Dead Brothers

West Side Story, Old and New


Ben Miller


   Because I was an adequate tenor, and because I could be counted on to provide an ample supply of the physical awkwardness the script required of the actor playing Chino, I was cast in the role of Tony’s killer in the late 1970s when I was a ninth-grader at Sudlow Junior High, a school beset by violence, divided along race and class lines. The grimy brick building served a district containing some of the poorest and richest neighborhoods in Davenport, Iowa—an acre of concrete alongside the turbulent Mississippi River.    Whites constituted just under 80% of the school population. The other students were mostly Black, with Asians and Hispanics sprinkled in. Macho males of any persuasion might arrive to class wearing a belted cream-colored sweater. Others wore Jaws t-shirts, movie merchandising then in its infancy, and well-off dudes were wired to the Walkman cassette player—the iPod’s grandpa. Mr. Gesling, a neckless ex-Marine Hall Monitor with a porcupine quill hairstyle, was present to keep a very loud kind of peace. In that memorable class of mine were Michael Nunn, eventual middleweight world boxing champ, and Ross Wilburn, current chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, the first black person to lead a major political party in the state. He played in the musical’s band (clarinet) back then.    I knew the soundtrack of the film version of the musical. That warped red-and-black album cover hid under our living room couch along with cat turds and other 1960s cultural must-haves for even the most dysfunctional households: Man of La Mancha, Dr. Zhivago.    I was glad to be a Shark and not a Jet. Though white, I knew where my sympathies were—with the underdogs. I’d been taunted and bullied in Elementary School due to a pair of thick eye-frames, the thrift store shrouds under them, and a weight problem. None of us white Sharks pretended to be Puerto Rican by affecting fake accents or other stupid tricks. We had ample stores of urban alienation to draw upon. We knew of no authority in the school able to run to the rescue quick enough to make a difference. We had to craft our own flawed survival mechanisms—the concept of dropping out of school as soon as possible or other dodges. The Sharks were the rising gang with the momentum. The Jets were faltering, trying to retain a perilous supremacy—perilous since they were as poor and abandoned as Sharks—if from a group perched a bit higher in the immigrant pecking order.    And what made Chino by far the best Shark to be was the fact I really felt like I had recently murdered someone: me.    An Eighth Grade hunger strike (my term, stolen from the IRA) or bout of anorexia nervosa (public clinic diagnosis) had cut away the 215 pound fat boy who once waddled to elementary school from the dump where he was being sexually molested by a parent. I weighed around 110 when practices for the West Side Story production started in 1979.    “I lost a brother,” my younger brother moaned, determined not to acknowledge my bones. Gone was the softie he liked to punch. Pretty girls now ran up to me in school halls. They asked what diet pills I had taken and could they have some? Classmates who used to shout “Fatso!” stared—almost polite—as my skeletal edges approached. The world had totally changed its attitude toward me just because of the way I looked. I hated that as much as the taunting. The tyranny of surfaces seemed inescapable, if still to be rejected, resisted.    Playing a role in West Side Story was a part of that struggle for some of us. We pinched our scripts tight. There were recognitions. The musical was an allegory in one sense, but in another a documentary—a docu-allegory call it. Simultaneously real and unreal. Daily stare-downs in the halls—white vs. black, poor vs. rich, almost everyone vs. an effeminate boy named David —were mirrored onstage by stare-downs of the Jets and the Sharks.    The musical’s director, Sally Riewerts, had to be fearless to do her job and she freaking was. She wore pant suits in colors that did not back down and necklaces that flew around like tossed stones as she conducted. She actually believed art could involve Sudlow misfits, and cobbled together a cast accordingly. For Maria she picked a tall shy young woman named Teri who took private voice lessons, and for Tony chose Scott, a self-professed “pothead’ from a working class family. The two would never have exchanged a word if not for getting these roles. The tension made their interactions scintillating.    As soon as after-school practices began in the humid gym (which doubled as an auditorium) the definition of what a Sudlow curriculum encompassed vastly expanded.    Finger snaps to the rimshot rhythms of jazz—the nation’s unique art form—were suddenly part of the program, and we musical participants were also ear deep in the most complicated texts—Sondheim’s lyrics—we had ever been asked to master. Famously the composer declared unhappiness with this early work, but to me at fifteen it equaled a new poetry, lingo-driven, varied, deep—but not in a way that was completely foreign.    At points the score demanded that singers sing over each other, presenting different viewpoints with such swiftness it was hardly singing at all but talking in tune as fast as possible to deliver messages of rancor or solidarity. This was very much like the chaotic soundscape of halls between bells, multitudes of student voices and Gesling’s drill sergeant screams and sirens of police cars and ambulances whizzing by on Locust Street.    The dances too were strange but familiar: ordinary movements exaggerated—walking, kicking, spinning. We were all now dancers. We were all now matchmakers. "Would Teri and Scott kiss on Opening Night?” was a topic of restroom discussion.    And perhaps most importantly, one of the musical’s themes—gang violence—brought to the forefront an issue which pale administrators were expert at denying even when a hall stabbing made the 6 PM news. The Vice Principle had the most absurd approach. He compulsively called us “Tigers"—the school mascot’s name—as if this made us anything. It gave me satisfaction to imagine the fool in the tie being forced not only to watch the choreographed rumbles, but having to applaud—maybe even stand and applaud—students that were no fuzzy castrated Tigers but lethal Jets and Sharks.    And related to the violence, of course, was the matter of society’s responsibility for sanctioning segregated environments that bred class and racial strife. That nasty subject now made the school agenda also. We cynical students didn’t have to point fingers. The script pointed the fingers. Sally Riewerts identified the perfect Krupke. He was the blond oval son of a Scoutmaster, an adept representative of a dull uncomprehending authority possessing a badge and not much else. Billy had an accomplished glower, akin to a facial cave-in and eyes blank as the air pocket in a boiled egg. His character’s name sounded like "corrupt” and “crook.” When shortened it was a suitable substitute for “fuck” and “crap.”    Then things got too real. A call came for Mrs. Riewerts during a practice one night. The brother of a Shark was dead.    She pulled Todd aside but we all saw him get the news beside the stage at one end of the gym. He flushed, stumbled backward, and ran off as the director hustled after him.    Todd’s family lived in a small house on Locust Street. Todd’s older brother had committed suicide by getting high, putting on a heavy metal record, lighting his attic bedroom on fire and not fleeing the flames. He burned up with his Black Sabbath records, his stereo speakers, his bong and his story—whatever exactly it was.    This was no echo in control of any script. This was no part of a plot that, with all its elements, amounted to coherence. This was the empty dizzying statistic.    When Todd returned to practice he described the funeral in a small Illinois town across the river. After the burial he and other relatives had gotten stoned and ridden around, breaking bottles to announce what happened to a sleeping populace. Share the unfairness to make it easier to bear. Todd’s eyes were red. He did not look alright—how could he be alright?—but needed to be there. Between scenes, he kept to himself.    Todd was tough. He came back, in part, to show the rest of us that. He had great loyalty to the director too. She earned that allegiance by welcoming him in from the fringes to participate in the annual highlight of the musical—as she did me—as she did many other troubled kids. In a year she’d be promoted to Central High.    After the tragedy, the public performances of the play seemed less of a big deal. The Jets snapped their fingers, and we Sharks glared. The leads exchanged sparks (then, look, a peck). Scott, the pothead, relished being taken seriously. He started wearing scarves to school. Bashful Teri finally did a thing to make others bring her bouquets. Todd did not break down when Bernardo, Maria’s brother, was stabbed. He was Bernardo. He went down. He lay motionless.    My chief moment, of course, involved shooting Tony. The gun was plastic. As soon as I raised it, a kid backstage was supposed to pop a balloon. Three nights it worked. One night I raised the gun and there was no Pop! Trying to cover, I stepped toward Tony. No noise. I stepped toward Tony again. I lifted the gun slightly as if struggling to get a bead on my blond target, though he stood right in front of me. “Maybe Tony doesn’t have to die tonight?” I thought and right then the balloon popped. He crumpled as Maria wailed.    All these memories whirlpooled as I sat, masked, next to my masked partner, a poet, in a Cinemark Theater in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Christmas Eve, waiting out the interminable explosion-laced previews preceding the 11:15 am showing of the new West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg. We could have waited until the film was available to stream, but as safe and convenient as streaming was, I’d always found that with a smaller screen came a huge reduction of my availability to an expression’s mechanics.    Finally: the isolated whistle of one Jet calling another in the dark.


   Most art, as soon as created, begins to decay. Nothing added to the mix ever again, the whole becomes less and less as time erodes contexts, languages, themes. The process eats even Monuments that for a period appear immune to destruction. Many had questions and worries about a 2022 version of a legendary Broadway chestnut. Mine were: How old was it going to feel and sound and look? Could tweaks possibly create any bond between the work and a new generation? Or would choices resonate like brittle pings of a dry pea dropped into an antique store Hills Bros. coffee tin?    Some quick answers: Does the inclusion of more actual Spanish, and no subtitles, make the film more “authentically” Spanish? It doesn’t, as Yarimar Bonilla pointed out in her scathing Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on December 15, 2021. Ping, ping, ping. Does the teasing out the trans identity of Anybodys—the Jet trailing tomboy in the original movie—work? It does. The character was there already, waiting to be fully born.    Created by white men, this musical never functioned as an authentic ethnic exploration. It was always a cartoon of one. When it excels it does so as a melodic love story tucked within the resonant fable of poisonous class divisions fueled by ignorance or greed.    The excellence, such as it is, has to do with Spielberg’s agile camera work, the thoughtful Tony Kushner screenplay, the superlative supporting performances of Ariana DeBose (as Anita: an Oscar winner) and of Rita Moreno (as Valentina, Tony’s mentor, a crucial new role), plus the careening lyrics of Sondheim, the crisp choreography of Robbins, and Bernstein’s music with its lush balladic arcs and beats reminiscent of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. These make the case for West Side Story as art that continues to matter, despite its limitations.    The dissonant slum clearance zone shots in the new Spielberg film brought to mind the paintings of George Bellows—a member of the Ashcan School of painters. He completed four large extraordinary works depicting the excavation that preceded the building of Penn Station. There, too, figures of human beings are tiny in comparison to the hell they occupy. The dig pit swirls with smudges of exhaust that tempers light into a queasy enfolding fog.    Ladders were a second effective visual refrain. In order of appearance: a Jet riding a fire escape ladder down to the sidewalk during the antic opening sequence—shelf ladder in Valentina’s pharmacy that Tony sings from—Tony singing to Maria from a fire escape ladder after they meet at the dance—a second song on the same ladder later on. The film’s last shot—capturing a stagey Welles-like funeral procession—angles through a fire escape ladder resembling a charred vertebrae beside lit tenement windows.    There is a repeating counter motif: chain-link fences and walls separating characters from each other, and the audience. The continual blunt promise of opportunity set against the intricate reality of day-by-day entrapment for too many. In 1957 that dynamic was true, and in 1979 when I played Chino that was true, and today, yes, it remains tragically true. The accumulation of failures constitutes an ever larger failure. Fittingly this version of the show is darker and less hopeful in every sense. I almost forgot it was a love story, too.    In fact I realized, belatedly, that despite the centrality of weapons to many scenes, love is the scariest force afoot. The love so difficult to summon and hold on to. Not surprisingly, the scene after the chapel scene dried my tears fast: the gun buy in the sleazy bar that sets the remaining action in motion— “stick with your tribe” nihilism literally spilling across the wide screen, leaving a viewer with the last look through that black ladder at helpless characters, their paralytic isolation in a society with the power to make a killer out of a bookish kid once devoted to studying adding machine repair. Of course Tony and Maria evolve in this work, but nothing else around them changes, so that their evolution is in effect defeated by a single bullet Chino fires in rage and confusion. Nothing really promising in the stifling—sometimes heatless—high-rise projects with grandiloquent names like the Ulysses S. Grant Houses.    Which is why we yet may need some of what West Side Story offers—for all its daffy vintage generalizations and pious tweaks that can strike a viewer as strained and insulting. Whether you buy the goods in part depends on whether you trust in the capability of the lyric lineage to address the aspirations and sorrows of all people.    We watched until the credits stopped rolling—the only customers left in the end. I felt re-bonded to the songs and the dancing and the stylized story. But what about the vital new bonds between a 64-year-old work and younger generations?    When the lights came on masked custodians—two teenagers in black smocks—entered stage left like mummers. “Like the movie?” one asked automatically, broom ticking to and fro. After I said I had, I asked if he had seen it. “Not yet,” was the reply as his eyes remained on the floor and its effluvia of scattered popcorn kernels, cola-splashed lids and the straws bent by thirst.    We left for winter. Across the parking lot stood the gaudy façade of the Brazilian steakhouse formerly owned by a disgraced surgeon who advised patients to have unnecessary back surgeries so he could implant cages he had invented and needed to sell to get richer and richer. The cinema and the restaurant were fitting dance partners in this American landscape abutting Interstate 90. Who—and what—were dreams saving?    The cold wind just kept blowing as I kept thinking of how West Side Story was rescued. It was “saved” the way a kid catches a firefly on an August night, poking holes in the jar lid with a fork so the blink of exotic beauty can last a few more hours.