Getting the Schmuck Out of "West Side Story"

One Yiddish word I liked to use quite a bit when I was in my twenties was schmuck, meaning “an obnoxious, contemptible person; one who is stupid, foolish, or detestable.” I did not know until recently that, in some Jewish homes, the word had been “regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo”. The non-religious Jews I knew certainly used it often enough. The word’s derivation comes from the word representing that which beleaguered Congressman Anthony Weiner tweeted recently.

In his book Finishing the Hat, lyricist Stephen Sondheim talks about the evolution of the words to the song GEE, OFFICER KRUPKE from West Side Story.

Initially, they were:

Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schumck.

But the producer of the Broadway cast album told him that the word schmuck would have to be changed. “I confessed that I had no idea the word was obscene. I thought it was simply a vulgarity…, not an obscenity that could prevent the recording from being distributed.”

An hour later, he came up with:

Dear kindly social worker,
They say go make some dough.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means I’ll be a schmo!

Now, schmo is derived from the same root as schmuck but evidently not as charged.

For the movie, he changed it again:

Dear kindly social worker
They tell me get a job
Like be a soda jerker
Which means I’d be a slob

Another lyric change involved the last two words of the song. Sondheim wanted “F@#$ YOU”; interesting how the F-word rhymes with the SCHM-word, and apparently mean about the same. But for the same commercial reasons, this as scrapped in favor of the Leonard Bernstein suggestion of “KRUP YOU!” It conveyed the same message without actually saying it, and Sondheim believes that it “may be the best lyric line in the show.”

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