Mr. Hoffman Goes to Washington

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Warren Hoffman is the author of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical.

Growing up as a kid of a library employee, I spent a lot of time reading and sitting in libraries. The power of books and the written word is something that has stayed with me ever since (even as I recently moved to using a Kindle just this past week). So, it was with much excitement that I got a call a few months ago from the Library of Congress to give a talk around my new book, The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical. To be asked to speak at the nation’s most important and famous library was indeed an honor.

What was particularly rewarding about my visit to the Library on October 10 (which was videotaped and which will be available online in the coming months) is that I conducted part of my research for the book at the Library of Congress, and it was nice to take things full circle. The Library of Congress, as part of its extensive collection, houses an impressive music collection, including the archives of musical theater greats Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Berlin, and Leonard Bernstein. I accessed all of their papers in the writing of my book, and most relevant were the papers of Leonard Bernstein in unearthing the story of the 1957 musical, West Side Story.

Many people think that they know West Side Story, a contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet set in the streets of New York. The show is about two gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, but what most people don’t know is that this isn’t what the show was initially going to be about. The original concept was for a show called East Side Story about Jews and Catholics fighting during the Passover holiday. Several early drafts of this show were penned, and one draft even features a Seder on stage (you can see excerpts from these drafts in my book). The Bernstein archives feature some fascinating material, including letters between Bernstein and his collaborators (book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim) showing the development of this show. Most notable in the collection is Bernstein’s annotated copy of Romeo and Juliet, in which he writes, “an out and out plea for racial tolerance” on the top of the first page, in addition to some song ideas (which never materialized). Also in the collection are a number of unused songs for the show, including “Mix!” and “This Turf is Ours,” songs which really highlight the show’s racial thematics. (Another fact that many folks don’t know is that Bernstein was one of the original lyricists on West Side Story, but actually let Sondheim take full credit for the show.) My book looks at how and why East Side Story became West Side Story, a main reason of which was the shifting racial identity of Jews in the 1940s and 50s from an outsider minority to part of the mainstream white collective.

A healthy audience of about 50 people came out for the talk, which featured video and audio, and many people left thinking quite differently about this beloved art form. My book tour comes to a close for now, but what a bang to go out on!