Two warring tribes, indistinguishable in their tactics and power ambitions, who begin as rivals but intensify their mutual hatreds to the point that the feud becomes bloodsport. Everyone recognizes the tragedy but people are powerless to stop it. The only gain from belonging to one of the two is a sense of purpose, protection from isolation, and the opportunity to be valued and praised by others. What is lost is empathy, community, and love.
Sure, this could describe relations between two political parties.
It could also pertain to the real-life Hatfields and McCoys or the fictional Capulets and Montagues. In this case, I’m referring to the Sharks and the Jets of the classic 1957 musical that became the epic 1961 movie West Side Story, now being revived in new form on Broadway to mixed reviews. I’m writing this without having seen the new version, the prospect of which I both dread and anticipate with excitement.
To prepare, I again watch the 1961 movie version, which is edgier and more brilliant than I recalled. It opens with aerial shots of New York from the period: busy, dirty, dingy, and anarchic in a way in which residents don’t really recognize today. These are classic and oddly beautiful clips of a time gone by. Next come the gangs, starting with the Jets, making their way through a contested city block. Then the first dance move: a single gang member breaks ranks with a leg and arms extended in a ballet-like move, and the viewer immediately realizes that this is going to be a very special experience.
The magic is a result of a collaboration between Leonard Bernstein (astonishing music), Robert Wise (direction), Jerome Robbins (choreography), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). It’s an amazing thing to experience a film in which everything just seems to work perfectly. It’s almost hard to believe that this film was made almost 60 years ago because it still feels edgily modern, and the themes more relevant and impactful than ever before. Watching it today gives you insight into certain changes in the culture: for example, the film contains no vulgarity but plenty of ethnic slurs, whereas today it would be entirely the reverse.
The music is unspeakable – and I’m not negatively judging Bernstein’s other magnificent musical achievements by saying what I think everyone knows: this suite of music is his most enduring contribution. It was different back then. People like Bernstein believed that theater and film would be the right venue for the best art music. It didn’t turn out that way but his work for West Side Story reveals why the idea had promise.
There is so much to say about the rhythmic play in “Dance at the Gym,” “Something’s Coming,” “Cool,” and “America,” the orchestrations of “Tonight” and “The Rumble,” and the emotional power of “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere.” It seems incredible that all this could be in a single soundtrack.
That said, my own favorite piece of innovation is the song “Maria,” in which Bernstein undertook the implausible task of rescuing the diminished fifth (the “tritone”) from its medieval reputation as the “diabolus in musica” (the devil in the music). The interval divides the octave at the halfway point, so it is mathematically precise but strangely dissonant to the ear.
Bernstein was a master music historian and something of a skeptic of old orthodoxies. So in this hymn to Maria (the name of the mother of God, and a cinematic stand in for the Queen of Heaven), Bernstein attempts to use the “diabolus in musica” as the first interval of the melody, almost as if to show the world that it can be done and it can be beautiful.
Now that I’m looking this up, it turns out to be more than just this song. The main theme of the Jets is built around the tritone. More than that, it turns out that the entire score features the tritone from the beginning to the end. This might account for why the entire score has a vaguely menacing and penetrating feel to it, keeping the mind and heart always a bit on edge with the presence of danger, and how even the love songs seem to have looming darkness behind them.
One of the most touching characters in the movie is Doc the drugstore owner, playing the facilitator of the romance and the peacemaker as the modern version of Friar Tuck. He pleads with the boys to stop their fighting, their blowups, their lust for blood, while making the case that all of this can only come to bad. He is the anti-tribalist, or, one might say, the voice of liberalism in the movie. The viewer agrees with him constantly, but it’s easy for us because we aren’t involved in gang warfare.
Or are we? Look at the politics in this country today. The divisions used to reflect slightly different sets of philosophical outlooks concerning the role of the state. Today politics has become far more wicked, pitting tribe against tribe, increasingly along biological lines. Age, sex, race, ethnicity, gender identity – we are told – should form the basis of our allegiances and voting patterns. Our fights are not philosophical and civil but identitarian and vicious.
It’s as if American politics is following the plot lines of West Side Story. What begins in rivalry descends to rumble and ends in death. We are led to believe in the last scene that perhaps the gangs, now faced with death and ruined lives, see the error of their ways, and finally cooperate in assisting Maria as she mourns the death of Tony. Maybe but we don’t know for sure.
Now comes our own rumble called election year, and the weapons of choice keep escalating: fists, hoses, belts, chains, knives, guns, and where does it end? There is a lesson here for all of us, and it is fitting that the remake on Broadway makes this obvious parallel explicit. May it once again make a contribution to showing us the error of our ways. Blessed are the peacemakers.