after the carnage of the clashes between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white American Jets.  This is the main difference between the two versions.  Whereas in Shakespeare the feuding families of Montagues and Capulets are supposedly reconciled by the deaths of the "star-crossed lovers", in West SIde Story, the adaptation is that of liberal Jewish Americans who see reconciliation of the distinct ethnic groups of New York City as the entry into the melting pot, the American dream, in other words, "I like America."

The original concept for West Side Story was that there would be a Jewish and Irish theme (entitled East Side Story), but this was too close to home for those involved and it was changed after five years to Puerto Rican and Polish-American gangs.  This gave the mainly Jewish authors a certain amount of distance whereby they could express their desire for social engineering.  The libretto was written by Arthur Laurents (born Levine) and with the choreography by Jerome Robbins, the quartet of Jewish Americans, Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents and Robbins, could express their liberal views of resolution of ethnic conflicts through reconciliation, after all killing each other doesn't make rational sense and its not the Jewish way.

Yet, this is the way the world tends to work, allegiance to family, tribe and ethnic group trumps all other ideologies. Witness the clamor for Crimea to rejoin Russia, the Scottish move for independence, the Palestinian desire to destroy Israel, and so on and so on.  Better to live in the world as it is rather than live in a fantasy universe, it may be more prosaic but it is more realistic.


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