On February 20, Ivo Van Hoe’s revival of West Side Story opened on Broadway. His production suggests a renewed interest in the musical, ahead of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Hollywood adaptation later this year. The musical’s original run in 1957 opened to a very different New York – a city in the midst of multiple urban renewal projects headed by urban planner and highly influential public official Robert Moses. The neighbourhood that inspired the setting of West Side Story – San Juan Hill – was slated for destruction to build the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, even as it was immortalised in the musical.
James Shapiro, a leading expert on early modern literature, Shakespeare and American culture, reviewed the Broadway revival. His piece, entitled “OK by me in America?” appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in late February. We spoke about West Side Story and its relationship to popular culture, politics, and New York.
Do you think anyone knows that the theatre is only about six blocks from the neighbourhood that inspired West Side Story?
I would say that, if you asked a thousand playgoers, not one or two out of a thousand would probably know that because that old part of town was transformed so long ago that you have to be in your 60s or beyond to remember…maybe in your 70s at this point – and there are just not a lot of indigenous New Yorkers around. I’m sure, given that theatres get all the crowd, maybe my guess is too low…but not a lot of people remember [the clearing of San Juan Hill] that and even fewer remember what that did to that area of New York City…I think that one of the really good things about the film version of 1961…is that it was filmed in that immediate area after the local population had been cleared out but before demolition had begun. […] The site of the dance sequence in the film is located inthat area and kind of is a documentary about what was torn down…otherwise I couldn’t visualise it myself.
You grew up in Brooklyn and New York City and you’ve probably seen New York change over the years…how do you think West Side Story taps into the spirit of the city or do you think this play has more to do with America in general?
I think it’s a very local story. I was born in 1955 but I have very powerful visions of seeing Columbus Circle before its modern incarnation – I don’t know whenthat was torn down but it had to be by the mid-60s – I do remember seeing that Old New York. My New York of my childhood is a very vivid New York and that’s a New York of the Bowery, the slums there, the violence in areas like Bed-Stuy and Brownsville… I live in New York in 2020 but my image of New York is certainly fixed by 1965 – it’s not that far from the original moment of this musical.
Did you have a sense of Robert Moses sweeping through New York City and changing it completely in your childhood or was it very removed?
I didn’t know the name of the man who was responsible for the complete – if you will – ‘redesign’ of my city. And I was also unaware of his efforts to bulldoze Washington Square Park and the like. But I was aware that the city was being transformed. Was I aware that this was at the expense of communities that couldn’t fight back? No! Because you didn’t read those stories…in the press that I would be reading – New York Times and The Post and Daily News – so you would just see this as “modernity,” as “innovation” which is, I suppose, how Robert Moses and his supporters wanted you to see it. I would go back then and look at Joe Papp’s [founder of The Public Theater] struggles to create Shakespeare in the Park and his successful battles in the late 50s against Moses and I’d be reading the correspondence as a researcher… yeah, thenI would get a sense of the nitty-gritty of it, but, you know, as a 12-year old kid sitting in the backseat of a car driving through Manhattan…that’s not your perspective.
He had the support of John D. Rockefeller III who went and assembled this entire cabinet of people who essentially owned the press so its certainly not surprising – and if you look at the articles from back then, that’s very much the narrative.
Yeah…I met Rockefeller when I was about five years old or six years old…he did the groundbreaking on a building that my grandfather had helped donate money towards – a charitable building in Brooklyn – but these people were larger than life!