With a Click, with a Shock

Article excerpt

A new book about West Side Story and American culture

Misha Berson begins Something's Coming, Something Good: "West Side Story" and the American Imagination (Applause, 2011) with a personal memory of playing gang members with her cousin in a shag-carpeted Detroit bedroom. "I'd be Riff, if I was lucky. Rochelle would be Tony, if she wasn't. And instead of bounding off chain-linked fences and chasing around graffiti-adorned streets, we'd leap off Rochelle's bed, singing, 'When you're a Jet . . . '" I can similarly remember my hip 12-year old classmates in navy uniform blazers on the blacktop at my New Jersey grammar school extending their arms and legs, punching the air, clicking their fingers and aggressively clutching their No. 2 pencils. Berson's book not only details the creative development of West Side Story, but also describes and accounts for this phenomenon of cultural fallout that has occurred since the musical first opened on Broadway.

Berson presents an engaging account of the musical's genesis and a methodical overview of its collaborative elements (Arthur Laurents's book, Leonard Bernstein's music, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and Jerome Robbins' choreography and staging). The book includes descriptions and analyses for each song and dance, as well as character and plot summaries. For readers new to the show, these sections provide a lucid introduction to the play's narration and style; for those already familiar with the show, they are sometimes elementary, as are the biographical synopses of the play's creators.

For all readers, this book benefits from the inclusion of both personal interviews and recent sources. For instance, Berson recounts Martin Charnin's audition story. What won him the role of Big Deal? "He [Jerry Robbins] asked us to do one thing: snap our fingers. I was a good, loud snapper. I didn't even have to wet my fingers." Berson also incorporates many of Sondheim's remarks about his lyrics from Finishing the Hat - not only the familiar critique of "I Feel Pretty" but also his observations of the challenge in writing "Maria" and the dramatic placement of "Gee, Officer Krupke" in both the stage play and the film.

The immediacy of Berson's references and research connects the dots between West Side Story and some of its most recent descendente, homages, parodies and riffs, including other rebel youth musicals such as Spring Awakening and American Idiot, College Humor's "Web Site Story" (with songs about Twitter, Google and Evite), the Gap television ad with its pastel-coordinated take on "Cool" and the 2006 Oscar-winning short film West Bank Story.

Throughout this "kaleidoscopic appreciation" of West Side Story are lists of fascinating supplementary information (detailed parallels and differences between Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, the specific changes made in the 1961 film adaptation, 1950s films about teens in crisis), as well as short essays on related topics (the West Side Story dance suite, Broadway plays that depict racial and ethnic bigotry, the impact of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on the play's creators). …