At its heart, “West Side Story” is the story of two star-crossed lovers who are doomed by tribalism and irrational, visceral hatred.
It’s built on the story of the even-more-star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, but the older play’s more purely personal specific tragedy is replaced by fear and xenophobia.
It’s also got wonderful music and spectacular dancing; it’s a musical created by theatrical geniuses.
All of those geniuses — Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim — were Jewish, and all of them were the sons of immigrants.
On March 6, the daughter of one of those men — Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein — will be honored at a gala thrown by the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts. (See box.) It makes perfect sense to honor Ms. Bernstein there because of all the themes that will intersect that evening.
The Wharton Institute, which runs programs that includes the Paterson Music Project and the New Jersey Youth Project, is a nonprofit community arts organization that empowers young people to excel and create and soar through music. Ms. Bernstein is a filmmaker; her documentary “Crescendo: The Power of Music” is about that very specific kind of empowering through music. (She’s also a writer; Lois Goldrich wrote about her last March, in a story called “On the road … joyfully,” when she was touring with her memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.”)
There’s a third connection, though, that holds the other two pieces together. Stephen Spielberg is making a new film of “West Side Story,” and some of it was filmed in Paterson.
“There are parts of Paterson that still look the way they did in the 1950s, when ‘West Side Story’ was written,” Ms. Bernstein said. “In their search for authenticity, the filmmakers found Paterson.”
When it was first conceived, “West Side Story” was an overtly Jewish show, Ms. Bernstein said. “The original idea was Jews versus Catholics, on the Lower East Side. It would have been ‘East Side Story.’ But the idea wasn’t getting any traction. There was a play back then, ‘Abie’s Irish Rose,’” — the play opened in 1922, but the movie version came out in 1946 — “and they thought that their idea was too similar to work, so they set it aside.
“So then one of them — in some stories about it it’s Arthur, and in some it’s Jerry — read an article about the Chicano gangs in L.A., getting into fights, and decided to transplant the idea to New York City, where there was a big influx of Puerto Ricans.” That was around 1957. “And that is where the spark was lit.
“The minute that they introduced the Latin American ingredients, it all came to life. The contrasts in the music, the dancing, the costumes, the way they looked — everything fell into place.
“But the essential story of the people who had immigrated first, and felt like they owned the joint, and the way they reacted to the people who came after them — that’s something that we see over and over again. That is why ‘West Side Story’ never goes out of date, and that is why it is as vibrant today as ever.
“It’s the story of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but with the added elements of racism and fear of the other.”
If you wonder why this constantly popular show is undergoing a spurt of even stronger interest right now, all you have to do is look at what’s going on in the world now, Ms. Bernstein said. “I think that it is not a coincidence that there are two major new productions of ‘West Side Story’ this year — the Broadway revival that is opening this week, and then the Steven Spielberg version later this year. Immigration issues are front and center now, all over the world, and it could not be more relevant.
“The political environment now set everything on fire.”
There is an undercurrent of hope in “West Side Story,” although it’s buried under the tragedy. It’s the hope that hatred and violence ultimately will fail; that destruction is not sustainable, and that living together is the only option — that or death. The gala will celebrate life, the life and joy and art that comes from the performing arts and the young people who it can and very often does liberate.
Who: The Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts
What: Has its gala fundraiser, “West Side Story in Paterson”
Where: At the Westmont Country Club, 728 Rifle Camp Road, Woodland Park
When: On Friday, March 6; cocktails at 6 p.m., dinner at 7. (Note that this is during Shabbat.)
How much: $250 per person
For information and reservations: www.whartonartsgala.org