The Greatest Love Story Ever Told

By Lauren Ladoceour

I blame Stephen Sondheim. He meant no harm, I'm sure, but I took his music and all of its theatrics seriously. The famed composer and lyricist, whose work includes the music for Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods, told me to feel pretty, that a miracle was due, and that if I held my true love's hand, someday, somewhere, there'd be a place for us. These are not practical mantras to follow, but at 6-years-old, I expected nothing less of my future love life.

The first time I heard Sondheim's lyrics, I was sitting in front of our wood-framed TV while my mother and her boyfriend made out on the living room couch behind me. Mike had showed up on our front porch an hour earlier with red wine and flowers in one hand to woo my mother—and a copy of West Side Story in the other to keep me quiet. I hated him right away, but I liked the look of Tony on the cover of the video.

The movie, released in 1961, is a screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name. It's an all-too familiar love story—perhaps the world's most famous—based on Romeo and Juliet and the poems and legends that inspired Shakespeare's tale of ill-fated love. In West Side Story's Manhattan version, Sondheim's lyrics bring to life the violent feud between two teenage gangs—the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The tension carries over to a community dance, where the leader of the Sharks' sister, Maria, meets Tony, best friend to the rival Jets. It's love at first sight. Singing, twirling, and love ensue until one of the Sharks shoots Tony in an act of revenge. Maria holds her dying star-crossed lover as he takes his last breaths and sings their song "somehow, someday, some..." It was the most romantic thing I'd ever seen.

I cried, turned around, and saw that my mother and her date were still in a full lip lock. Their legs wrapped around one another, a hand rested on top of a breast, and a long line of drool ran down my mom's chin. It was embarrassing to watch and nothing like Tony and Maria's embrace. Romance happened between two people who were never supposed to meet, then expressed in long dance sequences and midnight ballads on fire escapes, and finally broken up thanks to passionate feuds.

"I, I didn't believe hard enough," Tony says to Maria in his final moments.

"Loving is enough," Maria cries.

"Not here. They won't let us be."

"Then we'll get away."

"Yeah, we can. We will."

Somehow, this made perfect sense to me. What was happening on the sofa behind me was tainted, unreal. But the song and dance coming from the TV was true love, perhaps even destiny.

By the time I hit high school, long after Mike married my mom, I'd gone through several copies of West Side Story, each one worn down by weekly screenings in the den. Eventually, Coen brothers dark comedies and Saturday night dates replaced my rendezvous with Tony and Maria, and I didn't see the film again until I was in my 20s.

I was old enough by then to realize that no one was going to do a pirouette at my front door or call out my name with perfect pitch and open arms. But I still believed in meant-to-be love, which is probably why a few years ago I found myself dragging friends to an old Boston theater on Tremont Street for a one-off screening of West Side Story.

I snagged a center seat in the balcony front row so no one could block my view. This was the ultimate in love stories, I told my friends. They'd seen nothing like it, surely.

The first 30 minutes were much as I remembered: A lot of people spinning in fits of song and dance, and young men fighting in high-water jeans. Then came the moment when boy sees girl and girl sees boy. The music slows, lights dim, and a spotlight hovers over Richard Beymer's (Tony) pockmarks.

Tony: "You're not thinking that I'm someone else?"

Maria: "I know you are not."

Tony: "Or that we've met before?"

Maria: "I know we have not."

Tony: "I felt I knew something never before was going to happen, had to happen. But this is so much more."

Maria: "My hands are cold. Yours too. So warm."

Tony: "So beautiful."

Maria: "Beautiful."

Tony: "So much to believe."

Laughter erupted in the audience, and I sank down in my seat out of embarrassment. Projected onto a wide screen in a theater, my idea of love seemed forged, exaggerated, and cartoonish. Suddenly, all I could see were the film's imperfections, including the wrinkles in the New York skyline backdrop and Natalie Wood's Puerto Rican accent, which often comes out a little Russian. I mean, it's not even her singing up there—the directors had to dub over her voice because she struggled with the high notes.

I couldn't bear to watch any more. I turned around to look away and saw a man a few rows up, near the back of the balcony, reach around his date's waist and pull her into his arms for a long, hard kiss.

© 2010 Lauren Ladoceour