My Turn: ‘West Side Story’ moved me from ‘gang life’ to love
Opening night of the Broadway musical "West Side Story" at The Palace Theatre, in New York, on Thursday, March 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
In this image released by Barlow-Hartman Public Relations, Karen Olivo as Anita, center, and company perform in a scene from the Broadway revival of "West Side Story," now playing at the Palace Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Barlow-Hartman Public Relations, Joan Marcus) ** NO SALES **
In this file image released by Barlow-Hartman Public Relations, Cody Green, center, as Riff and the Jets perform in a scene from the Broadway revival of "West Side Story". (AP Photo/Barlow-Hartman Public Relations, Joan Marcus, File) ** NO SALES **
In this image released by Barlow-Hartman Public Relations, Matt Cavenaugh as Tony and Josefina Scaglione as Maria perform in a scene from the Broadway revival of "West Side Story," now playing at the Palace Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Barlow-Hartman Public Relations, Joan Marcus) ** NO SALES **
Rita Moreno plays Anita in a scene from United Artists' ?West Side Story,? 1961. (AP Photo)
This photo, supplied by Career Transition for Dancers, shows dancers performing in "Cool" from "West Side Story" in "On Broadway! A Glittering Salute To The American Musical," celebrating the Career Transition for Dancers' 23rd Anniversary Jubilee,Monday, Oct. 27, 2008, at City Center in New York. (AP Photo/Career Transition for Dancers, Richard Termine)
Star-crossed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) ponder a future together that can never be, in the film musical "West Side Story", Oct. 1961. (AP Photo)
Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh from "West Side Story" perform at the 63rd Annual Tony Awards in New York, Sunday, June 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Actors perform a segment from West Side Story at the 63rd annual Tony Awards in New York, Sunday, June 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
The cast of "West Side Story" performs at the 63rd Annual Tony Awards in New York, Sunday, June 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
In this handout photo supplied by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the orchestra of the Juilliard School performs a piece from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," as an image from the film is projected on a screen above the stage Monday evening, April 30, 2007, in New York. The occasion was a gala, titled "Good Night, Alice," at Alice Tully Hall, which will be closed for the next year and a half - the first major project in the nearly $1 billion architectural renewal of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. (AP Photo/Stephanie Berger-Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts-HO ) **NO SALES**
A scene from the Broadway musical "West Side Story," is shown in this 1957 photo. The musical is featured in PBS' "Broadway: The American Musical," the first comprehensive documentary series on the history of the American musical ever created for television which tells two stories: the 100-year history of musical theater and the story of its relationship to 20th-century American life. The series Airs on PBS at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday through Thursday (check local listings). (AP Photo/PBS)
y best friend Dave always wanted to be Bernardo. Me, I was more of a Riff kind of guy. But we all agreed, the name of our gang was going to be the Jets.
There were only four or five of us. We’d been hanging out together for most of our elementary school years. And we all went to see the movie West Side Story together. Here was something new, dramatic, maybe even rebellious. We knew what to do.
The Jets owned (at least in our minds) the territory on the west side of the railroad tracks up to and around Mullen Elementary School in New York. It was ours, and nobody better mess with us. We were Jets, the greatest.
Now just to be clear, we are not talking mid-town Manhattan west of the park. We are talking about a neighborhood that would easily fall in place with Concord’s South End. Good families, for the most part. There was no real Puerto Rican problem, and for the most part we all got along pretty well with each other. Even the folks that lived east of the tracks were among our friends.
But boys get to be a certain age, you know. It’s that time before girls or high school or before cars or driving. Odd notions take hold. If I can borrow from another musical of the era: Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground. Trouble. Oh you got trouble.
None of us had a pool table. We just had the territory where we roamed. And maybe, maybe we had some Sen-Sen. I can’t say for sure.
Then along came West Side Story. Gangs and fights and switchblade knives seemed so much more cool than playing cowboys and Indians. John Wayne was no longer top on the list of people to channel. The West got pushed aside by the West Side. The coolness of the Jets was the new tough. It never occurred to us that there was ballet in those steps or poetry in the words or Shakespeare in the story. We all wanted to be Riff or Bernardo and have packs of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves of our T-shirts.
It wasn’t much of a gang. We never really had a rumble or chased kids off the basketball court. In the end, it was just a different way of thinking about ourselves as we rode our bikes around the neighborhood. We thought about action scenarios during summer sleep-outs in our back yards. We made plans for the next week. We were Jets.
We all bought the soundtrack album to learn the words to “Jet Song” and “Officer Krupke.”
We would sing “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way” as we mounted our bikes to patrol Mullen Street and chase out any Puerto Ricans should they appear.
Somewhere. Somewhere in the repeated listening to the cool songs, the cool music on the soundtrack, I started to be drawn to the other stuff. The love story began to reveal itself. I’d never read Romeo and Juliet, but I was coming to know the story well.
I don’t think I ever shared this with the other Jets, but there were also things of beauty in the music. This needed to be approached with caution. In our eyes this was not a story about love, it was about gangs. The music was not supposed to be beautiful. It was supposed to be about tough; Elvis tough-black hair and switchblades all the way tough.
But there was a moment, after “Mambo” at the dance in the gym, when Tony and Maria first see each other across the room and everything else fades away. The music becomes so simple, so innocent. Even today, years and years later, I still don’t think I can put it to words. And isn’t that really the point? We can’t put it to words. We just have to take the ride and feel the emotions. Let the tears roll and throw ourselves into the moment. There is no other option, except to deny that you are alive.
That is what I came to learn from West Side Story. The Jets Song gave way to “Tonight” and “Somewhere.” I got a little older, and there was a complete and total switch in the songs that I listened to. It was no longer about being cool or being in a gang. I started to channel Tony.
There was no actual moment when the Jets of Mullen Street disbanded. The transition to middle school opened up new friendships, new interests. The gang side of me got lost in the options of a wider world. It got parked back there in a closet with John Wayne and Rio Bravo, next to my air gun rifle. I was not going to be a Jet to my last dying day.
The music stayed with me, though. The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, the Doors began filling my record collection. But there was always a place on the shelf for West Side Story. It is the only musical that I had both the Broadway cast recording and the movie soundtrack. I have never stopped listening to it, never stopped being stopped in my day when I hear it.
More than any other musical I know, it has held a grip on my heart. Maybe because it reached out at a particular moment in life, took my perceptions and moved me from wanting to be a tough gang member to wanting to be in love. It revealed a wider world of options and gave me permission to find the beauty in music and story. Which I continue to do in everything.
(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)