Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents on opening night of West Side Story, September 26, 1957. by the Forward

The original ‘West Side Story’ was Jewish — would it have been a better musical?

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It starts in an alley. An angsty Italian gang creeps onstage in a “stylized prologue showing the restlessness of the youths.” It’s New York City in the 1950s, and, as the plot progresses, warring ethnic groups articulate their frustrations via song and dance. Children die preventable deaths; everyone sings; the audience thinks soberly about prejudice and peace.

I am referring to a musical called “GANG BANG! (working title).” It will, of course, eventually become one of the most popular musicals of all time, known by a much sleeker name. But for now, it’s merely a fuzzy sketch of an unwritten production about two gangs: one Gentile, and one Jewish.

Before Leonard Bernstein composed any music, before Jerome Robbins choreographed a step, before Arthur Laurents completed a single draft of a full book, before Stephen Sondheim would even join the team — before “West Side Story” was the production it became — this group of Jewish men initially conceived of a musical that meditated on religious intolerance, specifically centered around antisemitism.

This “Jewish version” of “West Side Story” didn’t get very far: by the time the first draft of the musical was complete, the Jewish characters had become Puerto Rican. But evidence remains in the form of anecdotes, and, more materially, two treatments (scene-by-scene summaries of the action, including occasional suggestions for song, dance, character, or style choices).

These documents, created by Arthur Laurents and accessible at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, provide a peek at a version of this musical that might have been. In this pair of treatments, Italian Romeo and Jewish Juliet meet at a street festival.

“It’s Easter and Passover,” Laurents writes; “holiday time when the boys are free and have too much free time.” As in the original Shakespeare, the teenagers do not initially recognize the threat presented by the other’s background, because religion, like family names and unlike race, is not always visually apparent. The innocence of the initial meeting ends when the lovers each learn the other belongs to an enemy clan.

Unlike Maria, who lives permanently in the eponymous West Side, Jewish Juliet has traveled to the Lower East Side to join family for Passover. The creators reportedly planned to make Juliet a Holocaust survivor. In the eyes of a young reader, who has only ever encountered Holocaust survivors as paragons of elderly wisdom, it is jarring to imagine one so young and naïve. This Juliet might be haunted by the atrocities of a genocidal war, but she remains somehow able to believe that, despite the sectarian violence afflicting her community, her romance will succeed.

The most conspicuously Jewish segment in the story is the Passover Seder, set early in the show’s final act. In the second draft — mercifully retitled “ROMEO” instead of “GANG BANG” — the holiday becomes the setting for a turbulent musical scene. Romeo, having killed Tybalt in a previous scene, is on the run; the action cuts between the Seder and Romeo’s flight from police.

As the scene reaches a climax, biblical high drama undergirds the intensity of the onstage action: The Jewish family, unaware that their son has died, discusses the tenth plague — death of the first born. Romeo hides while the Capulets search for matzoh, an activity that is “gay and joyous and done with much laughing and squealing.” As the jubilation reaches its peak, the police enter to announce Tybalt’s murder.

Perhaps the concept for the musical was, at this early stage, too embryonic; or perhaps the choice to make the musical religious meant it would inevitably invoke the melodrama of faith in a way that seemed sort of hokey. In either case, this scene seems destined for bathos. The premise is overwrought, obvious and clunky.

In the subsequent scenes, the fighting escalates; both gangs seek vengeance, display prejudice. The gang members trade insults: “Dirty wop” is followed by “dirty kike.” When a character called Tante (Shakespeare’s nurse; mush this word around in your mouth enough and it becomes “Anita”) attempts to interfere with the lethal trajectory of fate, the Italian gang members “finally make a crack about Tante and her being Jewish.”

By the end of the musical, as in Shakespeare’s original, both lovers lie dead. “The lights dim, the scenery disappears except for the pallet with the two lovers and, if we want to use Easter Sunday, we can have church bells,” Laurents muses. On second thought, he adds, “this might be a little bit too much.”


Would “West Side Story” have been a better musical if it had stuck with the Jewish plot? Certainly the musical’s Jewish creators, in writing about a Jewish community instead of a Puerto Rican one, could have crafted a more accurate, respectful depiction of the culture they sought to dramatize. Others have pointed out the ineptitude of their attempts to write authentically about a demographic they were not part of, and in fact knew barely anything about.

But there’s something about the attitude the early drafts take toward religion that, I suspect, may have fundamentally impeded the musical’s ability to land so compellingly with audiences.

“Jewish ‘West Side Story’” suggests that religion of any kind makes its adherents inherently susceptible to prejudice. Juliet’s Jewish family members — who, perhaps due to the creators’ own backgrounds, are more focal than Romeo’s Italian kin — oppose ethnic mixing, and seem to subscribe to stereotypically essentializing ideas. At one point, the Capulets tell Juliet she must return home, “and anyway, that love is doomed — because Romeo is an Italian.” (Though, to be fair, they add “and a murderer,” which seems a more reasonable grievance.)

It is difficult, given the identities of the creators, not to read a slightly personal element to the depiction of the Jewish families. It’s as though these men harbor a grudge against their own communities, resenting a pre-war generation’s retrograde attachment to demarcations they felt separated Jews from the rest of white America. The creators draft a fantasy of escaping from the confines of this upbringing, and then place that attempt within a plot that dramatizes the violent consequences of such escape. Tradition, in this framing, is bad, but flouting it is dangerous.

Unlike the tradition-bound families and insular gangs, the voices of morality in the musical have divested from their factions entirely. The romantic leads are purely in love and therefore able to see past hate: “The difference in religion,” notes Laurents in a description of what he has titled “BALCONY SCENE (FIRE ESCAPE),” “should not matter to either of them.” And the wise Doc, who functions as mediator between the two gangs, is described as having “no religion.” This choice seems to imply a moral superiority in abstaining from faith. The takeaway: Religious difference separates, and so to remove that rift, remove the religion.

That the “Jewish version” did not allow for a particularly capacious commentary on identity might also be symptomatic of the precarity of Jewish identity at the time. Jewish theater historian Warren Hoffman writes in his book “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical” that during the development of this musical, “The racial and ethnic landscape of the United States, particularly the country’s white landscape, was quickly changing as the team was writing.”

As American anti-Black racism accelerated, Ashkenazi Jews and other previously non-white groups with European lineage were permitted an unprecedented entree into whiteness. Around this time, in other words, European Jews may have recently become too white to serve as prototypes of the racially oppressed.

In replacing the Jews, then, “West Side Story” became an explosive allegory about race, with a more modern, appealingly liberal, and neatly universalizable message. The “West Side Story” that eventually met its audience tried to say something along the lines of: Do not eradicate difference; tolerate it, admire it, celebrate it. However shoddy its depiction of the populations it centered, what it tried to say about their differences evidently felt electric — at least to some audiences — at the time. For the purposes of creating a broadly appealing musical, the kind that met the success “West Side Story” did, the decision to remove the Jews was likely crucial.


By the next of Laurents’ treatments, the Jewish gang has been quietly swapped out for a Puerto Rican one. Some of the names have begun to shift, too: Benvolio becomes Benny, Tybalt becomes Bernardo. Juliet is still Juliet, but Tante is Anita. The musical is creeping toward its final form.

When the violence accelerates, Doc — now, interestingly, described as “possibly a Jew” — tries vainly to stop the coming rumble.” Doc isn’t white enough to be a gentile, meaning he is sympathetic to the experiences of prejudice the Puerto Rican characters face. But he is just white enough to garner acceptance from the white characters. When the musical centered around religion, Doc had none; now that it focuses on race, “none” is no longer a possibility. Jewishness, in its midcentury position of liminal whiteness, has become the ethnicity of mediation.

It’s easy to feel that consequential choices like these in the story of the development of a hit are made with full awareness of their impact. That the creators had a canny intuition for the zeitgeist, and could sense that a message of racial tolerance would resonate with audiences better than one about religious difference. But according to Laurents’ biography, the creators abandoned the Jewish plot simply because they realized someone else had already written it: “Abie’s Irish Rose,” a play from the 1920s, dealt similarly with Jewish-gentile intermarriage.

Paging through these drafts — some of them photocopies, some the actual paper Laurents typed into — in a silent reading room in Lincoln Center, I was overcome, more than anything else, by a sense of the documents’ vitality. At the time these treatments were created, the musical was so far from complete it seemed to be visibly evolving between drafts, even within them. The pages are littered with little typos, misspellings, and punctuation errors.

Often, Laurents types faster than he thinks — lacking a modern backspace bar, he revises his vision mid-sentence. In one addendum, Laurents broods, directionless, over the characters’ names. “I think we should not try to get names reminiscent of the originals. I do not like Judy for Juliet anymore than I like Ricki for Romeo. I think both are too flip-sounding and lack poetic softness.” He suggests “Ruth” or “Ruthanna” for the female lead, but worries that “they begin with ‘R’ — which is inverting for no apparent reason.” This, he decides, could be dangerous, because “people might think there was a definite reason.”

Not all artistic choices, however successfully implemented, are deliberate. Sometimes, people simply want to make something new. After all, these drafts are unpolished and intimate, intended for internal circulation among the creators. At one point, Laurents writes, playfully: “The indication of musical numbers is, in places, the roughest of the above. I would like suggestions from the musical genius dept. on this as soon as possible.”

These documents provide only a glimpse of an early version of what would become a fixture of the musical theater canon. Just some Jewish artists jotting down passing thoughts that would shape, eventually, into one of the most successful and culturally indelible musicals in American history.

Author

Eliya Smith

Eliya Smith is an editorial fellow at the Forward. Follow her online at @eliyasmith.

‘Gang Bang’ was the original, Jewish ‘West Side Story’

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