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‘West Side Story,’ now in theaters, shocked Broadway audiences in 1957

Choreographer Jerome Robbins, second from left, leads a rehearsal for “West Side Story” on Broadway in 1957. (AP)
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The Broadway show ran for 732 performances. The first film adaptation won 10 Academy Awards. And the fictional love story between a former gang member and the sister of a rival gang’s leader spawned more than a dozen revivals and tours.

Now Jerome Robbins’s beloved musical, “West Side Story,” is on theater screens once again. The new film, directed by Steven Spielberg, premiered Friday.

Often ranked among the best musicals of all time, “West Side Story” was much less vaunted when it debuted on Broadway in 1957. Audiences and critics were discomfited by the violence and juvenile delinquency portrayed in the show, an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” that trades rival families for warring street gangs — one Puerto Rican and the other White.

“The radioactive fallout from ‘West Side Story’ must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” critic Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune. Theatergoers were flummoxed that the show not only lacked the frothiness of other musicals, but featured so much bloodshed. Three characters are killed off during the performance.

“That wasn’t a usual thing,” said Julia Foulkes, author of “A Place for Us: ‘West Side Story’ and New York.” “That wasn’t what people expected. And yet, they were drawn to the story.”

Influential New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson opened his review by asserting that the musical’s subject matter was “horrifying.” In another column days later, he added that viewers should not expect the whistle-worthy score and ravishing costumes of other musicals. But he praised the show’s creators for their unwillingness to soften its ugliness for audiences’ comfort.

The San Francisco Examiner headlined its review, “The West Side Story: A Musical to Exault and to Terrify.” In it, Alexander Fried wrote that hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had recently “swarmed” to New York. While positing that most of the newcomers were just working hard to make a living, he argued that the musical highlighted the “pot of crisis” created by the mass migration.

“ ‘West Side Story’ fishes the hottest crisis of all out of the social cauldron, as it shows how a neighborhood of restless, heady teen-age boys shape into a community struggle in their own violent way,” Fried wrote.

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One reviewer wryly noted the astonishment of some of his fellow critics.

“Many of the town’s columnists, evidently expecting another regulation hanky-panky for juke boxes, really went after it,” John Chapman wrote in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.

The reaction from Puerto Ricans was mixed. People living in Puerto Rico were more likely to praise the show, feeling that any attention paid to the island was positive, while Puerto Ricans living in New York tended to be frustrated, Foulkes said. To them, “West Side Story” reinforced the negative stereotypes they combated.

A Miami Herald article anonymously quoted “a prominent attorney closely connected with the Puerto Rican government” who criticized the show’s dialogue as “indecent.”

“I don’t think it contributes to improve the situation,” the lawyer said.

For White Americans, Foulkes said, the musical’s portrayal of anti-Puerto Rican discrimination — and its potentially deadly consequences — contributed to the initial discomfort. The civil rights movement had only recently started directing widespread attention to racism, and U.S. public schools had begun to desegregate just days before “West Side Story” premiered.

“That conflict is literally happening in the streets across the nation at the same time we’re being told, ‘Love doesn’t conquer all, and people are killed because of it,’ ” Foulkes said.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical “Hamilton,” told the British film magazine Empire that he had both affection for and reservations about “West Side Story.”

“I think it has over-represented the number of ‘50s Puerto Rican gang members with knives in their hands by a lot in the popular culture, by virtue of its success,” Miranda, a New York native of Puerto Rican descent, told the magazine in May.

In a debate this month, Tony Award-winning playwright Matthew López agreed.

“There’s a part of me that really loves ‘West Side Story’ and a part of me that really hates that I love ‘West Side Story,’ ” López, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said in the debate published by the New York Times. “I think Lin-Manuel Miranda once called it ‘a blessing and a curse,’ which is a sentiment I understand.”

Gillian Brockell contributed to this report. An earlier version of this story was originally published on June 11, 2021.

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