West Side Story

I was preparing to watch a movie on Prime Video when the trailer for the remake of West Side Story came on, and it sent my mind wondering about that story and that show.

I don’t really know New York, but I wondered about the West Side of Manhattan today. Is it still a haven for tough kids or has it gone the way of most of coastal urban America?  Gentrifying to the point where your greatest fear, entering those neighborhoods, is being attacked by a small yappy dog or being dangerously scratched by somebody’s jewelry.

A scene from the 1961 movie West Side Story

Mostly, the trailer made me think about how West Side Story has been a part of my life. It started many decades ago. I directed a high school production of West Side Story while a high-school student myself in my home town in Iowa. I also got to play the role of the hot-headed Jet named Action. We were a bunch of small-town kids pretending to be New York gang members but we had fun, and the audience seemed to like it. So what the hell.

I was also in an amateur production of West Side Story later in Saint Paul Minnesota. It was actually staged outdoors, on the street, alongside a downtown building with a fire escape. Perfect for the romantic scenes between Tony and Maria!

My best story from the production of that show: We were rehearsing the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks, which culminates with two guys pulling knives, when a cop car pulled up onto the parking lot that doubled as our stage. The car knocked over a barricade and screeched to a halt as the cop warned us to disperse or face arrest.

We actually got the neighbors, who called the cops, to buy into the whole scene! When it comes to performing a drama, it doesn’t get better than that.

But let me tell you about one other thing. This one is from my high-school West Side Story. If you know the show you know the character Lieutenant Shrank, a cruel, burned-out New York cop patrolling the neighborhood where the kids lived. 

The actor who played that role in our show was an interesting guy. His parents were well-known in the school district for being conservative Christians who were trying to ban “indecent” books from the school libraries. It so happens their son was an outgoing, likeable kid. In fact he was a good actor.

In one scene, Lt. Shrank is mocking the Jets whom he considers pathetic white trash. And he says to the character I played, “How’s the action on your mother’s mattress, Action?”

Our guy playing Lt. Shrank approached me, since I was the director, and asked if he could say instead, “How’s your mother, Action?” I didn’t like it but I said OK, not wanting him to get in trouble with his parents. Then came the performance, and Shrank’s scene with the Jets.

“How’s the action on your mother’s mattress, Action?”

He said the line. The way it was written.

This was a long time ago and I can’t remember if I thanked him. Doing what he did — when his parents clearly didn’t want him to — took some courage and integrity.

The story of West Side Story comes from Romeo and Juliet, which tells us that politics don’t stand a chance when up against the power of young love. The story is also VERY relevant to the America of Donald Trump, where poor whites resent Latino immigrants who they believe have come to take what’s theirs and to mess up their lives. 

The new movie, the remake of the ’61 version, is directed by Steve Spielberg. I hope they get it right.

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