Sixty years ago, three up-and-coming artists held a meeting to discuss a new adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The year was 1949 and the effects of World War II were being felt around the world. Choreographer and director Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents with East Side Story, the tale of an Italian Catholic and a Holocaust survivor who fall in love in post-war New York City. The plot highlighted the tension between Catholics, "The Jets," and Jews, "The Emeralds," in mid-20th-century America. While the project intrigued the dynamic trio, the three eventually shelved the idea and went their separate ways.
Eight years later, they were reunited in Los Angeles. Responding to the growing violence between gangs in California, East Side Story was revived and revamped. However, as Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins were all New Yorkers, they decided to use the California gang theme but keep things in their own hometown. The Jewish Emeralds became "The Sharks," a group of disgruntled Puerto Rican immigrants. The Jets became Polish-Americans. Thus, East Side Storymoved from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Harlem and became West Side Story.
It's not every day that a piece of musical theater becomes a household name. How many Americans have never hummed "I Feel Pretty" while getting dressed in the morning or curled up on a rainy day to watch the 1961 film version of the musical?
West Side Story's clear message rings true as much today as it did in the 1950s.
In 2007, in order to celebrate 50 years of West Side Story, a new production was mounted and sent on a whirlwind world tour. In the coming weeks, the musical tour de force will hit Israel. While this is not the first time Israel has seen West Side Story (it came here as early as 1961), it is a first for many of the cast members.
Maya Flock, who understudies the lead role of Maria, is of Israeli descent. And while she has visited Israel many times in the past, this tour will allow some of her family to see her onstage for the first time - most importantly, her grandmother. "I am honored and unbelievably excited to be coming to Israel as an artist," said Flock in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. "I can't wait to perform for Israeli audiences and see their reaction to our production. I know that my family and friends have only heard great news and excitement about our arrival!
"It's not just any show, either; other than being my favorite musical, it is an important story that is understood universally, because no matter where you go in the world, people will always be able to identify with it. These things still happen: circumstances of hatred and prejudice standing in the way of love and peace."
Flock's love of the show is shared by many of her peers in the company. Ali Ewoldt, the actress who plays Maria full-time, also spoke lovingly of West Side Story. "I grew up watching the movie and I think it is a brilliant piece - amazing music, fantastic, innovative choreography and a relevant, important message," said Ewoldt. "Personally, I adore the balcony scene, where Tony and Maria first sing 'Tonight.' It's so romantic, right out of Romeo and Juliet, and we're high above the stage singing gorgeous music as the orchestra swells beneath us."
In this case, that orchestra will be the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra, which will join musicians from New York to bring Bernstein's music to the stage.
In order to ensure that the universal message of West Side Story can be understood, the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center will run subtitles in Hebrew throughout the show.