“Well, they began it.”
“Well, they began it.”
“And we’re the ones to stop it once and for all…tonight.”
the Jets and the Sharks
I was just thirteen when I encountered the troubling reality that two people could share a singular experience and come away with opposite perspectives. The movie, West Side Story, was the vehicle of that lesson, and a childhood friend was my unwitting teacher. Meridith, wherever you are, I thank you.
West Side Story, co-directed by Robert Wise and legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins, was released in 1961.
It had already been a smash hit on Broadway for four years. At that time, it was common to take popular stage musicals and make blockbuster movies from them. South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and Sound of Music were huge box office successes. These movies debuted in large theatres such as Radio City Music Hall prior to release in neighborhood theatres across the country.
These releases frequently came with accompanying leaps in cinematography, such as Cinerama and Panavision, which required specialized screens and projection technology. To see these first run films, you needed to purchase advanced sale tickets with reserved seats, such as one would for a live show.
And so it was, in the autumn of the year I officially became a teenager, that I made my first solo subway ride into “the City” (that is to say from the borough of Queens into Manhattan). There, I met my friend from summer camp to see the movie that we’d been talking about for months. Dressed for the theatre, wearing fancy shoes and carrying a brand new purse, I navigated the subway – which I’d taken many times but never alone – to Times Square. Once there I walked the few city blocks to the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway and met Meridith outside. She, too, was clad in Broadway attire. We embraced and then, trying to look as grownup as possible, stood on line (in New York, you stand ‘ON’ line, not ‘IN’ line) at the box office for our tickets. We found our seats in the center orchestra section. But not before we’d each purchased the full color magazine being sold at the concession counter. There were resplendent shots of the film, complete with many “extras” not found in the typical Playbill that was always handed out for free. It would find an honored place in my memory album for years to come.
We settled in expectantly in the theatre with its chandeliers, velvet seats, and state-of-the-art curved screen designed specifically for this film. The house lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and the crowd hushed as the Overture began to play. And then the iconic opening shot– the aerial view of Manhattan. The moving shot begins at the southern tip of the island where the East and Hudson Rivers meet. It then pans slowly over familiar landmarks from the East to the West Side: the United Nations complex, the Empire State Building, Giants’ Stadium, Central Park. When it reaches its West Side destination, the camera dips to ground level and the action starts. The story’s conflict is laid out in the opening dance sequence filmed on location in a NYC playground – (ironically shot in Spanish Harlem on the East Side) and on Amsterdam Avenue on the upper West Side.
I watched wide-eyed as the timeless story of passion and hope wrapped in a contemporary setting played out. I yearned along with Bernardo and his Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, for the equity of opportunity that was the promise of America. All they asked of the rival gang was access without fear to the playgrounds of the neighborhood. I rooted for Tony, the film’s Romeo, as he tried to reason with Riff, his boyhood friend and co-founder of the Jets. With a dream-like naivety that had me utterly entranced, he sang of his yearning to grow out of their street-fighting past and on to more fulfilling future. And, of course, my heart was with Maria, the Puerto Rican Juliet, as she embraced the possibility of a new life and a new love.
While memory can certainly intensify the effect of any youthful experience, it is hard to overstate the impact this film had on me. The Romeo-and-Juliet drama was portrayed this time with the antagonists not belonging to “two households both alike in dignity.” The pecking order of American society was central to this conflict. One gang’s members were of an ethnic minority – new immigrants, still speaking their mother tongue; the other’s were second and third generation white Europeans and already assimilated. The societal themes – juvenile delinquency, racial animus, sexual assault, and problematic policing – literally danced before your eyes in Super Panavision 70, choreographed sometimes to songs and sometimes in between. Not having yet read the Shakespeare version, I was not prepared for the inevitable fate of the star-crossed lovers, and I was left with a profound sense of injustice. How, my thirteen-year-old-self thought, could people hate each other so deeply that they could cause the death of someone just for loving? And how, I thought, could someone’s race or nationality cause such a deep hate?
Meridith and I left the theatre red-eyed, our mascara sticky with tears. We stood outside in the dwindling sunlight, and opened our program magazines to check out the photographs of our favorite cast members and talk about what we had just been through. As we did so, I noticed something odd. While I was most interested in the actors portraying the Sharks, Meridith was only looking at the Jets; as I pored over every picture of George Chakiris who portrayed Bernardo, she gazed lovingly at Russ Tamblyn – the film’s Riff. As we spoke, it became clear that while I blamed Riff for the fiasco under the highway, she laid the blame at Bernardo’s feet. We briefly argued, then headed to the Times Square subway station where she would make her connection to Grand Central back to Great Neck and I would go home to Queens.
We lost touch soon after that, but I’m certain West Side Story had less to do with that than our making different summer plans from that time on. And yet, it remains my enduring memory of that childhood friendship – sitting side by side in the theatre, but emerging on opposite sides of the world.