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Daniel D. Stuhlman

Parashat Naso and West Side Story

Promotional Poster from Lyric Opera's production of West Side Story

Parashat Naso   June 3, 2023

This week’s parasha contains the priestly blessing that we say twice a day when the hazzan recites the repetition of the Amidah.  We also bless our children with these words.

יִשָּׂ֨א י-ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God bestow [Divine] favor upon you and grant you peace!

Peace is a very hard concept to enjoy.  For peace to work all sides must want peace and pursue peace.  What I really want to write about this week is the dress rehearsal performance of “West Side Story” that I attended with my wife yesterday.  We sat in the third dress circle area.

The story, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is a story of a clash between two rival gangs in mid-1950’s New York City.  It is a clash of who “owns” what turf and not a clash of values.  Tony wants peace.  He left the gang, has a job, and falls in love with Maria. It ends tragically.  Tony kills Maria’s brother while trying to stop a rumble and in the end, Tony is killed.  The story is more concerned with the cultural clashes and prejudice between different ethnic groups. But this clash is hidden behind great music and dancing.  While “West Side Story” deals with the broader issues of identity, discrimination, and social divisions, this is a musical theater.  The dialog and story are secondary to the entertaining performances.  One could almost take the songs and write an entirely new story.

When “West Side Story” opened in 1957 it was nominated for the best musical of the year.  It lost to “Music Man,” a feel good story with great music and a librarian for main character.

Previously Lyric Opera House put on a production of “West Side Story” in 2019. From the promotional pictures the sets and costumes are very similar.  Most of the reviews of the 2019 production praised the performances and production.

This 2023 production is not a reinterpretation.  However, the role of “Doc” is closer to the 2022 movie than the 1957 stage production.  Some of the dialog is in Spanish, but this is not really a problem for the English speakers.

The composer, Leonard Bernstein, is among my favorite composers and conductors.  To hear his music played by the 44 person Lyric Opera House Orchestra is something one can never match in a film or small Broadway performance.  The coordination between the sounds of the orchestra and the dancers are truly amazing.  This is Broadway-type showmanship at its best. Bernstein and lyricist Steven Sondheim made the Shakespeare tragedy into musical theater. With a stage bigger than Broadway theaters the Lyric puts on a production with amazing sets and dancing sequences.

Originally conceived as a clash between Jews and Catholics at Passover time, the Jewish theme was universalized to any clash of cultures. The year 1957 was too close to the end of World War 2 to risk a production with Jews dying on stage. [1]

The performance was not perfect.  Some of the dialog was garbled.  We could not understand all of the words.  The movie did a better job of storytelling and explaining the characters. Since this was live theater, we could not see the actor’s facial expressions.  In general, I like attending live performances over movies, but in this case, I recommend seeing both.

On the website for Lyric, they claim that in 2020 they introduced new seating.  I found the seating to be uncomfortable.  My knees hit the seats in front of me and  the cushions were not soft.  Even while carefully holding the rail to get to my seat, I missed a step.  I jumped and didn’t fall.  Perhaps the red carpet confused my eyes?

The business lesson to be learned both from the Torah reading and “West Side Story” is that peace is a blessing, but the pursuit of peace is a difficult journey.  Maria and Tony’s love was stronger than the clash of gang turfs.  In the end Maria’s impassioned speech shows us that violence hurts and does not work. Understanding and communication are the tools required to pursue and maintain peace.

 

Shabbat shalom.

[1] See the Wikipedia article, “West Side Story” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story#cite_note-Bernstein-5 and also mentioned by Francesca Zambello, “Director’s note” in the Lyric Opera of Chicago program book for West Side Story page 21.

About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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