Ask Playbill.com answers your (and sometimes our own) theatre-related questions. To ask a question, email [email protected]. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
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."
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.