On "West Side Story" in 2022
Updated: May 16, 2022
Masha and I just finished watching Spielberg's West Side Story remake. This is a show that has a special significance for me; its themes of love, hate, and immigrant struggle resonated with me from a very early age. I was 10 or so when I first saw the 1961 movie, and wore out my cassette tape of the original Broadway cast recording with repeated listenings over the next few years. It was my introduction to both Bernstein and Sondheim, and it is more than a little bit tragic that after all these years it is just as relevant as it ever was.
I fully expected to hate the remake, because it takes a tremendous amount of creativity, ingenuity, and integrity to put a truly interesting spin on an original, and these are qualities that are often lacking in the cynical modern enterprise of remaking and rebooting proven properties for quick cash. Happily, I feel I was proven wrong on all fronts. I don't want to spoil anything by writing a review, so I'll just say that I recommend checking it out if you're interested.
What I did want to talk about was how Masha and I broke down when Valentina started singing "There's a Place for Us." I was not expecting to have the strongest and most unrestrained cry I have had in a long time. Certainly, it provided some catharsis after the events of the past two weeks, but there was more: I felt like I finally understood on a new level why the story of Romeo and Juliet continues to endure after all this time, in spite of the rather unbelievable and artificial construct of love at first sight.
Human beings, as a species, are not good at comprehending large numbers. When we are told someone's wealth is in excess of a billion dollars, we literally need a website with a graphic representation where you scroll endlessly in order to even start to understand how much it proportionally is. When we hear that hundreds, thousands, millions of people are dying, starving, and losing their homes due to conflicts that frequently have complicated causes requiring years of historical analysis to understand, we all too often give up and just tune it out. It's not just complacency or lack of compassion. We have a self-preservation instinct that kicks in to keep us from being traumatized to the point of paralysis by things that most of us have no control over. It's too much. Daily life continues, and we pay our bills and feed our kids.
But we can understand suffering on a local level. We can imagine the hope that blooms with new love, and how each new relationship is a chance to start over and do better - to create something lasting. We can identify with the pain and sorrow that comes with that hope being snuffed out by needless hate and violence. We can learn that as long as human beings continue to choose hate over love, there will be no future for us.
That is the power of Romeo and Juliet. It takes macro conflict and downsizes it to a scale we can understand. Love at first sight is a pragmatic compromise to get to the bigger agenda of understanding our own limitations.
It made an indelible impression on me at ten and continues to wreck me at 42. I hope that a day will come when this story ceases to be fresh and relevant, and is merely an artifact of the past. Until then, we have a lot of work to do.