I Like to Be in America: ‘West Side Story’ Still Relevant After All These Years

Mention the names of lovers Tony and Maria or the song titles “Somewhere” or “I Like to Be in America” to just about any Baby Boomer and they’ll immediately know you’re talking about one of the greatest defining American musicals of their era, West Side Story.

For more than six decades now, Leonard Bernstein’s compelling, tragic reworking of the classic Romeo and Juliet tale set in New York City in the 1950s has been captivating hearts and minds of audiences around the world. But in today’s America, given our bitter battling over immigration and fear of the outsider, the acclaimed musical has been given renewed significance and is just as powerful in production as it was when it debuted on Broadway 1957 and won the Academy Award for best picture in 1961.

If he were alive, famed composer and conductor Bernstein would be 100 and to celebrate his centennial legacy The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is offering a series of his of his works, including having the National Symphony Orchestra and a talented young cast from New York recently perform a special West Side Story in Concert.

“Today, it seems incredible that Leonard Bernstein could have written West Side Story, an up-to-the-minute commentary on gang warfare then in New York City,” says Fransesco Zambello, artistic director of Washington Orchestra. “But it is timeless in that it struggles with the ideals that are at the heart of the American project: the idea that we are all created equal, and with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“In West Side Story, discord between native-born Americans and recent immigrants leads to tragedy, but its most famous song is an anthem to true optimism, a belief in a world “Somewhere” where each person has a place, each person has a home,” Zambello added.

Zambello contends that while we should enjoy Bernstein’s music, we should never neglect his message. “If we simply enjoy the tunes we are missing the point,” he says. “Bernstein devoted his life not only to art, but also to advocacy, education, and the responsibilities of citizenship. May his legacy always inspire us to do the same.”

National Symphony Orchestra Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, who led the musicians and even changed costume to portray the infamous Officer Kruppke in one scene, has often contemplated why West Side Storyis so enduring.

Reineke acknowledges that part of the musical’s popularity comes from Bernstein’s infectious melodies, complex rhythms, and jazz-infused harmonies. But it is the fact Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sonheim’s sometimes witty, sometimes heart-breaking lyrics, touches so many of us so deeply, he contends, that gives West Side Storyits staying power.

“It shines a mirror on each and every one of us to make us think about how we treat each other as fellow human beings. It exposes our prejudices and preconceived ideas about one race or one class versus another,” Reineke said. “Somehow, someday, somewhere – that was the issue Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim contemplated decades ago. To honor Bernstein’s centennial, I implore each of us as individuals to begin answering ‘Here, now, and compassionately.’”

10 Facts About West Side Story You May Not Have Known, But Will Now Thanks to Mental Floss and Writer Mark Mancini

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE ABOUT A CATHOLIC BOY & A JEWISH GIRL.

Religion and national identity would’ve driven the drama of East Side Story, which is what choreographer Jerome Robbins & composer Leonard Bernstein called the project they started working on in 1949. But eventually they decided that “the whole Jewish-Catholic premise [was] not very fresh” when they were having a poolside meeting in Beverly Hills six years later. Under the California sun, they decided to instead focus on—in Bernstein’s words — “two teenage gangs … one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’” Because Manhattan’s eastern neighborhoods had been largely gentrified by then, their production was soon given its present title.

2. THE DIRECTOR INSISTED ON AN UNUSUALLY LONG REHEARSAL PERIOD.

Before opening night, your average 1957 musical cast was only given four or five weeks’ worth of practice. Robbins (who also sat in the director’s chair) demanded eight. “We had a lot of work to do,” he recalled, with the show’s intricate dance sequences requiring extra attention.

3. THE JETS & THE SHARKS WERE PROHIBITED FROM INTERACTING OFFSTAGE.

Robbins tried generating real hostility between these fictitious gangs. According to producer Hal Prince, the Broadway veteran kept both groups of actors as far away from each other as possible. “They were not allowed to socialize out of the theater, [and] they were not allowed to take their lunches together.” Obviously, this was an extreme approach. But over time, it started working.

4. FOUR-LETTER WORDS WERE REPLACED WITH INOFFENSIVE JIBBERISH.

Through West Side Story, lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted the F-bomb to make its musical theater debut. Initially, this choice word appeared in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but Columbia Records (which released their original cast recording) noted that using such language would violate obscenity laws and—hence—prevent the show from touring across state lines. Defeated, they went with “Krup you!” instead.

5. SPOILER ALERT: MARIA HAD A DELETED DEATH SCENE.

Shakespeare may have killed off both title characters in Romeo & Juliet, but one of West Side Story’s star-crossed lovers lives to see the final curtain drop. Things almost ended much differently. Maria’s untimely suicide was part of an early draft—until composer Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) offered his two cents. “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her,” he told Robbins.

6. BERNSTEIN PLUCKED “ONE HAND, ONE HEART” FROM A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MUSICAL.

At the time, he was scoring West Side Story and Candide—which was based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name—simultaneously. Though Bernstein crafted “One Hand, One Heart” for that production, he repurposed it as a romantic duet between Tony and Maria. In exchange, “O Happy We,” which was originally a duet for West Side Storymoved to the first act of Candide.

7. “SOMETHING’S COMING” WAS WRITTEN LAST-MINUTE.

Just 12 days before West Side Story premiered in D.C. (it’d debut in New York later), Bernstein and Sondheim wrote Tony’s hopeful ballad. Their inspiration came from a piece of dialogue that the character was to deliver during his first scene. The line, as penned by playwright Arthur Laurents, went like this: “Something’s coming, it may be around the corner, whistling down the river, twitching at the dance—who knows?” When asked if he’d mind letting the sentence get turned into a number, he enthusiastically replied “Yes, take it, take it, make it a song.” This late arrival had to be re-orchestrated several times, making it a bit of a headache for the pit band.

8. AUDREY HEPBURN WAS TAPPED TO PLAY MARIA FOR THE FILM VERSION.

In 1959, the screen legend was pregnant—and because she’d already suffered two miscarriages, Hepburn wasn’t about to over-exert herself this time. So, when she was offered the lead role in what would arguably become the most celebrated movie musical ever shot, she declinedRebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood got the part instead, with Marni Nixon dubbing over her singing voice.

9. WEST SIDE STORY’S 1961 CINEMATIC ADAPTATION SET AN ACADEMY AWARDS RECORD.

Seven months after its release, the flick brought home 10 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and even Best Picture. Thus, it won more than any other musical ever had in Academy Award history. As of this writing, the distinction still stands.

10. A BILINGUAL REVIVAL OPENED ON BROADWAY IN 2009.

Laurents joined forces with producers Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander to retell the story he’d helped craft over 50 years earlier. This time, he leveled the playing field. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the gangs somehow,” he explained. By letting the Sharks speak and sing in their native language during large chunks of the musical, Laurents hoped to do exactly that. Like the original, after a run in Washington, D.C. the show moved to New York, where it ran for 748 performances.

Film Director Oliver Stone Talks JFK, Conspiracy

Oliver Stone makes a point with Newseum Vice Chairman Shelby Coffey III.

When film director Oliver Stone speaks about his controversial film JFK, he wants it understood that he was not depicting absolute truth. Instead, he was making what he calls a countermyth to contrast with what he calls the myth of the Warren Commission Report, a voluminous compendium of information that maintains Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he killed President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago.

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC – 11.05.2013

“We were not making a documentary, we were dramatizing,” Stone says. “I thought the Warren Commission was fiction and I still do today.”

Stone appeared at the Newseum in Washington, DC to discuss his film, which was released 22 years ago and is enjoying a resurgence because of the timeliness of the 50th anniversary this month of that dark day in Dallas.

“The (Kennedy) investigation was badly handled from the beginning,” Stone said as he detailed his belief in both a conspiracy and a cover-up. “A major medical fraud took place. He should have been autopsied in Parkland (the Dallas hospital where Kennedy died). A doctor there says for 18 minutes he saw brains emerging from the back of President Kennedy’s head. A shot from the front was the kill shot and that is a shot that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have made.”

Of course, if the Warren Commission is wrong and Oswald didn’t act alone, the question becomes – who is responsible for killing JFK?  “Look at the people who had the power,” Stone contends.

In Stones’ view, the military/industrial/intelligence complex was highly disturbed about Kennedy actions that they believed were wrong for an America which, at the time, was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and the idea of Communism.  “Kennedy was moving toward detente and the end of the Cold War. The generals wanted to blow up the Soviet Union because they could. They wanted a war because they knew they could win it. But Kennedy realized we were facing the end of the world as we knew it and he said no. They were furious and didn’t want him to win re-election in 1964. Kennedy took them head-on and paid a price for it ,” Stone said.

The director said he began to question the Oswald-only position after reading On The Trail of the Assassin by New Orleans attorney Jim Garrison in 1989. Garrison’s book detailed his investigation of a Kennedy conspiracy. Kevin Costner portrayed Garrison in Stone’s film.

Stone said he had always admired the 1969 film Z, by Greek director Costa-Gavras, a thinly fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of a Greek politician and the outrage at the military dictatorship which hatched the killing plot. “I wanted to do something similar on an American level,” Stone said. “I wanted to give a reason why he (Kennedy) must be removed from office.”

“In drama, you have the right to interpret history as you want. Shakespeare proved that,” Stone said. “Even documentaries aren’t objective. But I think the facts of JFK hold up to me.”

Am I the Only One Using Bar Soap? Well Maybe Then I Am Getting Old

They told me one day I would feel old, but I just refused to believe them. Age 30. Then 40, 50, 60, now 68. Nope, not old. Grey hair. White hair. Thinning hair. Definitely more hair in my ears and my nose than on the growing bald spot on the back of my head. Still didn’t feel old. Besides, wild ear and nose hair … that’s what small scissors are for.

An expanding stomach. Creaking bones. Getting up at night to pee. Still no significant difference. Hey, I thought, maybe I’m impervious to aging and its supposed incapacitating side effects.

The Decline of the Humble Bar of Soap

But all that changed recently. I had to face the fact that maybe I really am old. What happened, you ask? Well, I still use bar soap. And, according to research from the market firm Mintel, younger adults think a dispenser of liquid soap is easier to use, less messy with no slimy soap dish to clean, and more hygienic. Not only are they thinking that, they’re showing their anti-soap-bar feelings as consumers.

Bar soap sales were down 2.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, even though overall sales for soap, bath and shower products increased by nearly 3 percent during the same period. Usage of bar soap is also slipping and sliding, with the percentage of households using the traditional bar dropping from 89 percent to 84 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Generational and Gender Findings are Clear

It turns out that older men made up the only group clinging to their bars of soap. Women and younger body washers of both sexes were abandoning their old bars for new fancy plastic bottles of liquid soap.

The study reported that while 60 percent of those age 65 plus were happy to keep using bar soap to wash their face, hands, and other body parts, just 33 percent of those ages 25 to 34 were still grabbing the bar.

It also showed that men are also more willing to use bar soap than women. The survey found that 53 percent of men were willing to wash their face with bar soap, compared with 36 percent of women.

I first heard the findings on a my car stereo. Shaken, I rushed home to my apartment to check out their veracity on my computer. The internet did supply more detail. For example, the younger people were using the liquid soap because they were convinced that it had fewer germs in it. But soon I found a buried paragraph that showed I didn’t really have to abandon my green Irish Spring Soap – the only soap for really virile, really manly men.

An epidemiologist told The Huffington Post that while germs likely do live in the damp “slime” of bar soap, they’re unlikely to make you sick. And, since one of my former students Kate Sheppard is an editor there, I know the HP would never print a falsehood. And, my new favorite scientist added, rinsing the soap under running water before lathering with it should solve any problems.

Immediately, my aging fears melted like a tiny bar of my beloved Irish Spring left too long in a running shower. Not only was I not old, I was still smarter than those young whippersnappers with their dubious soap safety claims. Exclusive liquid soap use was simply like arranged playdates and bone-marrow appetizers so popular with Millennials today. So let the young have their ways. But for us Boomers, we’re not going too take it. I’m not going to let the youngsters pry my beloved bar of Irish Spring soap from my cold, wrinkly, but immaculately clean fingers

A Hairy Tale of 2 Jersey Boys

2 Jersey Boys – Bruces Springsteen and me – getting together in Georgia

This article article is part of an ongoing series of life in the Pandemic 2020

By Dave Price (5/29)

While this current worldwide pandemic has been both terrifying and deadly, it has been teaching us just how much we have in common. For the coronavirus is no respecter of status, talent, wealth, or fame – it is an equal opportunity presenter of problems.

Take the case of Bruce Springsteen and me.

Now even before the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Springsteen and myself shared several things in common. We are both Baby Boomers, although at age 70 Bruce is two years older than me. We were both born in New Jersey. We both spent our teenage years playing dances at our high school and then performing at clubs and bars at the Jersey shore. In the 1970s, we both had concert shows at Villanova University, where I graduated in 1973.

But then our careers diverged. Bruce Springsteen went on to become one of the leading rock stars in music history. Because of his prodigious talent, Bruce accumulated status, wealth, and fame. Because of my lack of his talent, I was reduced to playing keyboard as a sideline in some of New Jersey’s always loud, but never legendary classic rock cover bands.

But now Bruce and I have been reunited. Because of the widespread closings as America tries to control the spread of .the coronavirus, we have both been forced to have our wives cut our hair.

Actually, this is not the first time Judy has been my barber. From 1971 until I began my reporting in 1974, she would be the sole person responsible for periodically (as in rarely) trimming my hair.

The mid 1970’s however was the time period was where our two roads began to diverge. While I was enjoying my $80-a-week first journalism job, Bruce signed a big record company advance, a deal he sings about in some detail in his beloved song “Rosalita”.

But now, as I mentioned earlier, our hair, at least as far as cutting it is concerned, has reunited us once again.

Here is the cut that Jersey girl Patti gave Bruce.

And here is the trim that Jersey girl Judy gave me. Uh-oh … that’s Judy’s  psycho look. Oh no … I think she’s going to stab me.

Of course, even there, you have to offer Bruce the upper hand. His haircut made the national news. I had to write this article myself to even let anybody know that Judy was back to cutting my hair.
But that’s not at all bad. As everyone from Jersey knows, Bruce is the Boss, and as I can’t think of anyone else who I would rather have eclipse – or maybe in this case e-clips – me than Bruce Springsteen.

Of yeah. If you get around to reading this Bruce, you have promised to throw the biggest party ever when we can finally get back to live performances. And you know I’ll be there. Maybe before or after the show, we can get together and compare haircuts.

Smithsonian Celebrates The First Ford Mustangs

1964. The Beatles had kicked off the musical British Invasion. LBJ was president. The Cold War was heating up in places like Vietnam. A World’s Fair in New York City was promising a new tomorrow of technology and wonder.  And on January 23 of that year the Smithsonian opened the Museum of American History.

Today, all of the above are gone with the exception of the History Museum. To celebrate its founding year, in 2014 the renown facility showcased 3 exhibits dealing with the time of its early 1960s establishment.

In April of 1964, the Ford Motor Company debuted its Ford Mustang at its pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, 6 months before it normally would. The company promised that this was a new type of car for a new generation.

It had a sporty look, a compact size, and, for the time, a low price. It evoked the spirit and the excitement of the open road. Unlike Ford’s actual sports car. the T-Bird, it could seat 4 people.

Immediately the 1964 car seen in the picture above did live up to its trendsetting pledge. By 1966, more than 1 million Mustangs had been sold. It had even become the subject of a top-selling record by Wilson Pickett.

The Mustang was shepherded through production by a young man who himself would become quiet a name in the auto industry. That man was Lee Iacocca.