West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells, London by Angela Caldin

A Revival of a Timeless Classic

If you’re lucky enough to be in London this September, get on to the Sadler’s Wells’ box office and book some tickets for the fabulous new production of West Side Story which is showing there with an energetic, young, international cast. This ground-breaking show made its debut on Broadway in 1957 and very soon after that was made into an outstanding film starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, which went on to win an incredible ten Academy Awards.  The story is a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the inter-family rivalry of the original transposed to the mean streets of New York City where rival gangs taunt each other as they fight over territory.  The Jets are the Polish-American gang who lay prior claim to the zone, while the Sharks, immigrants from Puerto Rico, are determined to make their mark. Tony, who has left the Jets and is trying to lead a good life, and Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo, fall in love across the gang divide and their star-crossed affair gives rise to fighting between the gangs, knives, guns and death.

The Raw Topic of Gang Violence

What makes West Side Story such an electrifying experience is the fabulous combination of Leonard Bernstein’s musical score, Arthur Laurents’ book, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography. The opening sequence which sets the scene for the gang violence to come, brilliantly conveys the pent up anger and frustration of young men bonding together to try to give meaning to their deprived lives. The meeting between Tony and Maria leads to some wonderfully romantic songs including Maria, Tonight and Somewhere; while for light relief we have America, I feel pretty and Officer Krupke. I particularly enjoyed the set piece where all the cast, Jets, Sharks, Tony, Maria and Anita are all singing about what they expect that night.

I’ve heard it said that the Jets and the Sharks in this production are far too well turned out for members of New York street gangs and it’s true that they look very neat and well groomed, but their dancing has a rawness and a vitality which makes up for any primness in their costume and their demeanour. The set itself is cleverly evocative of the claustrophobic streets of the West Side with the fire escapes and tall buildings of the neighbourhood cleverly suggested.

Problems of Street Gangs Still in the News

The musical highlights the problems of troubled youth and the devastating effects of poverty and racism which are as relevant today as they were more than 50 years ago. Amongst the current London gangs whose history goes back 50 years, there are the Ghetto Boys and Peckham Boys both of which are predominantly black. There are a number of Asian gangs in London too, many that were initially formed to protect their local communities in response to racist attacks from the native white population, such as the Brick Lane Massive. In the past decade, Tamil gangs have been active, while in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the majority of the gangs are Bangladeshi.

London gangs are increasingly marking their territory with gang graffiti, usually a gang name and the Post Code area or Housing Estate they identify with.  In some cases they may tag the street road signs in their area with an identified gang colour. Many gangs have a strong sense of belonging to their local areas and often take their names from the housing estates, districts and postal code areas where they are located. Some gangs are motivated by religion, as is the case with Muslim Patrol.

There have been many deaths and near deaths of young men in recent years from knife or gun wounds and it is unclear how many of these are gang related or are connected with robbery or drugs. But what is clear is that young men are dying needlessly because of the tensions and frustrations of urban life in deprived areas, just as was depicted in West Side Story so very many years ago. The final scene of the musical sees Tony borne aloft by both Jets and Sharks, united now in horror and grief, while Maria walks alone behind the cortège. The most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns and pulsating music give way to the tragic exit of love destroyed because of pointless rivalry.

Go and see this magnificent production if you possibly can. I promise you that you won’t regret it.


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