Jul 24, 2014

West Side Story: Stick to the East Side

When I was in high school, we had to read West Side Story in conjunction with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  They were even bound together, in the same book.  Plus the orchestra played highlights from the score.  So I got a double dose, and I hated every moment of it.

Was there ever anything more heterosexist?

It's about two rival gangs in New York City, the Jets (white) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican).  Tony, a retired member of the Jets, meets a girl named Maria, who happens to be the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.  Guess what happens?

Right.  The Jets hate Maria, the Sharks hate Tony, conflict, conflict, conflict, our love will triumph, fight at the gym, death, everybody's sad.

A flame of heteronormativity envelops songs like "Maria" and "One Hand, One Heart."

Plus all of the Jets and Sharks have girlfriends.  Every one of them.

The most you can hope for is the tiniest bit of chest-pounding, girl-chasing buddy-bonding between Tony and Riff (the leader of the Jets), and Bernardo and his right-hand man Chino.

Horrible.  Absolutely unwatchable.

Which is surprising, when you consider that the writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim were all gay (see Hello, Dolly! for another example).

And about half of the cast members.

There isn't even any beefcake: the high-stepping hunks never take off their shirts.  Not once.

The original Broadway musical starred Larry Kert (Tony), Carol Lawrence (Maria), Michael Callan (Riff), Ken Le Roy (Bernardo), Jamie Sanchez (Chino),

The 1961 movie starred Richard Beymer (Tony, left), Natalie Wood (Maria), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), and Jose de Vega (Chino).

Many other hunks have played Tony, such as Colt Prattes (top photo) and Matthew Cavenaugh.

Including some gay ones.

I can not figure out why.

See also: Leonard Bernstein's Mass; Michael Callan: A Gay Guy and His Pretend Wife.