The fiftieth anniversary of the musical West Side Story is celebrated by a new stage production, with superb choreography and music that brings this saddest of tales to life.
West Side Story was a groundbreaking piece of musical theatre when it first appeared on New York’s Broadway in 1957.
It deals with racism, gang culture and the position of young people in society and its take on these issues is as relevant today as it was then.
West Side Story tells the tale of two rival gangs. The Jets are white-American, while the Sharks are recently arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico.
It is also a love story between Tony and Maria, with a plot based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Tragedy comes as the lovers attempt to escape the social constraints placed on their mixed-race relationship.
This new production throws police racism into the spotlight.
After the Jets and Sharks meet to arrange a date for a fight, local police officer Lieutenant Schrank arrives and tells the Sharks, “Clear out spics. Sure – it’s a free country and I ain’t got the right.
“But it’s a country with laws, and I can find the right. I got the badge, you got the skin.”
But the Jets also have a deep-seated hatred for the police – who they know see them as no more than “hoodlums”. The gang’s resentment comes out in their anti-cop song “Officer Krupke”.
This vivid depiction of young people’s attitudes to authority is another reason why the musical broke new ground.
The new production shows how both gangs find it impossible to live up to the ideals of the American Dream.
The Jets blame immigration for their lack of opportunities, while the Sharks soon discover that the country is far from a “land of opportunities”.
That this musical continues to have such stark relevance is in itself a tragedy.
West Side Story
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
Until 31 August, then tours