Saturday, September 08, 2007

Lower East Side Story

In an article published earlier this week, the Jewish Daily Forward notes the 50th anniversary of the opening of West Side Story on Broadway by pointing out that the four co-creators -- Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim -- all had something special in common. (That's right, they're all Jewish.)

The key paragraph is here:

What might the cultural historian make of the ethnic homogeneity of the creative team behind “West Side Story”? Is its achievement not only central to the evolution of a supremely American genre but also an illuminating artifact of Jewish values? Did Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents happen to have in common not only the experience of circumcision but also the sort of attitudes that are a distinctive — or at least authentic — expression of one minority group in particular?
Others of us might approach that question differently -- not by reference to the religious or ethnic backgrounds of the four, but to the fact that all four are (or were) gay.

The Forward article never mentions this salient fact. How can the reporter miss it, when it can be found so readily in the lyrics of "I Feel Pretty"?

Gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny (whose lifetime of service was recently accorded the rare honor of having some memorabilia, which he created and preserved, put on display in the Smithsonian) comments on the Forward's web site:
While Stephen Whitfield writes at length and cogently about the implications of the fact that Robbins, Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim, who created West Side Story, were all Jewish, he ignores the surely equally relevant fact (perhaps more relevant to the opus itself) that all four were gay.

An article exploring and enlarging upon the implications of that, in the cultural milieu of the 1950s, and its impact upon the Story -- or perhaps the interaction of both: that they were Jewish AND gay -- might be well worth reading.
While popular culture might joke about the contributions of gays (and Jews) to the Broadway stage -- think Family Guy or Monty Python's Spamalot -- there are others who would rather have the role played by gay men (in particular, but lesbians have had a large role to play as well) forgotten. A dozen years ago, the literary and film critic Bruce Bawer wrote in The Advocate:
...there's no part of the cultural landscape without a gay element. Even if gays constitute as much as fifteen percent of the population, the gay contribution to Western art, architecture, music, and literature far exceeds what it should be statistically. If you accept the right-wing claim that only one in a hundred people is gay, then the gay contribution is truly extraordinary. Think about it: A group comprising one percent of the population producing Erasmus, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Marlowe, Bacon, Hölderlin, Hans Christian Andersen, Tchaikovsky, Proust ... the list goes on and on to include three of the four major nineteenth-century American novelists, one (perhaps both) of the two great nineteenth-century American poets, and two of the three most noted mid-twentieth-century American dramatists.
In this essay, which was reprinted in the 1996 anthology Beyond Queer, Bawer continues:
The immensity of the debt that Western civilization owes to gay and lesbian genius is pretty ironic, given that homosexuality is often described as a threat to Western civilization by those strangest of allies, the culturally philistine religious right and neo-conservative intellectuals. Especially ironic is the case of Allan Bloom the late author of The Closing of the American Mind. That 1987 best-seller, which defended the traditional literary canon against multiculturalism, became the neocon bible, a key text in the so-called culture wars. As those wars wore on the neocons began to mimic the rhetoric of the religious right, bizarrely linking the decline of American art, culture, and higher education to a deterioration of "family values," which in turn was blamed mostly on increasing acceptance of gays. Gays, then, were Western civilization's worst enemies — and Bloom its most ardent defender.

Yet what few readers knew was the Bloom (who died in 1992) was gay. His allies knew but that didn't keep them from bashing gays in print. Years ago, at a social occasion, a leading neocon was overheard saying to an associate, "Isn't it a shame about Allan Bloom?" He meant, of course, "Isn't it a shame that he's gay?" In fact the real shame was that neocons saw no moral difficulty in celebrating Bloom while vilifying gays generally — and that Bloom, for his part, never publicly confronted them with the fact that Western civilization, far from being threatened by homosexuality, is to a staggeringly disproportionate degree the creation of gay men and women.

"Do you want to protect your children from gay influence?" I imagine him writing. "Very well. Destroy the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, silence Messiah and Swan Lake, and burn Moby Dick and The Portrait of a Lady. Gay culture is all around you — and it belongs to everybody."
The Forward article reminds me of the old joke about how various newspapers would report the impending end of the world: The Washington Post headline reads, "World to End Tomorrow; Minorities, Women Hit Hardest"; the Wall Street Journal says, "World to End Tomorrow; Markets Close Early"; the Weekly World News reports, "World to End Tomorrow; Lizard-like Space Aliens to Blame"; the New York Post says, "World to End; Paris, LiLo React on Page Six"; etc.

That is to say, we all have our parochial way of looking at things, but that doesn't mean we can't acknowledge other facts that have relevance for the bigger picture.

That Robbins, Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim are both gay and Jewish has meaning for the creative process, for the history of the Broadway musical, and for American popular culture in general.

1 comment:

Douglas said...

Reminds me of Carl Morse's poem, "The Dream of the Artfairy":

"One day over the course of a week or so
all the art ever made by fairies
became invisible to straights,
starting with the Sistine Chapel.
...
...
Then the Last Supper went.
And some noted art historians tried to get back their vision
by clumsily attempting a gross indecency or two,
and traffic in forged fairy papers became a nightmare.
...
...
At last only Clifton Webb kept making love
to the hole where Garbo used to be,
and a touchdown pass in the closing game
never reached its tight end on the screen,
and all hell really broke loose in the end."

These are only snippets. The poem's a (perceptive) hoot.