Closing out the Cardinal Stage Company 2016-2017 season is West Side Story, with iconic music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, which not only deals with love, as all Shakespeare-inspired plays do, but also with themes of race, class, and immigration. This classic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet follows members of the Jets, an all-white street gang, and the Sharks, immigrants from Puerto Rico, as they fight for control of a poor neighborhood in New York City. A la the fated couple of Verona, teenagers Tony and Maria fall in love despite their affiliations with the different gangs.
The story many know so well didn’t always follow white and Puerto Rican gangs, however. An early proposal (titled East Side Story) pitted a Catholic gang against a Jewish gang following World War II and would have made anti-Semitism the main conflict. Later the play was reimagined to mirror a popular news story about a young Latino gang fight in Los Angeles. Ultimately, creator Arthur Laurents felt more familiar with Puerto Rican immigrants in Harlem and decided that the play would be best suited in New York.
The animosity and revenge-fueled violence that fells members on both sides in the musical originates from hatred of immigrants and fear of the “other.” All the while, the police and their representatives occasionally step in to remind both gangs that their socioeconomic status is ultimately what makes them powerless, and, in this way, equals.
“West Side Story is a learning experience,” says Daniel Lopez, who will be portraying Tony. “The Jets versus Sharks isn’t a war between people but an ideology. … Despite all differences, we are all human,” he adds.
The production reminds us that prejudices often have less to do with actual differences, but instead arise from a person’s environmental upbringing and ignorance of others. The way Tony and Maria fall in love is a classic example of what can happen when people put aside their differences.
“I feel strongly about Tony because, for one, he has great music, but he is also able to look past the B.S.,” Lopez says. “He lives in the present and doesn’t see differences — he sees things as they should be. I relate to that.”
As a society undergoing an identity crisis, we can benefit from a production like West Side Story, which not only captivates the viewer with its riveting storytelling and melodious songs, but also spreads a powerful message that parallels the prejudices and “us” vs. “them” mentality we face today.
“There is no right or wrong in West Side Story,” Lopez says, adding that Cardinal Stage’s Artistic Director Randy White instills the musical with depth. “It would be really easy to make a character like Tony too good to be true, but Randy does a great job of making real, human interactions … giving every character honesty, reality.”
Composer Leonard Bernstein was among the first U.S.-born and -educated composers to be recognized worldwide, and though many of his works received high praise, none became as popular as West Side Story.
Bernstein would likely be glad to see his work come to Bloomington, as he had close ties with Indiana University. At various times throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Bernstein invited IU music students to perform in his productions internationally, including a monthlong tour of his opera Trouble in Tahiti in Israel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bernstein’s first time conducting there. Bernstein also established the Leonard Bernstein Scholarship at the Jacobs School of Music and worked with IU music students in Bloomington for six weeks in the early ’80s while creating his final opera, A Quiet Place.
West Side Story will conclude Randy White’s final season with Cardinal Stage Company, though he will return as a guest director for Frankenstein, which will run from Oct. 27 – Nov. 5 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. His hard work over the years has helped make professional theatre a staple in the Bloomington community. West Side Story will be an exemplary send-off for the man who founded Cardinal Stage, and a fitting conclusion to its 10th season.
West Side Story will run from June 16-25 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Tickets are available here.