Telling the story behind the story behind 'West Side Story'
The story we know: The celebrated musical is an update of "Romeo and Juliet" set among white and Puerto Rican gangs on New York's west side.
The story behind the story known by musical theater aficionados: The show's creators were kick-started into writing the celebrated musical after reading a small Los Angeles Times article about a fight among Latinos gangs on San Bernardino's west side.
The story behind that story: Two young Hispanic men fought outside a dance at a community hall in 1955. One of them died.
On Sunday, the Riverside Press-Enterprise traced that 1955 killing, talking to men who were once part of that gang world. Now in their 70s, they were unaware of the connection between their gang, called the Junior Raiders, and a landmark musical.
“I’ll be darned,” said Freddy “Leo” Luque, 75, who as a teenager held the dying man after a brawl outside Johnson Community Hall.
The connection, said Manuel “Mad Dog” Delgado, “gives me chills.”
For years, the creative team of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents had been struggling with their musical about Catholics and Jews called "East Side Story."
Bernstein biographer Nigel Simeone told the Press-Enterprise "(i)f they hadn’t seen that newspaper story, I’m not even sure [the musical] would have gotten finished. It was more than a turning point. This was a mess that hadn’t been worked on in six years.
"It’s a seemingly insignificant moment that had a colossal impact.”
Here's that Times report that sparked the making of "West Side Story."
-- David Ng
Photo: A scene from the Broadway production of "West Side Story" in 1957. Credit: Thirteen / WNET New York