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Don’t Ask, Don’t Ask

Artists, particularly in theater, are still plagued by the slur “Gay Commie Jew.” But how did it come about?

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Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein being photographed during rehearsal for West Side Story, 1957. (Friedman-Abeles/©The New York Public Library)

Robbins had introduced Bernstein to Arthur Laurents, whose short-lived 1945 Broadway play Home of the Brave, dealt with anti-Semitism in an Army unit during World War II and had brought Bernstein to tears. Ultimately, Laurents and Bernstein bowed out of the project, originally called East Side Story, when its familiarity to the sentimental hit of the 1920s, Abie’s Irish Rose, became clear.

By 1955, the project was re-imagined when Bernstein and Laurents, coincidentally out in Hollywood at the same time, were struck by news about gang violence in L.A. between Chicanos and Anglos. Robbins had already urged Bernstein to reconsider the project and now joined them in reworking the story so that ethnic gangs replaced Jewish and Italian families. Stephen Sondheim, who had been nurtured at the right hand of Oscar Hammerstein, was brought in to help write lyrics. Thus was born a landmark in popular musical theater in which tragedy held final sway, operatic elements balanced with a symphonic take on jazz and Latin music, and dance became a way of defining character and underlining themes.

That the Jewish/Catholic motif was dropped so easily by its Jewish creators may seem to us a supreme irony. But then, this was still show business. When Home of the Brave was adapted for a 1949 film produced by Stanley Kramer, the Jewish character was changed to a Negro. “When I asked why,” writes Laurents, “Stanley replied: ‘Jews have been done.’ ”  

Some attribute the success of West Side Story to a shared gay sensibility among its creators; certainly the sexy male dancing of the two gangs would have been a draw to a gay audience. But Laurents himself explained, “We’re Jews. … West Side can be said to be informed by our political and sociological viewpoint; our Jewishness as the source of passion against prejudice; our theatrical vision, our aspiration, but not, I think, by our sexual orientation.” Yet this statement tends to deny that a shared minority sexual orientation could also produce a “passion against prejudice.”

Here, perhaps, was the conspiracy that infected gay Jews in the postwar era: the making of common cause against prejudice of all kinds. But as Charles Kaiser writes of Laurents’ assertion: “[T]his debate simply highlights the similarities between the experiences of Jews and homosexuals in New York City: Two oppressed minority groups who have struggled mightily, and very successfully, to travel out of invisibility and assimilation to proud self-declaration.”

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gwhepner says:

THE TRUE WEST SIDE STORY

Conceivedby men both Jewish and left-wing,

West Side Story disguises love that could not say

its name, for when you hears the lovers sing

you aren’t supposed to know its writers were all gay.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

The same year that Gentleman’s Agreement was released (1947), there was also Crossfire, another film that dealt with antisemitism. Interestingly, it was based on the novel The Brick Foxhole, by Richard Brooks, and originally dealt also with homophobia. The movie dropped this plotline, though, and kept the focus on antisemitism.

2000

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Ask

Artists, particularly in theater, are still plagued by the slur “Gay Commie Jew.” But how did it come about?

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