Media Advocacy; 'Ball of Collusion'; Star-Crossed Stories

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Good morning, it’s Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. Race and racism are back in the news -- more or less continuously, it seems -- but has the topic ever not been part of our culture and national discourse? I bring this up because on this date 62 years ago, “West Side Story” appeared on stage for the first time. The premiere was here in Washington, D.C.

From the nation’s capital, the production went to Philadelphia before opening on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on Sept. 26, 1957. It would run for 732 performances before going on tour. By that time, a movie project was in the works, aided by the infusion of Hollywood director Robert Wise and film actress Natalie Wood.

Although the star-crossed lovers in “West Side Story” inhabit an iconic American morality play, if you know your history, you may recall that the story has antecedents that far predate the creation of this country. It is a classic human story, as I’ll explain in a moment. First, I’d steer you to  RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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Trump Unmasks the Media’s Liberal Advocacy. Steve Cortes writes that the forces of anti-conservative bias have met their match in President Trump.

“Ball of Collusion”: All Obama’s Anti-Trump Loyalists. RealClearInvestigations spotlights Andrew McCarthy’s new book with an excerpt detailing the Obama administration’s response to Trump’s surprising election.

Is It Possible the Yield Curve’s “Inversion” Isn’t Man-Made? Amid recession worries, RealClearMarkets editor John Tamny argues that little of what’s expressed as predictive about an inverted yield curve stands up to scrutiny.

Headwinds for Big Wind. In RealClearEnergy, Robert Bryce points out that many renewable power projects face increasing opposition -- ironically, from environmentalists with wildlife concerns -- that could cause green-energy goals to be missed.

MLB Legends Say Baseball Is Currently “Unwatchable.” In RealClearSports, Bonnie Stiernberg reports on three greats’ reaction to the changes sabermetrics have wrought on the national pastime.

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It is well-known that the inspiration for “West Side Story” was “Romeo and Juliet,” but where did Shakespeare get his idea? And what, exactly, was the nature of the dispute between the houses of Montague and Capulet?

The answer to the first question, we know: Shakespeare borrowed his idea, characters, plot line -- even the title -- from a narrative poem published in 1562 by a British playwright named Arthur Brooke, who wrote of the tragedy of “Romeus and Juliet.”

And though the Bard never really provides his audience an underlying rationale for the Montague-Capulet feud, Brooke does. His story, with its anti-Catholic undertones, is a cautionary tale about how lust leads young people to ignore their elders and pursue love outside their religious caste.

Four centuries later, the great theater producer and dance choreographer Jerome Robbins (nee Rabinowitz) endeavored to explore that theme in a musical and dance production. Robbins tentatively called his idea “East Side Story,” and planned to stage the action in the spring when Passover and Easter expose the underlying tensions between the families of a Jewish girl (Juliet) and her Catholic boyfriend (Romeo).

Robbins approached a talented writer, Arthur Laurents, to write the play, and asked world-famous composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein to conjure up the music. This was in 1949, and those who knew of the project were skeptical that three giant talents, with egos to match, could collaborate -- or even whether Robbins’ vision would work on stage.

“‘Abie's Irish Rose’ to music -- the dance of the garbage cans,” scoffed ballerina Nora Kaye. “Your three temperaments in one room, and the walls will come down.”

As Laurents himself later conceded, Kaye’s prediction wasn’t far off. Their temperaments did clash, and the New York apartment building where they first met to discuss the writing was literally torn down before they got anything on paper.

“But Robbins is a man of distinct determination,” Laurents wrote later. “In 1955, the three of us met again (in another building which has since been torn down: wreckage proceeds faster these days). Human wreckage, too, and we found ourselves discussing a headline aspect: juvenile delinquency.”

A couple of months after that, while in Hollywood doing a film project to pay the bills (pay their tax bills, actually, but that’s another discussion), Bernstein and Laurents continued their brainstorming around the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Los Angeles newspapers were full of stories about ethnic-based gangs, which, as they say in the movie business, provided the characters with their motivation.

Laurents and Bernstein shifted the action in their play from New York’s Lower East Side to the Upper West Side. Robbins’ (and Brooke’s) religious tensions gave way to the more primal turf fight between a Puerto Rican street gang and a self-described “American” gang. The two men then did something counter-intuitive: They added a fourth virtuoso to their creative group, a young writer named Stephen Sondheim.

The musical was a tremendous hit, from New York to San Francisco. The movie version was an even bigger hit. Released on Oct. 18, 1961, it was both a commercial and critical success: the top grossing movie of the year, and winner of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Is it time for a remake? It seems that any contemporary version could draw on the original story, perhaps with feuding Muslim and Christian (or Jewish) families. No, that’s too tame. If we really want to ask the audience to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours, what if one of the doomed lovers was a Republican and the other a Democrat?

How would independents, the nation’s fastest growing political cohort, respond? They might identify with the Mercutio-based character, who could still say, as he does in the Shakespeare original, “A plague o' both your houses! They have made worms' meat of me!” 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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