West Side Story


As citizens of the United States, Puerto Ricans have free access to the American labor market. The upper mobility of white workers to better paid jobs during the post war world-economic expansion created a labor shortage at the botom end, which was filled, not surprisingly, by Puerto Ricans. The entrance of these “colonial subjects” (Grosfoguel 2003) to the American labor market was not perceived neutrally by white Americans. There is this film -for those who haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend it-  that illustrates this racism experienced by Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland: West Side Story.

West Side Story is a widely well-known American musical and it’s probably Jerome Robbins‘ most beloved and associated work as a choreographer. In 1957 this new [musical] concept burst onto the Broadway scene in the form of a modernize retelling of the classic Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet, only this time the featuring became the Puerto Rican Sharks and the American Jets, two rival street gangs fighting for dominance in Northern Manhattan, NY, while the title characters became Tony and Maria.

Robbins was reunited with composer Leonard Bernstein and also on board were Arthur Laurents who wrote the book and the young Stephen Sondheim providing lyrics. Robbins choreography for this musical was unlike anything seeing on Broadway ever before. He combined elements of ballet, latin and jazz amid others. As far as I know, it has been played twice in Paris, one in 2007 – that I myself attended – and most recently 86 performances were held at Théâtre du Châtelet between October 2012 and January 2013.

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France.

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France.

So, I was watching 1961-ten-Oscar-winning West Side Story last night and couldn’t help but share some thoughts about this musical that I had once read on Laura Briggs’ book Reproducing Empire (2002).

Laura Briggs considers that the lesson of West Side Story is rather crude as the play portrays Puerto Ricans “as delinquents engaged in teenage sex and street gangs” propelled from home by poverty and overpopulation.

For Americans, West Side Story was used to explain why Puerto Ricans had left the island and an analysis of their situation in New York; for Puerto Ricans (PRs), a feature of what it meant to go to US mainland. That the land of opportunity that Anita sings about in “America” was nothing but a myth.

West Side Story

Laura Briggs, “Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Sciences and U.S. imperialism in Puerto Rico”, University of California Press, 2002, pp. 172-174

[…] West Side Story portrayed Puerto Ricans as delinquents engaged in teenage sex and street gangs. The play is also evidence of the popular reach of social science to “explain” Puerto Ricans; at the time, Martha Gellhorn called the Broadway musical “a sociological document turned into art”. It offered both an explanation for why Puerto Ricans left the island and an analysis of their situation in New York. To account for their presence, the 1957 play relied on what had become common sense through the work of social scientists on the island in the 1940s: poverty, caused or exacerbated by overpopulation. West Side Story also borrowed from the assimilation-cycle paradigm in sociology, which argued that there was one path to incorporation into the citizenry of the United States, and that when a new immigrant group came to the US , the first step of the process was conflict and confrontation. Like the social science it drew on, this was a liberal account: it stressed the inevitability of improvement and assimilation. The stories that the play’s promoters told about it underscored its supposedly universal character. The play was described as a re-writing of Romeo and Juliet (after the film won ten Academy Awards, one enterprising publisher event put the two plays in the same volume), and Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins were said ti have originally conceived it as “East Side Story”, with the conflict centering on Jewish and Catholic gangs. Montagues, Capulets, Jews, Catholics – the play was about irrational hatreds and their consequences, not the narrative of any particular group; it reiterated contemporary sociology’s trope of the universal immigrant experience.

Yet the play and film managed simultaneously to point up Puerto Rican difference: it is about gangs, delinquency, and teen sexuality. While gangs and delinquency, and teen sexuality. While gangs and delinquency also characterize the “American” boys (also termed “Polacks” and “Wops”, pointing that the “Americans” in the player only barely removed from their own immigrant ancestry), the explanation for criminality works differently in each case. For Puerto Rican youths, it is simply a feature of what it means to come to New York – that they are forced to fight for their right to be there, propelled from home by poverty and overpopulation. While this may be a sympathetic explanation, it is also a homogenizing one: they are delinquents because they are Puerto Ricans. The “American” boys, in contrast, describe the competing discourses in which their criminality is inserted in one of the plays cleverest songs, “Dear Officer Krupke” – police and courts stress individual responsibility, psychiatrists blame family dynamics, social workers see them as a sign of sociological dysfunction, a “social disease.” While the lyrics make fun of them all, the song points up the need for explanation and individualizes the boy’s situation; the film even makes a few such gestures itself, pointing to the boy’s as the products of broken homes, alcoholism, or prostitution. Furthermore, whereas “American” girls are effectively nonentities for the play and film (except for the tomboy Anybodys, who perhaps stance in for the discourse of lesbian deviance and criminality), it is Puerto Rican girls who are relentlessly herosexualized. “American boys only want one thing from Puerto Rican girls,” María is warned, and her friend Anita is described in the stage directions as “knowing, sexual, sharp.” Both Anita (played in the film by Rita Moreno, whom Hollywood named “The Puerto Rican Firecracker”) and María have sexually suggestive scenes, implying that they are or soon might be sexually active, and the American boys attempt to rape Anita. When Puerto Ricans who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s complain theta everywhere they went, West Side Story provided the lens through which mainland Americans saw them, this is part of the complaint – all the boys are criminals, all the grils are sexualized, and the island is “overpopulated.”

Interestingly, the Broadway play was met with controversy in the Puerto Rican community on opening night, but not for any of these reasons. The objection was to a line that termed Puerto Rico an “island of tropic diseases.” As we have seen, “tropical disease” ceased to be politically viable paradigm in Puerto Rico in the 1930s, replaced instead by eugenics and “overpopulation.” ” Puerto Rico / You ugly island / Island of tropic diseases… / Always the hurricanes blowing / Always the population growing,” sang a group of Puerto Rican girls in the play, listing the things they were glad to leave behind on the island. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s failure to notice that the term tropic diseases was passé raised considerable ire in the Puerto Rican community (though the term overpopulation did not). People were infuriated by the lyric and demanded its removal. As Bernstein recounted later,

Opening night… we had a… message from La Prensa [a New York Puerto Rican newspaper] saying that they heard about this song and we would be picketed when we came to New York unless we omitted or changed the song. They made particular reference to “Island of tropical diseases,” telling us everybody knows Puerto Rico is free disease… We were insulting not only Puerto Rico but the Puerto Ricans and all immigrants. they didn’t hear “Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America.”

The New York Times repeated the complaint two days later and assured its readers that there was virtually no tropical disease on the island. As critic Alberto Sandoval notes, the “island of tropic diseases” lyric was changed when the play was made into the film. The process begun by New Deal liberals and Puerto Rican public health experts in the 1930s was complete; “overpopulation” was an acceptable framing of the island’s difficulties, “tropical diseases” was offensive.

WEST SIDE STORY Theatre du Chatelet Paris 2

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France. (Photo credit: M.S. Théâtre du Chatelet)

WEST SIDE STORY Theatre du Chatelet Paris 3

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France. (Photo credit: M.S. Théâtre du Chatelet)

WEST SIDE STORY Theatre du Chatelet Paris 4

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France. (Photo credit: M.S. Théâtre du Chatelet)

WEST SIDE STORY Theatre du Chatelet Paris 1

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France. (Photo credit: M.S. Théâtre du Chatelet)

WEST SIDE STORY Theatre du Chatelet Paris 45jpg

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France. (Photo credit: M.S. Théâtre du Chatelet)

WEST SIDE STORY Theatre du Chatelet Paris 6

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France. (Photo credit: M.S. Théâtre du Chatelet)

WEST SIDE STORY Theatre du Chatelet Paris 8

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France. (Photo credit: M.S. Théâtre du Chatelet)

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France.

West Side Story, Théâtre du Châtelet; Paris, France.

Video

West Side Story (1961)

Directors/Writers: Directed by; Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise. Written by; Earnest Lehman & Arthur Laurents. Original play conceived by Jerome Robbins.

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, Tucker Smith, Tony Mordente, David Winters, Eliot Feld, Bert Michaels, David Bean, Robert Banas, Anthony Teague, Harvey Evens, Tommy Abbott, Susan Oakes, etc… (Look, I could name them all, but you should know by now, they’re amazing.)

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10 Responses to West Side Story

  1. Ratonet says:

    Sondheim and Bernstein recalled it in Dramatist Guild Symposium:

    Sondheim: I got a letter complaining about the one line ‘Island of tropic diseases’, outraged on behalf of Puerto Rico, claimant that we were making fun od Puerto Rico and being sarcastic about it. But I didn’t change it.

    Bernstein: Opening night in Washington we had a telephone message from La Prensa saying that they’d heard about this song and we would be picketed when we came to New York unless we omitted or changed the song. They made particular reference to “Island of tropical diseases,” telling us everybody knows Puerto Rico is free disease. And it wasn’t just that line they objected to. … They didn’t hear ‘Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America’ – it’s a little hard to hear at that tempo. We met that threat by doing nothing about it, not changing a syllable, and we were picketed.

    Even the New York Times took up this story, with an article by Howard A. Rusk, MD: ‘The facts don’t rhyme: an analysis of irony in lyrics linking Puerto Rico’s breezes to tropic diseases’ (“The Facts Don’t Rhyme,” New York Times, 29 September 1957, p. 83)

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  2. Ratonet says:

    Wops: a derogatory term for those of italian descent / Acronym for With Out Papers

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  3. Ratonet says:

    More than once, West Side Story registers the confusion and forgetfulness surrounding Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory. When Bernardo points out to Anita that “Puerto Rico is in America now,” he calls attention to Puerto Rico’s location “inside” the United States. Tempting as it is to treat his remark as merely a glib reminder of the unclear relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.

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  6. Fabian Glz. says:

    This is probably one of my favourite musicals.
    Love your blog by the way

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  7. Sandoval says:

    The film West Side Story probably marked a turning where Puerto Ricans became a distinct racialized minority, no longer to be confused with blacks or chicanos in the Euro-American social imaginary (Pérez 1997; Sandoval-Sánchez 1997).

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