I really don’t like reviews. I learned through eight years of school newspaper contributions that I’m not particularly good at writing them (I lack the confidence that anyone really cares what I think about something), and I also am not a huge fan of reading them. I’ll occasionally browse the web for a review of a movie that got a lot of hype but I’m not interested in seeing, but otherwise I steer clear. All you television and movie watchers who read reviews of the production before you see it—shame on you. Don’t fill your head with those prettily packaged opinions!
More commonly, I find myself “researching” things I plan to watch. I like to know where the movie might be set, or how long it took to film it. If I’m embarking on the journey of a television show, I like to know how many seasons there are, or if it is based off of a book series. Knowing a bit of the information surrounding the media event gives me a good picture of what it might be like without forcing me to slog through someone else’s ranting and raving about it.
One film I watched as a middle schooler prompted me to go on a research spree after seeing it. West Side Story has been one of my favorite films since I first saw it, and that’s partly due to the fascinating story surrounding it.
The movie was originally a musical, of course. The super interesting stuff starts in 1947 when Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents got to talking about a musical they wanted to do: an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What they actually decided on was to write about a New York Irish Catholic boy who falls in love with a Jewish girl during the Passover season. The notorious anti-Semitism of Catholics provided the tension between families, and many tiffs occurred between the Catholic “Jets” and the Jewish “Emeralds.” The musical was titled East Side Story.
The trio eventually decided that the theme of Jewish-Catholic unrest had been covered in other plays at the time, so they dropped the project. In 1955, however, after being inspired by the slew of gang violence happening in California, they added lyricist Stephen Sondheim to the team and began producing the musical, which was still set in New York but now featured Anton, a Polish-Irish teen and Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant. Jets vs. Emeralds became Jets vs. Sharks, and West Side Story was born.
As they rehearsed the show, gang violence continued to erupt around the country, building anticipation and thematic symmetry for the musical. Robbins enhanced the tension by keeping the Jets and Sharks separated during rehearsals and by posting newspaper clippings about gang violence backstage.
When the show opened in 1957, it couldn’t have been timelier. It broke all the rules of typical musical theater by portraying love not as a fluffy, head-over-heels kind of emotion that prevailed no matter the circumstance, but as a passionate, complicated, mature state of being that ultimately was impossible. Tony and Maria do not have a happy ending. Three main characters of the show end up dead. The last scene is a funeral of sorts. The musical brought to light the reality and pain of gang violence at a time when it was sorely needed.
If you’re still with me, you’re probably half-asleep. Sorry. I just wanted to set up a concrete example of what I mean when I say “media with cultural impact.”
I’m wondering if this sort of media still exists. I can’t really remember that last film or TV show or book I consumed that seemed to be specifically addressing something current and dangerous and exciting. Does media still push the limit? It probably does, but I’ve felt out of the loop as of late. I want a modern West Side Story, one that tackles something ugly in our world and does it with gusto.
I’m open to suggestions. What films or television episodes have you seen lately that made a statement? Documentaries are the obvious answer here, but I want something more… subtle.
 With the exception of reviews by the late, great Roger Ebert, a god among men.
 It’s also showing in Grand Rapids this weekend and next, which prompted this post. Yes, of course I’m going.
 By the way, if you’ve never seen West Side Story, you’re going to be confused for a few paragraphs. Feel free to skim.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.