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Who knows what happens after the curtain goes down? It's up to us

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Just back from the musical: West Side Story. It's late -- quite late by my standards -- but I won't be sleeping anytime soon. Too much on my mind.

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West Side Story, first off, was just a bit different than any musical I had seen before. It was obvious from the beginning, when a gang of boys in blue outfits suddenly appeared on stage -- amongst a background of caged fencing and crudely-written gang signs (which featured the words SHARKS and JETS written repeatedly over each other, as if the turf had changed hands several times) -- and started dancing. They were soon followed by a gang of dark-haired ones in red, and it didn't take me long to figure out the two sides were at odds.

In memory, it's hard to tell which side struck first -- the Puerto-Rican Sharks or the "native" white Jets -- and I guess it doesn't really matter. There was a fight, and considering it was part of a musical, matters actually turned kind of ugly. I was pleasantly surprised.

There were knives brandished, and people being body-slammed, tossed violently over shoulders and slid roughly across the floor. But, while all the gangsters were committing these acts of violence, they were somehow dancing at the same time.

There was a certain choreographic grace to all this brutality. It was like a gang fight with artistic merit.

Intense as the whole play may have been, it's the final scenes that keep playing in my mind, going from start to finish and then back to start again, like a broken record.

If the musical weren't over, I wouldn't give away the ending like this: Tony (a former Jet) is pacing fitfully through the concrete jungle, clearly distraught, after being told by the owner of the local soda fountain that his Puerto Rican lover Maria has been killed. He is screaming out to Maria's assassin, Chino, begging Chino to take him too.

Suddenly, Maria appears on the other side of a chain-link fence, perfectly alive. Tony has been misinformed. That doesn't seem to bother him, though, and he exclaims "Maria!" and starts running towards his lover, who he thought was dead ... when Chino pops out of nowhere and shoots Tony square in the chest. Game over.

There was a sick, twisted irony to this scenario, and I must admit that, in the darkest depths of my soul, the place in my heart where the Devil camps out when he's trying to perform his work on me, I felt a small chuckle. After all, this was a complete reversal of how, only a minute earlier, I had thought things were going to go down.

Yes, I've been thinking a lot about that, how it doesn't take much to change the game entirely -- not too much at all. Fate can have a nasty sense of humor, and we'd all be well served to be on the constant lookout for those little twists. An assassin standing in the shadows can change people's lives forever.

Yes, all that has been weighing heavily on my mind, but so, to an even greater extent, have the very concluding moments of the play: Tony is lying face up on the ground, dead. Maria, in what appears to be a mental breakdown, grabs the pistol that did her lover in and starts pointing it at random people, making no distinction between Sharks and Jets.

"How many people can I kill and still have a bullet left for myself," she screams. But then -- just when I think a massacre is imminent -- her rage passes just as quickly as it came and turns into pure grief, as she drops the gun and breaks down and, sobbing and hugging Tony.

Sharks and Jets are segregated on either side of the body, the two cops stand reverently off to the side, hats off, and of course Maria herself, the center of this whole mess, is kneeling. Maria, a Shark, grabs a Jet by the shirt and pulls him over to her side. Then, even more unthinkably, she grabs Chino, Tony's assassin, and pulls him to her other side.

After a few moments pass, one of the cops grabs the pistol off the floor, stuffs it in his suit pocket, Tony's body is carried away, and everyone begins shuffling off, leaving Maria to grieve in peace. Baby John, a Jet and the last one to leave, pulls a shawl over Maria before walking away himself, just as the stage lights begin to fade into darkness.

Thus, West Side Story ends on a cautiously optimistic note, if that. It's hardly a storybook happy ending. After all, who's to say that the Sharks and Jets didn't go back to their old fighting ways a week later? Tony certainly wasn't the first victim of the ongoing gang war between the Sharks and the Jets. Why would he be the last?

Or maybe they gave peace a chance and found out they liked it. Perhaps the gangsters split up the turf equally and peacefully coexisted, or better yet, abandoned the gang life altogether and made futures for themselves.

No one knows what the Sharks and Jets did after the death of Tony, because West Side Story doesn't tell us. We have plenty of our own West Side Storys in the real world, though, plenty of violence, plenty of wars over turf that didn't belong to anybody in the first place. And ultimately it's up to us to determine how the stories of our time will end.

Nathan Kitzmann is a junior at Detroit Lakes High School.

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