Defying All Morality

I saw the movie version of West Side Story with Natalie Wood when I was in high school and it had such a profound impact on me that it changed my perceptions of the world and shaped my emotional existence for years to come. For those of you who do not know the story of West Side Story it is about a man, Tony, who is an ex-member of a gang, called the Jets, in a lower class neighborhood of 1950’s New York City. His, buddy, Riff, who has taken over Tony’s leadership role in the gang is now in a rumble with the Porto Rican rival group the Sharks run by Bernardo. Riff goes to Tony to elicit his help. Tony agree, but sing a song of elation about feeling the itch of something extraordinary in this life that is just around the corner. Both gangs meet at a public dance and square off when suddenly, something unexpected, forbidden and extraordinary happens. Tony spies Maria, Bernardo’s sister, across the crowded dance floor and magic happens. Their souls are instantly united defying all reason, logic, rendering them completely oblivious against the racism and hate of the world in conflict around them. The moment is wondrous while it lasts, but soon is shattered as the rage between the two rivals tears them asunder, escalating the conflict. Tony spends the night roaming the alleyways, star struck searching for his newfound love. They somehow secretly meet on a fire escape outside her bedroom and profess their love, and agree to meet up the following morning to run away together. But somehow amongst a lot of scuttle and chaos Tony ends up killing Maria’s brother while trying to unite the gangs and becomes hunted by Bernardo’s second, Chino who has a gun. Bernardo’s grief stricken girlfriend, Anita then finds Tony in Maria’s bedroom and in one of the most glorious songs of theater history, Maria, through the power of love, transforms Anita’s vehement hate convincing her to help Tony. And the remainder of the movie becomes a remarkable battle of wills as hate is explored through the most remarkable music ever written to a bittersweet climax.

The message here was strong and clear to me, as a young boy growing up in the small town of Superior in the mountains of western Montana, that I was free to love whom I chose despite any irreconcilable differences from the world I lived. What was felt in the heart could be manifested in a song of destiny and could defy all boundaries. I remember thinking at this moment I have an irrepressible desire to love a man. Though the culture around me saw it as taboo, I knew I could somehow follow my heart and find my true love. To me West Side Story was a celebration of forbidden love and in my head Maria, figuratively becomes a man, and that this story was somehow about me. I suddenly believed that romance would prevail, that being true to ones own passions, idealism and belief could transform the unknown world that surrounded me and I could face whatever perils lie in it’s path. Suddenly, there was hope and possibility where I had not known it before, and an acceptance of my self began to glimmer deep within me. I still watch this movie every couple of years, and it still resonates with a strong emotional wallop that overwhelms me to tears. Looking back I now see it’s what drew me to the theater. It has stirred an undying passion for musical theater and would become a compass in which I would guide my life. I realize now how powerful art is to transform our lives and change the course of our existence. It gives us a new vision sometimes, outside of ourselves, which we are often too afraid to examine. It gives us dreams and it gives us hope of a better future where we can face our fears and doubts. Somehow, “somewhere, well find a new way of living.”

Incidentally I didn’t find out until years later, when I began working in theater, that most of the creative team that envisioned this masterpiece where actually gay. Perhaps this was their way of reaching out the world with a statement on same sex love told for an audience in the 50’s about forbidden love. But somehow I got the message loud and clear decades later in those sheltered mountains of Montana.

“There’s a time for us
Some day a time for us
Time together
With time to spare
Time to learn
Time to care

Music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim from the musical WEST SIDE STORY

Due to graphic nature of this image I had to crop for the internet, click on image if you are interested in seeing it in it’s entirety.