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West Side ... Tsimmes?

April 9, 2009 By:
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She feels "oy" so pretty: Maria (Josefina Scaglione) and the Jets fuel "West Side Story," at the Palace. Photos by Joan Marcus

"Tonight, tonight, won't be just any night ... "

Of course, it's not just any night, Tony; it's Passover.

Pass the matzah!

And that raises more than four questions concerning the riveting revival of "West Side Story," a story unto itself playing the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

Taking in more than a million a week at the box office, could it have been taking them in by the minyans instead? Could this sold-out musical have sold itself as "West Side Tzuris" when it premiered to astonishment and astounding acclaim 52 years ago?

The dance at the gym? Could have been a Hillel mixer; Maria could have been a maidele with Tony intoning, "Moriah, I just met a girl named Moriah, and suddenly that name will never be the same to me."

No kidding, Tony ... uh, Totskele.

A bagel instead of a burrito, a hora instead of bolero hoopla engaging the "America" number, and the Jets and the Sharks as the Yids and the Shaig ...

Well, gee, Officer Krupke, coulda happened.

Indeed, had history played itself out, "West Side Story" would have been asking right now and here, on Broadway, tonight, "Why is this rumble different from all other rumbles?"

As audiences have a wild time watching the Jets and Sharks cavort to Jerome Robbins' legendary choreography, and a score that scores with the best of Broadway by Leonard Bernstein and some kid called Stephen Sondheim, all abetted by a book by the 91-year-old ageless Arthur Laurents -- also directing -- they could very well have been wondering themselves, "A Jewish boy like that ... stick to your own kind, stick to your own kind."

Before they stuck on the concept of a trash-class white Jets jeté danced against the impoverished Puerto Rican kids -- all ganging up on each other on the seamy streets of New York, the genius of a trio that was Bernstein/Robbins/Laurents almost went genuflecting rather than reflecting on the incessant cesspool that was growing up violent in '50s New York, where being on the wrong side of the Long Island train tracks was a ticket to despair and danger.

Breaking matzah instead of breaking heads? Who could pass up such a story at Passover?

In the heights of "hide the afikomen," history has something to reveal of itself that will have even Elijah pulling up a chair and sticking around a bit.

As I sat watching this revival unfold, Tony and Maria pledging fealty, I added my own lyrics to their testimonial of enduring and forever love: "One Hand, One Heart -- One Mezuzah."

It actually all started in 1949, a musical about a Jewish boychick and Catholic cherub was abornin' at a meeting between Robbins, Bernstein and Laurents, all three at the time pursuing artistic albeit altogether different careers than those which would find them assembling on the West Side to tell a story that would become a classic.

The original story -- also the title of Laurents' memoirs, in which their meeting was memorialized -- had the triumphant trio from ballet (Robbins), classical music (Bernstein) and screenwriting (Laurents) script an idea in which the Capulets and Montagues would veer from Verona of days of old for the mean streets of New York.

Make mine Manhattan, toasted the show's wannabe creators.

But "Something's Coming" wasn't what arrived in 1957; instead, as originally conceived, the gangs would be the Jews against the Catholics in a war of words and worship on the lower East Side, and what was destined to become "East Side Story" -- all taking place during Passover.

Not to be.

It was a great idea that nobody else bought into. "East Side Story" got as far as an outline penned by Laurents.

So how did a possible "Kvetch" evolve into "Cool"? Easy; action by Laurents precipitated the end of "East Side Story" as he realized another play, "Abie's Irish Rose," had already surfed the turf of the Jewish-Catholic conflict.

Laurents, then Robbins backstepped -- followed by Bernstein -- all in concert that their Passover passion play should be abandoned, with the world possibly missing out on the greatest scene of all: the Yids meeting at Doc's drugstore for a 2 cents plain.

Plainly, that didn't happen -- and that seltzer scene remains a figment of "On the Scene's" imagination.

If Only Shakespeare ...
But "West Side Story" did happen, revived as it is now -- a clash between whites and Hispanics -- set into motion by a serendipitous meeting in 1957 by Laurents and Bernstein in L.A., far from the madding crowds of Manhattan. It was there, at the Chateau Marmont, that they met, bringing back in Robbins in a choreographed accord that would make musical theater history.

One can sit back now, marvel at the revival at the Palace, and only wonder what another scribe could have done with this already masterful musical.

If only Shakespeare had come up with this idea of two cultures clashing -- and then a romance revolving and evolving out of both houses of histrionics and pain that would lead to a tragic showdown of families, all gathered at the end by the ...

Oh.

Right.  

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