West Side Story: The Original Spanish Version

05/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Broadway shows have their own fascinating stories -- and the opening of the current hit revival of West Side Story so close to Easter and Passover is a good reminder of the twists and turns of both theatrical and world history.

Although it's often forgotten now, the initial idea for West Side Story was to update Romeo and Juliet as the story of a Jewish girl and an Italian Catholic boy in the slums of New York City, living out their star-crossed tale against the backdrop of their communities' respective holiday celebrations.

If the play had stuck to this initial premise, critics and audiences might not be musing right now about the show's relevance to data showing Latinos as the second largest racial/ethnic group in New York City -- a fact that the revival takes to heart by adding new songs in Spanish, and by making a focused effort to portray Latinos more authentically.

But then, even so, we might still think about Latinos, since the city's first Jews were in fact Spanish by background. They were desperate Sephardic Jews, still fleeing the reach of the Inquisition in the 17th century (a story that the New-York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio will revisit in 2010, in a joint exhibition titled Nueva York). This Sephardic origin of New York City's Jews might in turn bring to mind what could be called the original Spanish version of West Side Story, pre-dating even Romeo and Juliet: an Easter-Passover tale told by the fourteenth-century Spanish priest, Juan Ruiz, as pogroms spread like wildfire across Spain.

Juan Ruiz's classic Book of Good Love argued that love, whether motivated by lust, friendship or God (and he strenuously advocated all three) could open up unexpected avenues for peaceful coexistence among Catholics and Jews -- and also Muslims, the third religious group in his medieval Spanish world. He composed love songs that got Jews and Muslims dancing. He wrote of seducing (or trying to seduce) women irrespective of their religion. (One of his Muslim women responds to a Catholic suitor in her own language of Arabic, seven centuries before West Side Story's revival put Spanish songs and dialogue in the mouths of Spanish speakers.) And he went into great detail about how Catholics, Jews and Muslims could use cultural or religious differences to a lover's advantage. His best-known story vividly stages an allegorical Lenten "battle of the sexes" in which the Jewish ghetto -- a salient feature of medieval Spanish towns and cities -- becomes a haven for "Sir Carnal" in his argument with "Lady Lent." When it comes time for Carnal to get the better of Lent, it's a rabbi who furnishes the horse.

Here was Juan Ruiz, a priest, re-imagining a place of inter-religious hatred -- the ghetto -- as the safe haven for a Catholic. What image could better underscore his recognition that the Easter-Passover season linked Jews and Catholics inextricably? Not only did the two groups' holidays center on the same meal (Christ's Last Supper/the Passover seder), but the holidays' overlay of springtime themes of rebirth and renewal could also be a pretext for romantic love, seduction, tolerance and understanding. Jerome Robbins must have recognized the same in his original thinking about West Side Story.

The Easter-Passover season is still a good time to convey the message that love really can conquer all, if only given the chance. But there's even more to the story today, though we may easily overlook it. That is that the message uttered by our new president on November 4, 2008, to "young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled" was above all a message of love.

What's more, it's as relevant this month as it was on election night. Let's think about that as we gather around our Easter and Passover tables. And let's do as Juan Ruiz and West Side Story -- in all of its versions -- hoped we would, and give it a chance.