Earlier this month, as UK theatres prepared to shut their doors during the coronavirus pandemic, the Royal Exchange in Manchester assembled its actors for one last day. Rockets and Blue Lights, a new play by Winsome Pinnock that didn’t even enjoy a press opening, gave a final performance for staff. And the cast in rehearsal for West Side Story came together in two of the most enduring numbers: Tonight, that onrush of heady young love, and the aching Somewhere – a dream of a place of safety, a plea for a new and better world. What wouldn’t we give for that utopia now.
West Side Story (1957) was created by a group of artists who were brash and combative, who didn’t readily reveal their vulnerabilities. The lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, distils the story of this Romeo and Juliet reboot, set amid New York’s gang wars: “It’s about a young man who grows up by falling in love, and it kills him.” Yet, nestled at the heart of this bristling, often confrontational work, is a quiet place. A place where gang antagonism, suspicious relationships and the unfeeling indifference of the official culture can melt away, and love and trust can briefly hold. That place is Somewhere – the yearning ballad accompanied by a fantasy ballet, in which the lovers and their warring friends imagine a place of peace and quiet, of “time together with time to spare”.
The creators of West Side Story were a restless crew – all gay or bisexual, none of them publicly out in the censorious 1950s. For Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Sondheim and Jerome Robbins (director and choreographer), New York’s theatre world provided a community and a place of sanctuary – but the wider culture was hostile. None felt this more keenly than Robbins, who had buckled when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Terrified that his sexuality might be exposed, he named names, and never forgave himself (Laurents, too, could never forgive him). Late in life, he confessed: “I can’t escape the terrors of that catastrophe.” Reading about his jittery psyche and the tangle of relationships he’d often engineer for himself, it’s hard not to imagine he struggled to find a still point of serenity. No wonder Amanda Vaill chose Somewhere as the title for her biography of the choreographer. The number was, she considers, “arguably his personal vision of paradise”.
Bernstein’s own commitment to social justice was often mocked, most spikily in Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay about “radical chic”. But there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity when he said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” He often worked with African American singers, and it’s no surprise that his song of yearning for a better place found some of its most resonant expression from black artists – whether Aretha Franklin, Jessye Norman or, most recently, Cynthia Erivo.
Some people find utopia more challenging: Ivo van Hove’s heralded new Broadway production kept the song but cut the ballet, as he sought to make the musical sting again as “a West Side Story for the 21st century”. Yet the Manchester production by Sarah Frankcom – produced last year and planning to return when overtaken by events – remade the number. Rather than an ethereal but anonymous soprano (Marilyn Horne on Bernstein’s starry operatic recording), Frankcom gave the number to Anybodys (Emily Langham), the Jets’ tomboy hanger-on. In most of the action, she’s jeered at, even by her own gang. She’s an odd body in a world that won’t make space for her. But here, at least for a while, she led the cast. As Susannah Clapp wrote: “A love duet becomes a song for and about everyone.” Like the show’s characters, we may feel the yearning for a new way of living. Someday, somewhere.