West Side economics

By Bill Kaye-Blake 02/07/2013

I saw a stage production of West Side Story last night — Samuel Marsden Collegiate is putting it on this week (pdf — poster). I caught some dialogue I’ve missed in the past. The writers knew something about the ambiguity of economics. Here in the first scene, on the streets of New York, the Jets are talking about the troubles caused by the Puerto Ricans (all dialogue sourced here):

ACTION: Them PRs’re the reason my old man’s gone bust.

RIFF: Who says?

ACTION: My old man says.

BABY JOHN [to A-rab]: My old man says his old man woulda gone bust anyway.

Just a few lines capture the economic problems. A man’s business folds — why? Maybe he didn’t run it well, maybe he’s an addict (cf., ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’). That is, maybe it has nothing at all to do with immigration. On the other hand, maybe the neighbourhood is changing and immigration played a role in the bankruptcy. Lots of things go into a business’s success or failure — it’s hard to assign blame to just one of them.

The other thing this dialogue sets up is nicely captured in ‘You’ve got to be carefully taught’ from South Pacific:

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

This idea is mirrored in the dialogue towards the end of West Side Story, in the scene in Doc’s shop when Anita is attacked:

DOC: What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!

ACTION: That’s the way we found it, Doc.

Institutions, such as anti-immigrant sentiment — they shape us, we shape them in return. They help us make sense of an ambiguous economy, to find reason in things like business failure and the death of friends. Clever people, those writers.