Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination"

When I first came across Something's Coming, Something Good in my local Barnes & Noble, I immediately knew that I had to buy the book. As a theatre junkie and a huge fan of West Side Story, I thought that this book would be a great addition to my library (yes, I do have a musical theatre/theatre subset within my books). After reading the book, I've found that my initial enthusiasm might have been a little premature. Misha Berson offers an interesting and well-written look at West Side Story, but rather than presenting new scholarship or perspective on the show and its creation, the entire book is more as a compilation of previous research and information.

The book examines West Side Story from its origins to its role as a touchstone of American culture. The most engaging chapters come early in the book, as Berson addresses the show's staging, music and lyrics, and choreography. I also appreciated the chapter dedicated to the film version of the musical, which included a list of differences between the movie and the stage show. These chapters are very heavy on the research, but Berson integrates other people's thoughts and ideas in a way that is cohesive and easy to read.

Unfortunately, some of the other chapters suffer by comparison, and several seem like filler added to make the book longer. The most egregious chapters are "The Rise of the Dancer-Choreographer," "Broadway's Youth Musicals," and "West Side Story and the Rise of Juvenile Delinquency." These chapters seem unnecessary and distract from the strong scholarship that Berson brings to the rest of the book. For instance, I'm still scratching my head over the inclusion of the youth musicals chapter. Not only are the included shows unsurprising (Hair, Rent, and Spring Awakening are all mentioned), but the few connections Berson attempts to draw between these shows and West Side Story are obvious at best. These factors, combined with the fact that the chapter is a slight three and a half pages (and one page is a picture), makes me wonder why this chapter wasn't cut altogether. What makes this truly lamentable is that the basic idea (West Side Story's influence on later musicals about teen angst and rebellion) has the potential to be much more interesting than the actual chapter suggests.

Given all of these factors, I do recommend Something's Coming, Something Good, albeit with some reservations. This would be a great resource for someone who has just found the show or for a theatre director who needs to brush up on the show's history and conception. Berson has certainly done her research, and references to previous biographies, books, documentaries, magazine articles, and interviews abound. With all of this information, this book provides a good springboard for those who want to do further research into the show and read the primary sources Berson quotes. There is also a very fun section on references to the show in popular culture, which would be a great way to introduce it to a theatre class.

In short, this book provides a great introduction for people who want to learn more about the show, and it even makes sense as a quick reference guide for those of us who know a great deal about the musical's origins and influence. However, don't be afraid to skip some of the lighter chapters that only have a tangential relationship with the show.


Ελλάδα said...

This is a very good story. I only read the West Side Story part for Freshman English, but it's a good play. I mean, it teaches kids about the harsh realities on the streets. I loved it. It was soo amazing that it only took me an hour to read it.