One surprising--and yet not so surprising--thing you don't know about 'West Side Story'

About a week ago, I flipped on a WTTW program called “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” , featuring musicals which had one thing in common: they were composed and written by Jews.

The documentary was right up my alley–a trip down memory lane with vignettes from my favorite iconic musicals–“The Producers,” “Cabaret,” “Fiddle on the Roof,” “Porgy and Bess” and more, including, yes, “West Side Story.”

I was multitasking at the time–chopping vegetables for a salad while I was watching and listening to the program– and wasn’t entirely focused on it. I thought I heard one of the people being interviewed say that “West Side Story” was originally called “East Side Story” and was not only written by Jews, it was actually about Jews (and Catholics).

“Whatttt!?” I had to google it. Turns out it’s true. Here’s the backstory.

“West Side Story” is a musical which wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for, well, Jews. Jerome Robbins conceived the story (and became the choreographer and director). Leonard Bernstein composed it. Arthur Laurents wrote the script and the late Stephen Sondheim, who recently passed away, wrote the lyrics. Yes, all of them were Jewish.

In 1949, when Robbins shared the idea for the story with Bernstein and Laurents, sure, it was a take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” But it was a love story between an Italian Catholic boy and a Jewish girl and the problems the relationship caused. The script focused on anti-semitism, specifically, the tensions and hostilities between Catholics and Jews during the Easter-Passover season in the slums of the lower east side of New York.

In Laurents’ first draft – which was tentatively called “East Side Story” — Maria, was a holocaust survivor and a recent emigrate from Israel to America.

But Laurents became convinced the idea was tired, not fresh, too similar to a Broadway romantic comedy called “Abie’s Irish Rose,” about an Irish woman and her Jewish lover. For that reason, and the fact that relations between Catholic and Jews were improving, and, thus, the idea seemed dated, the show was shelved.

Fast forward to 1955, when Laurents and Bernstein ran into each other by chance at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After schmoozing and rehashing the idea, it morphed into one about a white gang — the Jets — and a Puerto Rican gang — the Sharks — clashing on the Upper West Side of New York .

The rest, of course, is history. “West Side Story” was a critically acclaimed 1957 Broadway play. A 1961 movie which won ten Oscars, including an Oscar for Best Picture.

Of course, now it’s a 2021 movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s supposed to be more intuned with today’s sensibilities. Knowing what I now know, it seems fitting that new film was directed by Steven Spielberg, yes, a Jew.

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