"West Side Story
Bernstein’s most popular and culturally significant work is undoubtedly West Side Story (1957) created in collaboration with three other Jews, Arthur Laurents (librettist), Stephen Sondheim (lyricist), and Jerome Robbins (director and choreographer). Robbins had introduced Bernstein to Laurents, whose 1945 Broadway play Home of the Brave, “dealt with anti-Semitism in an army unit during World War Two and had brought Bernstein to tears.”
Many regard West Side Story as the highest peak the Broadway musical has ever attained. Its popularity only really took off, however, with the film version of 1961. West Side Story was originally conceived by Robbins as a story of Jewish-Catholic gang rivalry focusing on conflict during Easter/Passover between an Italian Catholic Greenwich Village family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In Laurents’ first draft — called “East Side Story” — the Maria character (originally called “Tante,” the Yiddish word for aunt) was a Holocaust survivor who had emigrated from Israel to America. The conflict centered on the anti-Semitism of the (Catholic) Jets and the justified resentment of the Jewish Emeralds.
As Bernstein wrote in his diary in late 1948: “Jerry R. called today with a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics. Former: Capulets, latter: Montagues. Juliet is Jewish. Friar Lawrence is the neighborhood druggist. Street brawls, double death — it all fits.” Clues as to the original scheme for the show are captured in Robbins’ original headings which include “Hideout (initiation: Beating up Jews)” and Bernstein’s annotations, which include “Ball or Seder or Motza’e Shabbat” and “Romeo’s death with Tante.” Bernstein even suggested including “a song on racism called ‘It’s the Jews.’"
"Ultimately, the musical that became West Side Story drew upon gang violence in New York and Chicago then making headlines. Despite the changed ethnicities of the protagonists, the show remained, for its creators, an unabashed vehicle for Jewish ethnic activism: promoting, most fundamentally, changed ideas what it meant to be an American."