The last time I had seen West Side Story, I had just turned 16. I saw it at the St. Louis Muny after waiting in line for the free seats with my sister and, most likely (though I can’t remember specifically), a huge gaggle of the friends who were commonplace in my life at that age.
Newly recovered from braces, the worst of puberty, and my first (and totally unrequited) crush, I was a young jerk with a ton of friends, reeling to find my sea legs in a world where I would soon have to be responsible for myself.
I watched the show. I liked the part about the ballet-dancing gangsters, although I found it more humorous and “cool” than anything else. (My sister and I learned all the words to “Officer Krupke” and sang it endlessly.) I thought the love story was dumb. My sister and I made fun of it, saying the whole show should’ve been about the Jets and the Sharks— forget Tony and Maria!
And off we dashed into the damp summer night, and I thought little more about it, and I never considered that later this would be a marker on my path, a buoy that would remind me of where I had been and where I was now.
Last night, I went to see West Side Story at the Muny with my husband of nine months. I was a bit indifferent about seeing it, but Zach likes the movie, and read some positive reviews of the Muny’s rendition. I’m always happy to have a date with my husband, so off we drove, and my guard was down, and I wasn’t ready.
I didn’t understand that play last time I saw it. Eight years later, I understood.
A friend pointed out to me a few months ago that Romeo and Juliet (and, by extension, West Side Story) is not about true love— it’s about young love. Intense, insane, obsessive, all-consuming, that insists that nothing here is wrong: the whole world is wrong instead.
At 16, I thought this was stupid. At 24, my heart just ached.
I wondered how all the intense and emotional themes had gone over my teenaged head. The fear and loneliness. The broken families and struggle to find meaning. The hatred. The gang rape. The passionate but fleeting love, a counterfeit of the love that would bring true healing. The ending that attempts to be hopeful, but leaves loose ends too dark to contemplate.
It’s a beautiful play, beautiful and dark, as irresistible as it is painful. The set design, the costumes, the orchestra, the dancing was all masterfully done. Every single actor on stage shimmered with intense energy, even when they were standing still. The joy was as intense as the sorrow, the humor as gut-wrenching as the violence.
It was the best play I had seen in ages and ages. Like any good play, it touched a part of my heart I rarely register is there.
On the walk back to our car (parked two miles away, to avoid traffic), I cried a little bit, quietly, and tried to process what had just happened to me. I stared at my 16-year-old self: the jerky exterior, the soft undamaged heart, the lit-up eyes, the naïve dismissal of anything she couldn’t understand.
When neither of us had spoken for a while, I asked Zachary, “What are you thinking?”
“Not much,” he said, taking my hand. “I’m just being quiet and letting you think.”
I held his hand, the summer breeze stirring the humid air. And I thanked God that our young love is transforming by the day, rooted in something much stronger and more permanent than two young lovers in a world falling apart.