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‘West Side Story’s’ relevancy in 2020

‘West Side Story’s’ relevancy in 2020

‘West Side Story’s’ relevancy in 2020
September 12
09:08 2020

“A Shakespearean play with a Latin twist” was not what it started off as when Jerome Robbins, an up-incoming choreographer, was thinking about making a modern take on Romeo and Juliet in 1949. Soon when Leonard Berenstein and Arthur Laurents, the composer and book writer respectively got involved came out with “East Side Story”, a love story about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy which they later abandoned due to the dull and redundant storyline. 5 years later, “West Side Story,” the multi-award-winning musical was born.

“Widespread gang problem-plagued New York City from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s, during the transformation of the city’s economy from war production and manufacturing to financial and legal services, insurance, real estate development, and civil service jobs,” According to social historian Eric Schnieder .“African American and Puerto Rican families migrating into the city faced a highly racialized labor market that systematically excluded them from well-paying job categories and racial segregation that shunted them into older housing stock located in the poorest neighborhoods.”

This served as the inspiration for the “West Side Story” many know and love today. 

“The conflict of the whole show revolves between the Hispanic population which was mainly the newly immigrated Puerto Ricans [the sharks] at that time and the polish-white [the jets] people who were already in the neighborhood,” said Dr. Andrew Harris, a play analysis, theatre history and playwright professor at the University of North Texas. “They were set up as against each other gangs, fighting for turf and who is going to dominate the territory.” 

This is not a new concept to America 70 years later. With many movements such as the Civil Rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Puerto Rican Civil Rights movement and more. Racists still exist.

“Different ethnic groups responded differently [to racism] according to the time period,” said Dr. Valerie Martinez-Ebers, a professor and Director of Latino/a studies at UNT. “The majority racist sees [minorities] as a threat to their status quo. They don’t realize they are not going to be the numeric majority for a lot longer.”

Even though this musical is “Romeo and Juliet” at heart – the forbidden, love-struck couples trying to love each other even though everyone is against them – the key component that makes the musical so memorable is the underlying themes that are presented in a blanket of upbeat songs. With Berenstien’s wicked music and Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated lyrics, “America,” “Quintet,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “Somewhere” are some songs that mirror the current situation we are living in right now. 

Police brutality, blatant racism, classism and more are what people in other countries think of when they see America over the 200 years it has been a country.

“Racism has been a thing since white men brought black slaves to Jamestown, Virginia,” said Martinez. “Ideally we want everyone to love one another, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because it’s not realistic. If we look at it historically, if people have been racist for that long I don’t think they can or are going to change any time soon.”

It has been almost 70 years since “West Side Story” has debuted at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, and the way the topics are still topical is heartbreaking. Although we are in the middle of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, it is a fight to eradicate all kinds of racism and systematic police brutality against minorities. The time is up. We need a change in the system and in people’s minds.

“You all killed him [Tony], and my brother [Bernardo], and Riff. Not with bullets and guns. With hate,” the female lead, Maria said holding Tony’s dead body who was killed due to the unwanted violence.

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Yash Ravula

Yash Ravula

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