Ethnic Conflict & West Side Story – Bernstein & Sondheim’s lesson for Pope Francis, Peres & Abbas – plea for Tolerance at the Garrick

Tony sings Something's Coming
Tony sings Something’s Coming

Out and out plea for Racial Tolerance” wrote Leonard Bernstein in his annotation of Romeo and Juliet.  It is this interpretation, which propelled the young composer to his greatest work, and makes it perennially pregnant with meaning for us all.  Bernstein’s original conception was two lovers, star-crossed by their different backgrounds, Catholic and Jewish.  This reflected Bernstein’s own life-story, for his Costa Rican wife was raised Christian. The musical metamorphosed into conflict between The Sharks, Spanish-speaking immigrants from Puerto Rico, and The Jets, white residents of New York’s West Side. Today, as European Parliamentary elections emphasize intolerance of immigration, the musical is more relevant than ever.

Altrincham’s Garrick Theatre in Greater Manchester, England, wisely chose this most profound and ambitious of compositions to close its centenary season, and was rewarded with full houses.  When the Garrick dramatic society was set up, World War One loomed.  Today, mankind continues to be riven by bloody conflict, religious, racial, ethnic.  West Side Story has much to teach us.

Riff (seated) surrounded by gang
Riff (seated) surrounded by gang

The youngsters in this production showed all the enthusiasm and energy, violence and vulnerability of youth, danced with vitality, sang with gusto, and delighted the audience. Emily Carter’s Maria and James Duffy’s Tony charmed us, especially with the smooth middle register of his voice.  James, keep singing! Laura Chandler’s exuberant Anita and Bradley Judge’s Chino convinced us they were Hispanics (black hair-dye works wonders.) Josh Mosiuk’s amiable Riff, made a too-likeable gang-leader.   (Warren Beatty was turned-down for a part in the original Washington production, despite Bernstein finding him “charming as hell.”)  Rhys Nuttall’s Action contributed brawn, much needed for gritty verisimilitude. The other gang-leader, Danny Lawton’s Bernardo, was appropriately threatening and curt with his opponents, but his East-European accent brought to mind the current violence along the Russian-Ukranian border, rather than Manhattan’s West Side!  Bernstein would have teased him, singing, “I want to be in America. You want to be in a Crimea.”  Adam Whittle directed ably in an all-demanding show.  Bold choice for the centenary season, and you pulled it off !

Maria surrounded by Puerto Rican friends
Maria surrounded by Puerto Rican friends

Sondheim’s lyrics are so brilliant throughout this work and elsewhere (though he modestly finds fault with them in his Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics) that a theatre has been named after him on Broadway, and another is about to be given the same honour in London.  But it’s the music, which people remember most, especially Maria, Tonight and that song about America.  “One Hand, One Heart” is so pure, so hopeful, I couldn’t resist singing it at a cousine’s wedding.  In the Garrick’s production, Musical Director Mark Goggins kept his eighteen young musicians together in a very demanding eclectic score, including a difficult Shostakovich-influenced section.  But to rob us of Bernstein’s Overture was a Crime against musical theatre.  Why didn’t the Jets and Sharks unite to fight it ?

Maria appeals to Anita
Maria appeals to Anita

Well done Garrick for a highly enjoyable, energetic and heart-felt performance!  Bring it back again soon!


What Middle East leaders today can learn from West Side Story
The Holy Father, with an Imam and a Rabbi in tow, has persuaded Presidents Peres and Abbas to pray for Peace together in the Vatican.  Ahlan wasahlan, brukhim habaim, bienvenidos, welcome!  Shimon Peres will be tempted to try and hammer out a substantive agreement with his Palestinian co-President.  Go for it, Shimon!

I questioned  Mr Peres about his Palestinian colleague at Chatham House, London, recently, and he really trusts Mahmoud Abbas. In my own view, rightly so.  Shoot me down, Israeli right-wingers! Peres knows his interlocutors better than any of us.

Nonetheless, good intentions carry their own perils.  West Side Story’s Tony tried to stop a fight, and ended up making the situation much worse.  Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, have to be realistic about concessions, and managing popular expectations, or further bloodshed will follow.

copyright Rosemarine 2014

About the Author
Andrew M Rosemarine runs an international law office, has 3 law degrees (Oxford), is a former fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for Peace, is multi-lingual, and writes on the Middle East and Europe for various newspapers worldwide. His main hobbies are conflict resolution and solving problems for clients, colleagues and friends.