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February 07, 1993|M.H.

Steve? You still down there?

Yeah. Who's this?

It's me. Lenny. Leonard Bernstein. I hear that Colors United, a multiethnic high school troupe, is performing an original musical called "Watts Side Story," based on the tensions of teen-age life in South Central Los Angeles, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. Donation: $5.

And it got me to thinking. It's been more than 30 years since I wrote the music for "West Side Story" and you, Stephen Sondheim, wrote the lyrics.

A fact few remember.

They remember your words, Steve. Those songs had staying power. But now that I'm dead and gone, I wonder how differently we'd have to write it all today.

Kind of quaint, wasn't it? The Jets and Sharks meeting for a "war council" at Doc's candy store to set the time and place for the rumble. Giving the other gang the choice of weapons, like a couple of jousting knights. Bare fists, knives, pipes, chains--at the worst, zip guns.

What have they got out there now? Uzis? Tactical nukes?


The last time I replayed that movie--well, they used graffiti for the titles, which seemed radical in 1961, but those New York slums looked awfully clean. The kids wore sports jackets and ties to the dance in the church hall. You put in a few drug references--"our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks--"

The "Officer Krupke" song.

Yeah, but nobody on screen even took a toke. We didn't have any scene where a drive-by kid blasted out of his mind on PCP sprays a neighborhood with bullets and kills a 3-year-old.

No box office in that, Lenny.

Not then, anyway. The point is, we thought we were doing raw, jagged, cutting-edge stuff. We thought we were showing the advanced stages of a social disease, when, as it turns out, it was hardly the first sneeze.

We were modern in one respect, though.

How's that, Steve?

We didn't offer any solutions. The store owner, Doc, who tries to understand the kids--in the end, he doesn't understand anything. And the mean, racist cops--who hate both gangs but hope the Anglo kids beat hell out of the Puerto Rican kids--don't get it either. Even though they know the neighborhood and everybody's name. So much for community policing.

And that "Krupke" song--the kids themselves trash every psychological and sociological attempt to explain their behavior.

Modern, maybe. Or just very, very old-fashioned. We were remaking "Romeo and Juliet," remember. Shakespeare had no use for therapists and social workers--just for what he believed were the eternal constants of human nature. Passion and revenge, pity and terror, Maria mourning over Tony's body. Nothing new under the sun.

These kids in Colors United must think they have something new.

That's why I got in touch, Steve. Try to see their show, will you? When you get here, let me know what they came up with.

Hope, I hope.

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