I Like to Be in America: ‘West Side Story’ Still Relevant After All These Years

Mention the names of lovers Tony and Maria or the song titles “Somewhere” or “I Like to Be in America” to just about any Baby Boomer and they’ll immediately know you’re talking about one of the greatest defining American musicals of their era, West Side Story.

For more than six decades now, Leonard Bernstein’s compelling, tragic reworking of the classic Romeo and Juliet tale set in New York City in the 1950s has been captivating hearts and minds of audiences around the world. But in today’s America, given our bitter battling over immigration and fear of the outsider, the acclaimed musical has been given renewed significance and is just as powerful in production as it was when it debuted on Broadway 1957 and won the Academy Award for best picture in 1961.

If he were alive, famed composer and conductor Bernstein would be 100 and to celebrate his centennial legacy The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is offering a series of his of his works, including having the National Symphony Orchestra and a talented young cast from New York recently perform a special West Side Story in Concert.

“Today, it seems incredible that Leonard Bernstein could have written West Side Story, an up-to-the-minute commentary on gang warfare then in New York City,” says Fransesco Zambello, artistic director of Washington Orchestra. “But it is timeless in that it struggles with the ideals that are at the heart of the American project: the idea that we are all created equal, and with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“In West Side Story, discord between native-born Americans and recent immigrants leads to tragedy, but its most famous song is an anthem to true optimism, a belief in a world “Somewhere” where each person has a place, each person has a home,” Zambello added.

Zambello contends that while we should enjoy Bernstein’s music, we should never neglect his message. “If we simply enjoy the tunes we are missing the point,” he says. “Bernstein devoted his life not only to art, but also to advocacy, education, and the responsibilities of citizenship. May his legacy always inspire us to do the same.”

National Symphony Orchestra Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, who led the musicians and even changed costume to portray the infamous Officer Kruppke in one scene, has often contemplated why West Side Storyis so enduring.

Reineke acknowledges that part of the musical’s popularity comes from Bernstein’s infectious melodies, complex rhythms, and jazz-infused harmonies. But it is the fact Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sonheim’s sometimes witty, sometimes heart-breaking lyrics, touches so many of us so deeply, he contends, that gives West Side Storyits staying power.

“It shines a mirror on each and every one of us to make us think about how we treat each other as fellow human beings. It exposes our prejudices and preconceived ideas about one race or one class versus another,” Reineke said. “Somehow, someday, somewhere – that was the issue Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim contemplated decades ago. To honor Bernstein’s centennial, I implore each of us as individuals to begin answering ‘Here, now, and compassionately.’”

10 Facts About West Side Story You May Not Have Known, But Will Now Thanks to Mental FlossandWriter Mark Mancini

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE ABOUT A CATHOLIC BOY & A JEWISH GIRL.

Religion and national identity would’ve driven the drama of East Side Story, which is what choreographer Jerome Robbins & composer Leonard Bernstein called the project they started working on in 1949. But eventually they decided that “the whole Jewish-Catholic premise [was] not very fresh” when they were having a poolside meeting in Beverly Hills six years later. Under the California sun, they decided to instead focus on—in Bernstein’s words — “two teenage gangs … one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’” Because Manhattan’s eastern neighborhoods had been largely gentrified by then, their production was soon given its present title.

2. THE DIRECTOR INSISTED ON AN UNUSUALLY LONG REHEARSAL PERIOD.

Before opening night, your average 1957 musical cast was only given four or five weeks’ worth of practice. Robbins (who also sat in the director’s chair) demanded eight. “We had a lot of work to do,” he recalled, with the show’s intricate dance sequences requiring extra attention.

3. THE JETS & THE SHARKS WERE PROHIBITED FROM INTERACTING OFFSTAGE.

Robbins tried generating real hostility between these fictitious gangs. According to producer Hal Prince, the Broadway veteran kept both groups of actors as far away from each other as possible. “They were not allowed to socialize out of the theater, [and] they were not allowed to take their lunches together.” Obviously, this was an extreme approach. But over time, it started working.

4. FOUR-LETTER WORDS WERE REPLACED WITH INOFFENSIVE JIBBERISH.

Through West Side Story, lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted the F-bomb to make its musical theater debut. Initially, this choice word appeared in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but Columbia Records (which released their original cast recording) noted that using such language would violate obscenity laws and—hence—prevent the show from touring across state lines. Defeated, they went with “Krup you!” instead.

5. SPOILER ALERT: MARIA HAD A DELETED DEATH SCENE.

Shakespeare may have killed off both title characters in Romeo & Juliet, but one of West Side Story’s star-crossed lovers lives to see the final curtain drop. Things almost ended much differently. Maria’s untimely suicide was part of an early draft—until composer Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) offered his two cents. “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her,” he told Robbins.

6. BERNSTEIN PLUCKED “ONE HAND, ONE HEART” FROM A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MUSICAL.

At the time, he was scoring West Side Story and Candide—which was based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name—simultaneously. Though Bernstein crafted “One Hand, One Heart” for that production, he repurposed it as a romantic duet between Tony and Maria. In exchange, “O Happy We,” which was originally a duet for West Side Storymoved to the first act of Candide.

7. “SOMETHING’S COMING” WAS WRITTEN LAST-MINUTE.

Just 12 days before West Side Story premiered in D.C. (it’d debut in New York later), Bernstein and Sondheim wrote Tony’s hopeful ballad. Their inspiration came from a piece of dialogue that the character was to deliver during his first scene. The line, as penned by playwright Arthur Laurents, went like this: “Something’s coming, it may be around the corner, whistling down the river, twitching at the dance—who knows?” When asked if he’d mind letting the sentence get turned into a number, he enthusiastically replied “Yes, take it, take it, make it a song.” This late arrival had to be re-orchestrated several times, making it a bit of a headache for the pit band.

  1. AUDREY HEPBURN WAS TAPPED TO PLAY MARIA FOR THE FILM VERSION.

In 1959, the screen legend was pregnant—and because she’d already suffered two miscarriages, Hepburn wasn’t about to over-exert herself this time. So, when she was offered the lead role in what would arguably become the most celebrated movie musical ever shot, she declinedRebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood got the part instead, with Marni Nixon dubbing over her singing voice.

  1. WEST SIDE STORY’S 1961 CINEMATIC ADAPTATION SET AN ACADEMY AWARDS RECORD.

Seven months after its release, the flick brought home 10 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and even Best Picture. Thus, it won more than any other musical ever had in Academy Award history. As of this writing, the distinction still stands.

  1. A BILINGUAL REVIVAL OPENED ON BROADWAY IN 2009.

Laurents joined forces with producers Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander to retell the story he’d helped craft over 50 years earlier. This time, he leveled the playing field. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the gangs somehow,” he explained. By letting the Sharks speak and sing in their native language during large chunks of the musical, Laurents hoped to do exactly that. Like the original, after a run in Washington, D.C. the show moved to New York, where it ran for 748 performances.

This article first appeared

in Talking ‘Bout My Generation

When Duck and Cover Drills Just Didn’t Cover It

By Dave Price

Like most Baby Boomers born in the 1940s and early 1950s, I can vividly recall those 13 harrowing days in October of 1962 that came to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I remember sitting in front of our family’s black-and-white television and hearing President John Kennedy describe in terrifying detail how the leaders of Communist Russia had installed nuclear missiles in neighboring Cuba and now they were pointed directly at the east coast of America.

I didn’t then, and certainly don’t now, recall all of President Kennedy’s speech. But I knew from his look and what I had previously read and seen on TV the situation was ominous. The president was talking about the possibility of the deaths of millions of Americans.

I don’t think I fully understood death then. What 10-year-old does?

But I was aware that the silly drills we were being subjected to in school were meaningless, if not indeed idiotic. We practiced two types. In one, we marched silently, single file out into the hallway away from the windows, put our arms against the wall in front of us, and placed our head on our arms. In the other, we were ordered to crawl under our wooden desks and remain there until an all-clear was sounded. To me, both were ridiculous. Hadn’t people seen the fiery blast and deadly mushroom cloud of fallout to follow? How were these positions supposed to protect anyone against that?

Obviously, I didn’t want to die, but my biggest concern centered around my mother and father. They worked in a city about 10 miles from my school. I determined I wasn’t going to let the world end and not be with them.

So, I came up with a plan. My 4thgrade teacher was Mrs. Dorothy Robinson. She drove a big Oldsmobile. I had observed that she always put her car keys in her large purse before starting class. She would then put her purse on the floor on the right side of her desk. I knew what I would do. At the initial signal for any attack, I would dash from my chair, grab her keys, bolt to her car, and drive the 10 miles to be with my parents.

Of course, there was a major problem with my plan. I had never driven a car before. But I was convinced I could do it if I had to.

Finally, on Oct. 26th, it was reported that the Soviet Union had backed down. They would remove the missiles. For now, the world was safe. I didn’t have to learn to drive during unimaginable destruction.

Seven years later, I did get my license. And one year later, I found myself in college, learning academic ways to support my growing belief that peace is always better than war. I made a life-long commitment to trying to be a person of peace. Over the years, I’ve come up with many reasons to support that decision. But I’ve never found any better than the two I learned in 1962 – there’s no way a wooden desk can keep you safe from an atomic bomb and a 10-year old is way too young to drive.

The End of the World as We Know It Was Only a Hair’s Breath Away

While almost all of America was filled with dread during those tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, if we had known then what we know now we probably would have been even more terrified.

“We came within a hair’s breath of the destruction of the world,” says Janet Lang, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “We look back on the Missile Crisis and it was peacefully resolved. But we didn’t know at the time how it was going to turn out.”

Lang and her husband James Blight, chairman of the International Affairs department, appeared at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to discuss their new book The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Kruschev/Castro in the Cuban Missile CrisisThe authors are also responsible for an interactive website on their project which you can access by clicking here.

Blight agrees with his wife’s alarming assessment. “If you don’t believe in divine intervention, this (piece of history) will really test you. We are fortunate to be here today and having this discussion,” he contends. “It shows that a nuclear was is possible even if no one wants it.”

The story involves three countries – the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba – and their three leaders at the time – John Kennedy, Nikita Khruschev and Fidel Castro.

Blight says that while many people focus on the 13 unbelievably stressful days in October, 1962, the story actually began 18 months earlier. Kennedy was then the new American president. He carried through with the authorization of a previously planned private attack on Cuba and its Communist leader Castro. That invasion, known as the Bay of Pigs, was an utter fiasco. However, it convinced Castro that Kennedy was intent in taking over his tiny island. He turned to his most powerful Communist ally, Russian Premier Khruschev. Khruschev ordered that nuclear missiles aimed at the United States be secretly installed and sent 43,000 Russians to Cuba to handle that task.

“Cuba’s often overlooked, but it was the mouse that roared,” Blight says. First, Castro was really wrong about Kennedy’s intentions. Privately, the president was saying after the Bay of Pigs that he would never undertake any military operation against Cuba (even though there were many covert plots to kill Castro). And, for his part, while Khruschev wanted to back Cuba – which at the time was considered the crown jewel in the Communist empire since it was located only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland – he certainly didn’t want to start a war with America.

But once America discovered the Soviet missiles, a showdown was inevitable. In America, on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. Kennedy delivered what Blight terms “the scariest speech that any president has ever given.” Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba, saying that if Soviet ships bound for the island didn’t turn back and the missiles already on the island weren’t removed, America would take action.

While Americans of all ages nervously waited for what would come next, low-level surveillance flights over Cuba continued. Cubans were convinced that such flights signaled an immediate American attack. In his mind, Castro was prepared to act, even if it meant possible world destruction.  He would allow Cuba to become a martyr for the socialist cause. “Cuba will matter. Cuba will make a difference,” Blight says, detailing Castro’s thoughts at the time. The Russians had ordered no action taken against the planes. However, besieged by his people, Castro, after witnessing one of the ear-splitting jet flights in person, issued the fatal order – shoot the planes down. The 43,000 Russians in Cuba were convinced that they would never return home, dying when the island “went up”.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Khruschev, when he was notified of Castro’s intention, exploded. “This is insane. Castro is trying to drag us into the grave with him,” he was said to have shouted.

Finally, after days of negotiations, the Soviet ships turned around and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. The options may have been few, but the right ones were chosen to avert a nuclear war. However, the positive outcome was never guaranteed. “You take Kennedy out and put someone like Lyndon Johnson in and we’re not here,” Lang maintains.

But what implications does studying the Cuban showdown have for us today in our 21stCentury world? The professors say there four:

  • Armageddon can happen. “You don’t have to go to science fiction, you can just go to history,” Blight says.
  • Nuclear war is possible even if no one wants it.
  • Big powers, for their own good, must empathize with smaller countries.
  • And, finally, you can’t know with any certainty what would actually happen in the event of another near-nuclear launch. “You can’t prepare. There are simulations, but in real life people can crack and crumble under such pressures. You can only do something like Cuba once. What happens next time is anyone’s guess,” says Blight.

A Look Back at 1967’s Summer of Love in 7 Parts

 

In the summer of 1967, America found itself in a very similar place to where it finds itself today, 50 years later.

The country was bitterly divided, torn asunder by a generation gap; glaring racial, cultural, political, economic, educational, and lifestyle differences; a seemingly endless and possibly unwinnable war in a distant foreign land; and an increasingly unpopular president in the White House.

However, first in San Francisco, and soon spreading around the country and much of the western world, a movement blossomed where a group of rebellious dreamers were convinced they had discovered a way to reject materialism and find peace, love, and happiness.

They were called hippies and they unleashed what is called today the Summer of Love. In a 7-part series, Booming Encore is examining that special summer of 1967. 

For Eric Burdon, Singing Is Still a Spiritual Sound

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By Dave Price

At age 75, he may need some assistance from a cane and the strong left arm of a loving wife to get from the dressing room to the backstage area. But once he hears the music and strides onto that stage he prowls. He growls. He moans and he howls.

He becomes the iconic, irascible Eric Burdon, the Hall of Fame rock and roll blues belter, who for more than four decades has been the voice of the much-beloved British Invasion band The Animals.

Recently, Burdon and the latest members of the Animals (all of whom were still more than two decades from being born when Burdon started his series of hits with “The House of the Rising Sun” in 1964), headlined the Flower Power music cruise, a five-day floating Summer of Love music festival sailing around the Caribbean.

To keep reading this article, click here.