West Side Story is not just any conventional musical; even today, its unparalleled legacy lives on. What other musical spotlights high-kicking street toughs vaulting fences and executing grand jetés in jeans and sneakers? Theater critic Misha Berson described it as “Shakespearean yet intrinsically American, audaciously idiosyncratic.” Director Arthur Laurents dubbed it a “real contribution to American theater.” Leonard Bernstein, the score’s composer, stated that “in its funny little crazy way… it’s a classic.” He was right; West Side Story has become an icon of gritty American culture, largely in part to the exceptional music composed by Bernstein. As a classic, the messages of this musical are as relevant to us now as they were to our grandparents in the 50s.
August 25, 2018 marks Bernstein’s 100th birthday, which is an event celebrated worldwide. The Philadelphia Orchestra decided to honor Bernstein’s legacy by dedicating one of this year’s programs to him. During the weekend of October 12-15, the orchestra performed a stunning orchestral rendition of the full score of West Side Story, featuring Grammy-winning opera singer Isabel Leonard as Maria and Drama-Desk Award nominee Ryan Silverman as Tony.
West Side Story tells the tale of two rival gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City; the native Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks compete with each other to “own” the neighborhood streets. Just as they prepare to permanently settle their disagreements in a final, all-out “rumble,” Tony, a loyal Jet, complicates the situation by falling in love with his rival’s sister. The musical touches upon many controversial themes such as urban youth violence, racial bigotry, and romance being crushed by harrowing circumstances. It reminds us of the power love has over hate and of the dangers of racial tension and class division. By the time the orchestra played the last strains of music, there was not a dry eye left in the house.
Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore has stated that “West Side Story remains incredibly powerful, speaking to societal and economic issues that are still part of our national dialogue sixty years later.” Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin expanded upon this statement by saying, “We never could have predicted that Bernstein’s 100th birthday would come along during such a pertinent situation.” He was speaking of the tragedy in Puerto Rico. A month after the hurricane hit, eighty percent of the island has no electricity and large areas still don’t have access to clean water. Ninety-one percent of Puerto Rican residents have no access to cell phone service, and no way of communicating with loved ones in the United States. Due to the violent destruction inflicted by the hurricane, roads have been completely washed away and others are blocked by debris, which isolates residents. Officials say that the death toll stands at 52.
The most controversial aspect of this whole situation is its unfavorable comparison to President Trump’s response to hurricanes that hit the United States mainland earlier in the year. The governor of Puerto Rico has met with President Trump, asking him to “treat us the same as citizens in Texas and Florida and elsewhere. We will come out of this stronger.”
Despite these requests, many Philadelphians still feel that we are not doing enough to assist relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Therefore, a performing arts-based cultural organization called Taller Puertorriqueño has stepped forwards and announced a fundraising initiative during the performances of West Side Story at Verizon Hall to assist the hurricane victims. Monetary donations were collected in the lobby of the Kimmel Center after each performance, amounting to a total of 34,535.10 dollars raised. The funds will be distributed through a community-based group known as UNIDOS PA’PR, which means “United for Puerto Rico.”
In the words of Vulgamore, “We invite everyone to join us for the poignancy of West Side Story, particularly during this Bernstein centenary, and to take part in our efforts to help those in need in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria’s devastation.” These performances shine a spotlight on our ongoing need for unity during a devastating and significant moment in our country.