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Identified at last – the gangs at the source of West Side Story

Nigel Simeone, musicologist and meticulous researcher, published a detailed anatomy of Leonard Bernstein’s musical in 2009, which answers pretty much everything anyone could wish to know about the masterpiece.

Then he got a call from a reporter in California.

Nigel takes up the story for Slipped Disc:

In August 1955, West Side Story had been stalled for six years. Jerome Robbins first suggested the idea to Bernstein and Laurents in 1949, but for the next six years they were all too busy, and the initial idea – tension between Jews and Catholics at Passover/Easter – didn’t excite them.

What did – and what motivated them to develop the show seriously ­– was the chance reading of a Los Angeles paper. Bernstein’s recalled his meeting with Laurents on 25 August 1955:

We’re fired again by the ‘Romeo’ notion … we have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two teenage gangs as the warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’

Laurents remembered their meeting too, and explained where the idea had come from: ‘We discussed … juvenile delinquent gangs. They were in the headlines of the morning’s Los Angeles papers: More Mayhem From Chicano gangs. “We could set it out here,” Lenny mused, hearing Latin music.’ For Laurents, it had to be set in New York, with Puerto Ricans rather than Mexicans, but ‘it would have Latin passion, immigrant anger, shared resentment. The potential was there. This could well be a “Romeo” to excite us all. We called Jerry.’

When I was writing my book about West Side Story, the original article intrigued me: a search revealed no such headline, but there was one story in the Los Angeles Times that fit (brought to my attention by Mark Eden Horowitz at the Library of Congress). On 22 August 1955, under the headline ‘Six Jailed in Fight Death’ there was a report about the death of Robert Garcia, leader of a gang in San Bernardino who had died in a fight outside the Johnson Community Hall. For Laurents, Bernstein and Robbins, this was the inspiration for taking up the project again, bringing Sondheim into the team soon afterwards, and getting the show written.

I was recently contacted by Brian Rokos, who wanted to check a few facts about the musical. Brian had looked at the story from a quite different angle and what he had found was fascinating, interviewing several surviving members of the Raiders, now all in their seventies. Brian’s article about their memories of what happened back in 1955 (and their lives now) sheds light – for the first time – on a real event that indirectly changed Broadway history. Here’s what he found.


Nigel Simeone



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