Last night Steven Blier led off the Bernstein concert with “Something’s Coming,” the quintessential expression of the blindly hopeful anticipation of youth from West Side Story. I wanted to pick this song even before knowing that it would be on Steve’s playlist.
Although I knew these songs from my parents’ Broadway cast album, I didn’t see the show itself until the movie came to the big, dilapidated theater with a small tear in the middle of the screen on Main Street in Newark, Delaware. I was ten years old. The movie and its music were highly “relatable.” I had been to New York, and my family had hosted a boy from the West Side slums for a couple of weeks one summer in the “Fresh Air” program.
More urgently relevant, my fourth-grade school class had recently been joined by a couple of roughneck boys from New York City. They challenged us with their hard-nosed swagger, but we shied away from confrontation. We also refused to emulate their ducktail hairstyles and pointy shoes, which were somewhat reminiscent of George Chakiris’s Bernardo. I was glued to the screen, hoping to pick up tips on how to avoid a fateful conflict spiral touched off by mirror-image misperceptions (“they began it”).
This topic is still on my agenda. I am now teaching an undergraduate lecture class on ethnic conflict. I recently drew an analogy to West Side Story in explaining how seemingly religious riots in the city of Jos, Nigeria, are actually about minor turf battles that spiral out of control due to mutual security fears. A few blank looks on the youthful, culturally diverse faces in the class suggested that some of them hadn’t a clue who the Jets and the Sharks might be. But this being Columbia, where they all read Shakespeare as part of our Core Curriculum, I was able to fall back on the original source, illustrating with the Montagues and Capulets. No doubt the quest for an enduring cultural lingua franca is why Bernstein took on the iconic classics, whether Shakespeare, Sophocles, or Voltaire, and why Columbia sticks to this tried-and-true approach.
Back then my favorite musical number was “Something’s Coming,” because I new what a one-handed catch felt like. It still is.
“Something’s Coming,” sung by Jimmy Bryant, acted by Richard Beymer