I saw ‘West Side Story’ a few weeks ago here in Sydney. I first experienced the show, enthralled, from the orchestra pit in the 2000 Edinburgh University Footlights show. At one point in the Sydney production, members of ‘The Sharks’ exit whistling a tune that I recognised as the British national anthem. I thought that this was a satirical reminder of Australia’s colonial heritage, perhaps to get a laugh from the home audience, but that seemed out of place in the play’s New York setting. I felt I was missing a vital part of the joke. Today I finally got it.
I have just finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, ‘Hitch-22′. It’s difficult not to be impressed by his remarkable intellect and riveting ability to recount some of the fascinating journeys he’s undertaken, both physical and idealogical. (He recalls Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement that unless one’s map has Utopia marked on it, it is not worth navigating by. Hitchens declares himself unconvinced of the wisdom of this idea now, having seen some of the shipwrecks and prison islands.)
Hitchens describes himself as unmusical, as opposed to some of his good friends, whose ability to discuss music he finds enviable. His observation that it is those friends who possess this faculty who also compose the finest poetry and fiction is intriguing.
I was delighted, then, to find music dominating the first few pages of Hitchens’ 2006 book on Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’. Doubly satisfying was finding the answer to my West Side Story conundrum, which was of course that the tune I recognised as ‘God Save The Queen’ is taught to every American school child to the words of the hymn ‘My Country, ’tis of thee’.
My Country, ’tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died
Land of the Pilgrims’ pride
From every mountainside –
Let freedom ring!
The disparity between the sentiment of those words and the reality faced by many of those who came in search of liberty is what gives The Sharks’ ironic choice of tune its bite.