ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The "West Side" in West Side Story

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The "West Side" in West Side Story
 
A question concerning the locality of the musical West Side Story
Poster art for the original Broadway West Side Story
Poster art for the original Broadway West Side Story

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Question: Where exactly on the "West Side" is the musical West Side Story set?

The simple answer to this question is that the west side in West Side Story is the west side of Manhattan. "At the time. that was kind of a dangerous neighborhood full of gangs," said musical expert Steven Suskin. "It's specifically the area that was cleared to make way for Lincoln Center [in the West 60s, west of Broadway]."

Strange as it may seem, however, this iconic musical once bore a geometrically opposite title: East Side Story. "The project was originally devised as East Side Story," said Suskin, "with Jews and Italians fighting on the Lower East Side. They dropped that and, then, ten years later, they saw an article about the gang wars. The same idea worked, but they'd have to move it over to the west side."

The original Playbill cover

Librettist Arthur Laurents gets into the specifics of the name change in his autobiography "Original Story By." He and composer Leonard Bernstein were poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel discussing recent headlines about Hispanic juvenile gangs in Los Angeles. Bernstein suggested they could set the musical in L.A. and use Latin-tinged music. Laurents countered that he was more familiar with the Puerto Ricans of New York and it would be best to set the story there. They called Jerome Robbins, who had originally conceived of the modern Romeo and Juliet story, with the idea. West Side Story was born.

Ironically, as West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957, the area where it was set was slated for demolition. In 1955, the Lincoln Square area, home to many poor, ethnic families, was designated for urban renewal by Robert Moses, New York's powerful urban planner. Seventeen blocks of tenement neighborhoods were demolished through eminent domain, forcing out 7,000 families. The next year Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was incorporated. A groundbreaking took place in 1959. By the time the film of West Side Story debuted in 1961, the "west side" it depicted was gone forever.

In 1981, someone finally did use the East Side Story title. It was a name of a critically acclaimed album by the British pop group Squeeze. The back cover of the album mocked the famous fire-escape imagery of West Side Story's original poster and album. However, it's likely the band was slyly referring not to western Manhattan, but to the equally rough East End of London.

A scene from the 1961 film
A scene from the 1961 film Photo by MGM
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