West Side Story: A Story for Any Time and Place

Earlier in June, good friends took my husband and me to see the Rainbow Stage production of West Side Story. The quality of the production was so phenomenal, I became immersed in the story, music, messages, and themes. I was a little leery to move to Winnipeg, as I have lived in some of the great cultural cities of North America. But I am learning from my experiences as an audience member at this Rainbow Stage Production as well as Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Royal Winnipeg Ballet performances, that Winnipeg, too, can compete as a cultural city.

The setting for the musical is New York City, the clash between two gangs, the people of European descent and the Puerto Ricans. It could have taken place anywhere at any time; the story is universal and relevant, conveying important messages. It could have been Philadelphia Story, LA Story, or Winnipeg Story. The theme of tensions and war between people who are different, either different in religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, gender, or anything else I have forgotten is likely as old as humanity. Instead of celebrating that unique backgrounds and distinctions are what lead us to learn and to grow from each other, to advance in every way, we tend to become territorial and protective.

A quote which reverberated in my head throughout the production was Rodney King’s plea, “Can we all get along?” during the 1992 LA riots. Rodney King suffered from severe police brutality because of his race, and the police were acquitted which led to the riots. My generation of Americans is supposed to remember where we were during The Challenger disaster, as our parents remember the assassination of J.F. Kennedy. My memory of the space shuttle tragedy is a bit foggy (I was very young at the time), which is strange because I was obsessed with space and space shuttles as a child and even read space shuttle manuals, but I remember the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots in 1992. I remember my teacher silencing us for a minute, which is what he said the duration of the beating was, and I remember thinking how long a minute is. Try it. Sit with a stopwatch and imagine you are being beaten for a minute. It was one of those pivotal moments of my childhood.

The play is about more than racial tension and base human aggression. It is even about sexual discrimination and violence against women. It is about immigration. It is about dreams. It is about love. If I had to use one word to describe the production, the word convincing comes to mind. The stage dialects of the actors, the staging, the scintillating dancing, the powerful singing. I was mesmerized during Act I, so caught up in the story I failed to see some critter cross in front of the stage. (Why were those people laughing behind me? The part we were witnessing was not comedic, though other parts of the musical were successful at being humorous). It was during the ballet dream sequence in Act II, especially when Alison Roberts sang Somewhere, when I felt the true impact of dreams. For Maria and Tony, the dream was more noble than the conventional interpretation of the American dream. For them it was for us all to get along. The dream was for romantic love as well as brotherly or sisterly love and harmony among all people, despite our differences. The dream was for all cities to truly be cities of brotherly (or sisterly) love.

Maybe the American dream, the Canadian dream, the dream of any people should not be for personal success, to obtain a better life for oneself, but to make a difference, to bring harmony and tolerance, for all people.

As Rodney King so eloquently said, “Can we all get along?”

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