'It threw off the shackles': How a modern take on Romeo and Juliet paved the way for Hamilton

By Andrew Taylor - The Sydney Morning Herald
March 14, 2019

Six decades is a long time to live with an attention seeker, but Jamie Bernstein has only kind words to say about her younger, showier sibling.

“I was five when it came out so I can barely remember a time in my life when we didn’t have West Side Story around us,” she says. “We love our fourth sibling, but I bet our Dad got impatient with his fourth child because it got so much attention at the expense of all those other children he composed.”

The daughter of the musical's composer Leonard Bernstein, she was too young to watch knife fights and shootings between rival New York City gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, when the musical opened on Broadway in 1957.

Bernstein, whose memoir Famous Father Girl was published last year, had listened to the cast album but she says “the penny didn’t really drop” until she saw the Oscar-winning 1961 movie version of Maria (played by Natalie Wood but sung by Marni Nixon) and Tony’s ill-fated love story.

“When you’re a 10-year-old girl, you’re just so full of romantic fantasies so I was completely immersed in the love story,” Jamie says.

Critics lavished the musical with praise for its innovative choreography, sophisticated music and social commentary.

“The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune.

But it was the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story of young lovers caught in the crossfire of warring gangs that won the attention of Bernstein and her peers.

“Among the kids I knew, the boys liked the fighting and the girls liked the love story,” she says.

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Jamie Bernstein