West Side Story
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American Playwright ( 1918 - 2011 ) American Composer ( 1930 - 2011 ) American director ( 1918 - 1998 ) American Conductor (Music) ( 1918 - 1990 )
Other Names Used: Bernstein, Louis (American conductor);
Drama for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 27. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2010. p280-301.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning
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West Side Story

ARTHUR LAURENTS
STEPHEN SONDHEIM
LEONARD BERNSTEIN
JEROME ROBBINS
1957

INTRODUCTION

West Side Story is a well-known groundbreaking Broadway musical based loosely on William Shakespeare's famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The musical is noteworthy for its introduction of the serious themes of youth violence and bigotry into a genre usually noted for its lightheartedness. It also broke new ground through its use of dissonant music and through its extensive use of dance as an integral part of the story.

The original idea for the musical came in 1949 from the choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, who thought of updating the Romeo and Juliet story about the feuding Montagues and Capulets by making it a tale of Jewish-Catholic tensions on New York City's East Side; the original title was going to be East Side Story. Robbins began working with the playwright Arthur Laurents and the composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, but the original idea failed to work. Several years later, in 1954 or 1955, Bernstein and Laurents had the idea of transforming the story into a conflict between teenage gangs, one Puerto Rican and the other "American," set on the West Side of New York City. They invited Stephen Sondheim to write the lyrics, and the new version, now called West Side Story, opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957, and ran for 732 performances to mixed reviews. In 1958, it began a more successful run in London; meanwhile, a recording of the music from the show, released in 1957, became a hit, with several songs becoming popular, including "Tonight," "Maria," "I Feel Pretty,"

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Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein (AP Images)

and "Somewhere." A 1961 film version won ten Academy Awards, including the award for Best Picture.

Although objections have sometimes been raised to the portrayal of Puerto Ricans in the musical and to the use of bigoted language by some of the characters (the language also includes mild profanity and sexual innuendo), and although some have objected to what they see as a glorification of gang violence, West Side Story has long been considered a classic. It returned to Broadway in 1960 and was revived there again in 1964, 1968, 1980, and 2009. It has also been performed around the world by both professional companies and amateur groups.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

All four of the collaborators on West Side Story were born into Jewish families, three of them in New York City (Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts), and three of them in 1918: Laurents on July 14, Bernstein on August 25, Robbins on October 11. Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930. The three older collaborators were involved in liberal or left-wing politics and were investigated for Communist affiliations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the early 1950s. All four of the collaborators were gay or bisexual, and according to Mary E. Williams, in Readings on West Side Story, the collaborators' experience as members of ethnic, political, and sexual minorities influenced the content of West Side Story.

Arthur Laurents worked as a writer for television, the Broadway stage, and film. He became known for writing about social outcasts, beginning his career with a play about anti-Semitism called Home of the Brave (1945). In 1948, he worked on the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rope. After West Side Story, he worked on the musicals Gypsy (1959) and Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), which won a Tony Award for Best Musical. He wrote the screenplays for The Way We Were (1973) and The Turning Point (1977) and was nominated for an Academy Award for the latter. In 2009, he directed a Broadway revival of West Side Story that was notable for its translation of some of the Puerto Ricans' dialogue and songs into Spanish.

Stephen Sondheim had his first career success as the lyricist for West Side Story; he next wrote the lyrics for Gypsy (1959), but he always considered himself a composer as well as a lyricist. His later career saw him win Tony Awards as the composer and lyricist for such musicals as Company (1971), Follies (1972), A Little Night Music (1973), and Sweeney Todd (1979). In 1976, a recording by Judy Collins of his "Send in the Clowns" won the Grammy for Song of the Year. In 1991, he won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Sooner or Later" from the film Dick Tracy. In 2008 he received a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.

Leonard Bernstein pursued a career in both classical and popular music. He became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943 and served as the orchestra's musical director from 1958 until 1969. He also composed classical music, but as a composer he is better known for his work in musical theater; besides West Side Story, he wrote the music for On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953), which received a Tony Award for Best Musical. He also won numerous Grammy Awards for albums of classical music. He died in New York on October 14, 1990, of a heart attack brought on by lung disease.

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Jerome Robbins (born Jerome Rabinowitz) began as a dancer, then became a choreographer and director of Broadway shows. In 1949, he was named associate artistic director of the New York City Ballet. He worked with Bernstein on a ballet called Fancy Free, which later became the musical On the Town (1944). He also did the choreography for The King and I (1953) and Peter Pan (1954). His choreography for West Side Story earned him a Tony Award, one of five he won during his career. He also shared the Academy Award for Best Director for the film version of West Side Story. He died of a stroke in New York on July 29, 1998.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act 1, Scene 1

West Side Story begins with an evening street scene in which two rival gangs, the "American" Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks engage in a dance version of a fight. The Jets are in possession of the area, but the Sharks threaten their control, and the main casualty is a Jet named A-rab, who has his ear pierced or branded by Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.

A policeman's whistle sounds, and two policemen arrive to end the fight, at which point the rival gangs close ranks against the intrusion. Both gangs speak insolently to the police, and the Jets refuse to reveal who injured A-rab; in fact, they say it was probably done by a policeman.

The Sharks and the police leave, and the Jets discuss the situation. One of them makes a bigoted remark about Puerto Ricans, blaming them for his father's bankruptcy, prompting a skeptical response from another Jet, who, however, backs down when challenged. A girl named Anybodys, who wants to join the Jets, shows up, but the Jets do not let her stay; the gang is for males only.

The Jets decide they need to have an all-out fight with the Sharks to establish their territorial rights. Riff, the Jets' leader, says he will speak to the Sharks' leader to arrange things, and he will take his lieutenant, Tony, along. One of the other Jets objects that Tony has been missing for over a month, but Riff says Tony, his longtime friend, will come through for them. This leads to the "Jet Song," in which Riff proclaims that a Jet is a Jet till his dying day. The other Jets finish the song by saying how great it is to be a Jet.

Act 1, Scene 2

In this scene, Riff tries to convince Tony to rejoin the Jets and help out against the Sharks. Tony is initially reluctant, saying he no longer gets a kick out of being a member. He seems more interested in painting a new sign for his boss, Doc, who owns a drugstore. He also talks of looking forward to something, though he cannot say what exactly, and he sings of this anticipation in "Something's Coming." However, Riff does convince him to show up to talk to the Sharks at a neighborhood dance that night.

Act 1, Scene 3

Two Puerto Rican girls, the young and naïve Maria, Bernardo's sister, and the more experienced Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, prepare for the dance. Maria says she is not interested in Chino, the boy Bernardo wants her to marry. She also wants to wear a sexier dress.

Act 1, Scene 4

The two gangs and their girls show up at the dance, still competitive but now in dancing rather than fighting. A well-meaning adult, Glad Hand, tries to organize the teenagers so that Jets and Sharks mingle, but though they pretend to go along, they actually ensure that they remain in their separate groups, still competing with each other.

At this point Tony arrives. He and Maria catch sight of each other and are instantly captivated. They walk toward each other, dance, and then kiss. This annoys Bernardo, who does not want an "American" paying attention to his sister. However, Maria is already lost in love for Tony and does not care what gang or ethnic group he belongs to. Bernardo sends her home with Chino.

Tony calls out to Maria, prompting Bernardo to approach him, but Riff intercepts Bernardo to talk to him about the proposed fight. They agree to talk further at Doc's drugstore. The gangs prepare to go there, but Tony lingers to sing longingly about Maria in the song of that name.

Act 1, Scene 5

Tony enters, still singing about Maria. He sees her at the window of her house above a fire escape, and the two of them express their love in a scene generally said to parallel the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.

Tony wants to spend more time with Maria, but her parents are calling to her to come away Page 283  |  Top of Article from the window. Before she goes back inside, though, the two of them sing "Tonight," in which they celebrate the "miracle" that has brought them together.

Tony and Maria leave the scene as Bernardo, Anita, and other Sharks arrive. Bernardo expresses concern about Maria's interest in an "American," which leads to a discussion of the situation of Puerto Ricans in America, with Anita mocking Bernardo's complaints about discrimination. Bernardo and the male Sharks exit in disgust, and the Shark girls sing "America," in which one Shark girl, Rosalia, praises Puerto Rico. In response, Anita satirically criticizes Puerto Rico, calling it an island of tropical diseases, and she and the other girls instead praise the United States, though their praise contains some ironic criticisms.

Act 1, Scene 6

The Jets arrive first at the "war council" between the gangs at the drugstore at midnight and wait impatiently for the Sharks. Anybodys tries again to be part of the gang, but the boys dismiss her. Doc disapproves of the whole idea of a big fight, but the gang dismisses him, especially when he starts to say "When I was your age…." One of the gang members says he was never their age, and attacks all "creeps" who say things like that or who call them hoodlums, as Doc does.

Some of the other Jet girls arrive, but Riff says they will have to leave when the war council begins. The Jet boys become a little excited and aggressive, and Riff sings a song about cooling it.

The Sharks arrive, and the Jet girls leave, including Anybodys, who does so reluctantly. Riff and Bernardo negotiate the terms of the "rumble" while the gang members exchange racial insults. The main discussion is about weapons. As they start suggesting everything from sticks to bricks, Tony comes in. Although no one has mentioned knives or guns, Tony does, then calls the gang members chicken for wanting to fight at a distance instead of close up. He convinces them to stage a "fair fight," that is, a fistfight between two gang members, one from each side. This is agreed to just as Lieutenant Schrank of the police shows up. The gang members instantly pretend that nothing is going on.

After forcing the Sharks to leave, and making derogatory remarks about them, Schrank makes a long speech to the Jets about how he will help them get rid of their rivals. But the Jets will have none of it, so he gets angry at them and calls them names.

Act 1, Scene 7

At the bridal shop where they both work, Maria asks Anita why the boys fight. Anita says it is just to get rid of their excess feelings. As Anita leaves, Tony shows up, and he tells Maria that they are untouchable now. Maria, however, is worried about the fight, even if it is only a fistfight. She asks Tony to stop it, and he agrees.

Tony and Maria then act out a mock wedding ceremony with the bridal shop dummies and say that even death will not part them now.

Act 1, Scene 8

The Jets, the Sharks, Anita, Maria, and Tony all wait expectantly for night. The two gangs are looking forward to their fight; Anita is looking forward to being with Bernardo afterward; and Maria and Tony are also looking forward to being together. The various groups all sing the song "Tonight" at the same time, but almost at cross purposes.

Act 1, Scene 9

Night has arrived, and the fight is about to take place, but Tony shows up to stop it. However, his intervention merely turns the one-on-one fistfight planned between Bernardo and the Jet named Diesel into a knife fight between Riff and Bernardo. Tony again attempts to stop things, but once again his intervention merely makes things worse: Riff is distracted by him, allowing Bernardo to stab him. As he falls, Tony grabs his knife and stabs Bernardo.

A police whistle sounds; the gangs flee; and Tony is left standing over the dead bodies of Bernardo and Riff, calling out in anguish for Maria. Anybodys then helps him to flee.

Act 2, Scene 1

Unaware of what has happened at the fight, the Shark girls, including Maria, talk about their plans for the rest of the evening. Maria says it is her wedding night, which makes the others think she is crazy. In high spirits, Maria then sings "I Feel Pretty."

Chino comes in with his clothes all torn and dirty. He explains what happened at the fight. Maria is horrified. She calls Chino a liar, then prays, then asks to die.

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Tony comes in through the window. Maria beats his chest in anger, calling him a killer, but they end up embracing and she tells him not to leave her. She says everything around them is the problem, so Tony says they will find someplace where nothing can get to them. This leads to a fantasy sequence in which the walls of the city disappear, giving way to sun and space and air. The gang members in this fantasy cease fighting, and walk together in a friendly procession; meanwhile an offstage voice sings the song "Somewhere."

But the fantasy fades away, replaced by a nightmare re-enactment of the knife fight.

Act 2, Scene 2

Two of the remaining members of the Jets confer about what to do. They are scared by what has happened, but they put on a brave front when Officer Krupke shows up asking questions. They first mock him, then run away.

The two fleeing Jets meet up with the rest of their gang, except Tony, and they all act out a satire against the judicial system, the police, social workers, and psychiatrists for the way they handle so-called juvenile delinquents. This is all part of the song, "Gee, Officer Krupke." They treat us as if we are juvenile delinquents, says one of the Jets, so that is what we give them.

Anybodys appears after the song and tells the boys she has found out that Chino is planning on getting Tony. The gang members this time are grateful to Anybodys and run off to try to find and protect Tony.

Act 2, Scene 3

Tony and Maria are asleep in her bedroom. Anita knocks on the door, and Tony sneaks out, telling Maria to meet him at Doc's.

Anita comes in and, realizing Tony has been there, speaks furiously to Maria, telling her Tony is one of "them," someone who killed her brother and Anita's boyfriend. Maria responds that she loves Tony and must stand by him. This debate takes place as part of the song "A Boy Like That," and by the end of it Maria has convinced Anita that when love is strong, there is no right or wrong.

Anita tells Maria that Chino is after Tony with a gun. Maria seems ready to kill Chino if he harms Tony.

Lieutenant Schrank comes in, wanting to ask Maria questions, but she lies to protect Tony and cleverly sends off a message for Tony via Anita without Schrank's understanding what she is doing.

Act 2, Scene 4

The Jets gather in the drugstore, where Tony is hiding in the cellar with Doc. Anita comes in to give her message, but the Jets insult her and stop her from going down to the cellar. She says she wants to help Tony, but they do not believe her and begin a savage dance around her, stopping only when Doc comes upstairs.

Very upset, Anita passes on a false message, saying that Maria has been killed by Chino.

Act 2, Scene 5

Tony tells Doc how wonderful Maria is and how they are planning to raise a family. Doc at first is angry about the killings, and asks Tony how he can kill. Then he tells Tony that Maria is dead. Distraught, Tony rushes out into the street, calling out for Chino to shoot him.

Act 2, Scene 6

Anybodys tries to get Tony off the street, but he keeps calling out for Chino to come get him and tells Anybodys that this is no longer a game.

Maria emerges, and Tony runs to her, but there is a gunshot and Tony falls. Chino has shot him. Maria takes his hand as if to urge him back to life; he even sings a line with her from the "Somewhere" song, but he falls back, dead.

Maria takes Chino's gun and threatens to kill everybody, saying "We all killed him." But she cannot bring herself to shoot. Instead, she throws the gun away, and as the police and the other adult characters arrive, she gets the Sharks and the Jets to carry Tony's body away in one joint procession, reminiscent of the procession in the fantasy sequence. Maria joins them sadly but triumphantly, leaving the adults behind, "useless."

CHARACTERS

Action

Action, the most aggressive of the Jets, is eager to fight and to take over Tony's role in his absence.

Anita

Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, acts as Maria's confidant, playing a Page 285  |  Top of Article role parallel to that of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Where Maria is the inexperienced newcomer to America, Anita is much more knowing. In particular, while Maria is either puzzled or aghast at the thought of gang fighting, Anita is accepting of it and even presents a quasi-psychological explanation for it, saying the boys need to get rid of their excess feeling; in fact, she almost seems to approve of the fighting, saying that it makes Bernardo more passionate with her afterwards.

Anita is not one to shy away from the realities of life, whether those be the violent fights of the young men around her or the difficulties encountered by Puerto Ricans in America. On the latter subject, she does not share the views of Rosalia, who seems to want to return to Puerto Rico. Nor does she have patience for Bernardo's complaints about discrimination. Her attitude seems to be that one should get on with living one's life; Puerto Rico was no paradise, she says, calling it an island of tropical diseases when Rosalia calls it an island of tropical breezes; and rather than complaining about American treatment of Puerto Ricans, her aim seems to be simply to become American herself. She tells Bernardo that she is an American girl now and thus will not simply obey what he says. She also has no patience for attempts to keep Maria and Tony apart; Bernardo's warnings to Maria, she says, simply put ideas into her head.

At the same time, Anita does not want Maria to wear too sexy a dress, and when Tony ends up killing Bernardo, her first reaction is to retreat to an us-versus-them attitude in relation to the "American" Tony. Similarly, when taunted and attacked by the Jets, she becomes defensive. But free of those extreme situations, her attitude is one of openness to experience.

Anybodys

Anybodys is a tomboy and hanger-on of the Jets who is repeatedly rebuffed in her attempts to join the gang. At the end, she discovers that Chino is out to get Tony, and her warning about this to the Jets helps precipitate the final catastrophe.

A-rab

A-rab, a member of the Jets who takes nothing seriously, pretends to be an airplane in the opening fight and has his ear pierced by Bernardo.

Baby John

Baby John is the youngest of the Jets and the most easily frightened, especially after the deaths in the rumble.

Bernardo

Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, is described in the stage directions as being handsome but with a chip on his shoulder, presumably about the situation of Puerto Ricans in America, about which he complains. He is very protective of his sister, Maria; it is at his urging that Anita will not allow Maria to wear a sexy dress, and he is completely opposed to Maria having anything to do with the "American" Tony. He has arranged for Maria to marry a sweet Puerto Rican boy, Chino.

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise and starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, and Richard Beymer, won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1961, along with ten other Academy Awards. It was produced by the Mirisch Corporation.
  • Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story is a 1985 television documentary showing Bernstein conducting a performance of the musical.
  • West Side Story Symphonic Dances is a set of instrumental versions of the songs from the musical prepared by Bernstein and originally released in 1961.
  • West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast) is the soundtrack to the original production on Broadway, starring Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, and Larry Kert. It was released by Columbia in October 1957.
  • West Side Story Suite is a ballet based on the music from the show, choreographed by Robbins. It premiered with the New York City Ballet in 1995.

Bernardo's role is parallel to that of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt kills Mercutio, Page 286  |  Top of Article Romeo's friend in Shakespeare's play, and is in turn killed by Romeo. In West Side Story Bernardo kills Riff, Tony's friend, and Tony, the musical's Romeo, in turn kills Bernardo.

Chino

Chino, described in the stage directions as shy, gentle, and sweet-faced, is the boy Bernardo has chosen for his sister, Maria, but Maria is not interested in him. His role is parallel to that of Paris, Juliet's unwanted suitor in Romeo and Juliet, except that whereas in Shakespeare's version, Paris is killed by Romeo, in West Side Story it is the other way around. Chino, in revenge for the killing of Bernardo, shoots Tony.

Consuelo

Consuelo is one of the Shark girls. She is described as being a bleached-blond, bangled beauty.

Diesel

Diesel is the member of the Jets designated by Riff to represent them in the "fair fight" against the Sharks, in a one-on-one fistfight with Bernardo.

Doc

Doc, the drugstore owner, and one of the few adult characters in the musical, resembles Friar Laurence, Romeo's advisor in Romeo and Juliet, though his comments tend to be more negative than those of the friar.

Glad Hand

Glad Hand is an adult character who tries to get the gangs to mingle with each other at the dance.

Officer Krupke

Described in the stage directions as a big goon-like cop, Officer Krupke is one of two police officers in the play who continually try to keep the gangs in line and prevent their planned "rumble." After the rumble, when he tries unsuccessfully to interrogate the Jets, they mock him in the song "Gee, Officer Krupke."

Maria

Maria, the Juliet of West Side Story, is described in the stage directions as a very young girl with the strength and awareness of a woman. She has recently arrived from Puerto Rico with her parents and is staying with her brother, Bernardo. Even before she meets Tony, she is hoping to have a wonderful time at the dance; to her it will be the beginning of being a young lady in America. Once she sees Tony, she is as smitten as he is, but she does not indulge quite as much in his optimistic approach to their relationship. When he says they are magic, she notes that there is such a thing as black magic, and she is generally worried about what will happen; she is particularly worried about the planned fight. On the other hand, she is tremendously loyal to Tony, putting her love for him ahead of her association with the Sharks or even her feelings for her brother.

Commentators, such as Scott Miller in his article "An Examination of West Side Story's Plot and Musical Motifs," see Maria as developing at the end, after the tragedy, when she blames everyone, threatens to shoot indiscriminately, but then manages to unify the two gangs, as if transcending violence. Unlike her prototype in Romeo and Juliet, she does not kill herself, even though she becomes quite distraught. Perhaps this is because she is practical and resourceful, something demonstrated in the scene in which she manages to send a message to Tony despite the presence of Lieutenant Schrank. Or perhaps it is that, as the stage directions say, she has the strength of a woman.

The love that strikes Maria makes her feel so buoyant that she sings the exuberant song "I Feel Pretty." Craig Zadan reports that some commentators, including even Stephen Sondheim, the song's creator, have said the song is out of character.

Riff

Riff is the leader of the Jets. The stage directions describe him as glowing, driving, intelligent, and slightly wacky. He also seems like a calming influence on his followers, at least until the big fight. He is good friends with Tony and has been living with Tony's family for four and a half years. He and Tony celebrate their friendship and indicate its enduring nature by using the catchphrases "Womb to tomb" and "Sperm to worm." His main aim is to preserve the territory of the Jets and resist the encroachments of the Sharks, but he does so coolly; he is the one who sings the song "Cool."

His role is parallel to that of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He is the friend of Tony, as Mercutio is the friend of Romeo; both Mercutio and Riff are killed in an encounter arising from the feud going on in their respective plays.

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Rosalia

Rosalia is the somewhat slow-witted Shark girl who sings the praises of Puerto Rico, prompting the mockery of Anita and the other Puerto Rican girls.

Lieutenant Schrank

Schrank, a plainclothes policeman seeking to clean up the neighborhood by putting an end to the gangs' violence, is hard on both gangs, but he is much harder on the Puerto Rican Sharks, making derogatory remarks about them and offering to help the Jets against them.

Snowboy

Snowboy is the Jet who imitates Officer Krupke in "Gee, Officer Krupke."

Tony

Tony, a good-looking, sandy-haired boy, according to the stage directions, works for the druggist, Doc, and is the Romeo of the play. He is a member of the Jets, but he has not taken part in their activities for some time. When the play begins, he is seeking something, but he doesn't know what, and at the dance he finds it in the person of Maria. He falls so much in love with her that he is willing to try to stop the fistfight agreed to by the war council of the two gangs simply because Maria asks him to. Once he falls in love, he becomes dreamily romantic and perhaps naïve, repeatedly telling Maria that they have nothing to fear, that they are untouchable because of their love. However, his revenge killing of Bernardo leads inexorably to the catastrophe at the end.

Unlike Romeo, who has a girlfriend before he meets Juliet, Tony is not in love with anyone else before meeting Maria, but at the end of the play, when he hears that Maria is dead and rushes out to seek his own death, he is like Romeo, who commits suicide when he believes Juliet to be dead.

THEMES

Juvenile Delinquency

Quite unusually for a Broadway musical, West Side Story focuses on serious themes, including juvenile delinquency and gang violence. The song "Gee, Officer Krupke" even includes a mocking survey of various approaches to dealing with the problem, referring to the ideas then current among social workers, psychiatrists, and the courts. In mocking these ideas, the musical may be suggesting either that there are no simple solutions to the problem or that it is not that big a problem in the first place.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Write an essay comparing West Side Story with the more recent novel The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales. Compare the situation of Puerto Ricans in New York as presented in the musical with the situation of Mexican Americans in Texas as presented in the novel.
  • Put together a ten-minute video including dance and singing about some aspect of teenage life today. Topics might include dating and relationships, bullying in schools, substance abuse.
  • Create a PowerPoint presentation that focuses on the situation of Puerto Ricans in New York today. Points to ponder include the number of immigrants, language barriers, lifestyle. To what extent does it differ from the portrayal of their situation in the musical?
  • Organize a classroom debate about the pros and cons of belonging to a gang. Are there any good aspects to belonging? Are there different sorts of gangs? Are some gangs more like nonviolent social clubs than criminal organizations?
  • Complete a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story.
  • Watch one of the youth movies of the 1950s (e.g., Rebel without a Cause or The Wild One) and write an essay that compares the themes in the movie with those in West Side Story.

Coming of Age

Related to the issue of juvenile delinquency is the larger issue of growing up. Maria is looking forward to her first love, and so is Tony. Tony is moving on from the adolescent gang by taking a job at the drugstore, and he looks forward to Page 288  |  Top of Article raising a family. The musical can be seen as a story about life transitions, though in this case a failed transition.

Generation Gap

Another youth-related theme in the play is the generation gap between the young gang members and the adult characters. The only thing that can unite the rival gangs, besides Tony's death at the end, is the meddling of the adults, especially the police. The hostility between the Jets and the Sharks seems almost secondary compared to the disgust the Jets express for Officer Krupke and the whole adult world, even Doc.

Prejudice

Another serious theme in West Side Story is the issue of prejudice, mostly in connection with the Puerto Rican characters. The "American" characters, notably Lieutenant Schrank, but also some of the Jets, make derogatory remarks about Puerto Ricans, who in turn use an ethnic slur about Tony to refer to his Polish origins. The ethnic division between whites and Puerto Ricans deepens the antagonism between the gangs, though it is probably not essential to it, and it helps create a sense of a generally antagonistic, hostile urban environment.

Immigration

Connected to the theme of prejudice is the issue of immigration. The Puerto Rican characters are recent immigrants who are grappling with their new life in America; they have to deal with discrimination and also simply with being in a society that is different, a society more prosperous but also more commercial than the land they came from. Their responses range from nostalgia for Puerto Rico to complaining about discrimination to acceptance of American ways.

Urban Life and the American Dream

West Side Story paints a harsh picture of urban life, focused on alleyways, fire escapes, and tenement buildings, and dominated by gang conflicts. Although the Puerto Rican girls sing the praises of their new country in "America," highlighting the material prosperity usually associated with the American dream, the overall atmosphere of the musical is fairly bleak as a result of the settings and the gang conflict.

Utopian Escape

As a counterpoint to the harsh urban landscape and the gang conflict, Tony and Maria, with the song


Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim (Fred R. Conrad / New York Times Co. / Getty Images)

"Somewhere" playing in the background, imagine a sunny, utopian escape into a fantasy world where the gangs forget their antagonisms and dance together. Maria had been complaining that everything around them was against them, referring to the gang conflict and the deaths that have resulted, and Tony responds by saying they should find somewhere else to be. The suggestion is that only in some fantasy world can their problems be solved.

Love

Like its Shakespearean model, West Side Story is, at least in part, a love story, a portrayal of pure, ideal love. Three of the best-known songs from the musical, "Maria," "Tonight," and "R Feel Pretty," express the ecstasy of young, new love, but even more so than in Romeo and Juliet, the love plays out against a grim background that makes it seem doomed from the start.

Gender Roles

A secondary theme in the musical focuses on Anybodys, the girl who wants to join the Jets. Page 289  |  Top of Article The boys in the gang reject her because she is a girl; the message is that gangs are for boys only.

STYLE

Setting

The place in which the musical is set, the alleys and tenements of New York, helps create its ominous atmosphere, as does the time of day: every scene takes place in the evening or at night, in darkness or as darkness falls. Two major scenes take place at midnight. The sun appears only in the fantasy scene about escaping from the city.

Slang

Arthur Laurents invented such slang words for the musical as "kiddando" and "frabbajabba" to create a sense of a different youth world separate from the adults. The different ways the adults and the adolescents talk is underlined in the scene in which one of the Jets tells Doc he needs to "get hip to" how different the young people are from him if he wants to "dig" them, to which Doc replies by saying he will "dig" their early graves. Doc is deliberately punning, but the effect is still to stress the different language and different sensibility as between youth and age.

Dance and Song

West Side Story is known for its extended dance numbers, which are melded into the story rather than standing apart. Similarly, its songs are notable for being extensions of the action rather than set pieces. It is also notable that the songs and dances are restricted to the adolescent characters, being another way, in addition to their language, in which they are distinguished from the adult characters. That the action, including the fighting, is done in a choreographed, balletic way suggests as well that there is something gamelike about it. Several commentators also note that the dancing compensates for the inarticulateness of the characters.

Dramatic Irony

The second act of the musical begins with an extended scene of dramatic irony, in which the audience knows something the characters do not. In this scene, Maria, supported by her friends, sings ecstatically about her new love in "I Feel Pretty." What none of them knows is that Maria's new lover has just killed her brother, setting events on a course for an even greater disaster. Since the audience does know this, the scene has an ominous, horrifying edge to it, perhaps indicating the hopelessness of the sort of ideal love Maria is singing about.

Satire

Although most of West Side Story is serious and tragic, it does have two notable moments of satire, first when the Puerto Rican girls sing "America," in which they mock idealized views of both Puerto Rico and America in a way that brings out the nature of the immigrant experience; that is, they are mostly happy to have left Puerto Rico, but they are not entirely satisfied in their new country. The second satirical song is "Gee, Officer Krupke," in which the Jets mock adult views of juvenile delinquency, bringing out one of the major themes of the musical.

Figures of Speech and Imagery

West Side Story is not primarily metaphorical, and the odd thing about its occasional use of metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech, along with its imagery, is that they tend to undercut the ostensible message of the scenes they appear in. As Wilfrid Mellers notes, Tony's song, "Something's Coming," though ostensibly a positive anticipation of something good, talks of something "cannonballin'" at him, suggesting the dangers that lie ahead. Similarly, the metonymy used by Tony and Riff to express their enduring friendship, the phrases "Womb to tomb" and "Sperm to Worm," in which words associated with birth and death stand in for them, seems darker than the characters intend because of the death associations; this figurative claim by Riff and Tony also seems clearly wrong because they have known each other only four and a half years, not since birth or before. Tony also seems wrong when he figuratively claims that he and Maria are "out of this world," as if they are safe from tragedy. Even the delicate imagery of the song "Tonight" seems somehow wrong. How can the nighttime world of Tony and Maria be "full of light" or have "suns and moons all over the place"? And if their world has become a star, as they claim in the song, how can they live in it?

Shakespearean Parallels and Contrasts

West Side Story is known to be based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, following most of its Page 290  |  Top of Article main outlines. In both stories, young lovers are divided by a feud, a family feud in Shakespeare's version, gang conflict in West Side Story. In both stories, the conflicts lead to deaths, and in Romeo and Juliet both lovers die. One of the major differences in the two stories is that Maria, the Juliet figure in West Side Story, survives and is able to lead a reconciliation between the gangs, something Keith Garebian, in his The Making of West Side Story, finds unconvincing. Another difference, following on from the updating of Shakespeare's story, is the introduction of social themes, most notably concerning prejudice and immigration. Some Shakespearean elements are present in modernized form, for instance the famous balcony scene, which here becomes a love song on a fire escape. One other major difference is that whereas in Romeo and Juliet the feud encompasses family elders as well as youths, in West Side Story the gang conflict solely involves adolescents, another way in which the musical sets its young people apart from adults.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Juvenile Delinquency

Juvenile delinquency and gang violence predate the 1950s, but in that decade there was an increasing concern with the problem, typified by a number of films, including Rebel without a Cause, starring James Dean as an insolent youth; The Wild One, a motorcycle gang movie starring Marlon Brando; and Blackboard Jungle, about adults cowed by rebellious high school students. Actual youth violence did also seem to be on the rise, or at least was being reported on more. According to James S. Olson, in his Historical Dictionary of the 1950s, the FBI reported in the early 1950s that youths under eighteen were committing approximately half of all car thefts and burglaries and, as reported by Keith Garebian in The Making of West Side Story, the inspiration for West Side Story with its gang warfare theme was a headline in the Los Angeles Times about Hispanic gang wars, which Bernstein and Laurents saw while they were meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Puerto Rican Immigration

Puerto Rican immigration to the United States, predominantly to New York City, began in the nineteenth century. After the island became an American territory at the beginning of the twentieth century and still more after Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, immigration increased. But the biggest wave of immigration took place after World War II, especially in the 1950s, when large numbers of Puerto Ricans arrived as the result of the dislocation caused by the Puerto Rican government's industrialization project known as Operation Bootstrap. Once in New York, the Puerto Ricans, who had come in search of jobs and a better life, suffered from discrimination in employment, housing, and services.

HUAC and the Cold War

After World War II, and perhaps most especially in the 1950s, American life became dominated by the Cold War with the Soviet Union, including a nuclear arms race and threatened conflicts over the situations in Berlin and Hungary. At home, fear of Communism and the Soviet Union led to investigations of suspected radicals, who were asked to name fellow radicals before such bodies as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Three of the creators of West Side Story were investigated during this period, and one of them (Robbins) named names. The worries of the Jets over what weapons the Sharks might have may reflect American concerns over Soviet weaponry, and to Lily Phillips, in her article "Blue Jeans, Black Leather Jackets, and a Sneer," the focus on juvenile delinquency, the fear of teenage gangs, found in so many artistic works of the 1950s, may itself reflect the paranoia of the Cold War.

Teenagers

Although there have always been young people, the concept of the teenager was an invention of the 1940s in America, when adolescents were singled out as a potential market for consumer goods. The spread of high school education meant that instead of entering the labor market, teenagers became a group in waiting and the teen years became a time described by Thomas Hine in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager as "a period of preparation and self-definition, a period of indulgence and unfocused energy." In the 1950s, in addition to being looked to as potential consumers, some teenagers were looked on as dangers to society, as rebels against convention with their new rock- and-roll music, or even as juvenile delinquents.

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CRITICAL OVERVIEW

In September 1957, after receiving good reviews in Washington, D.C., and lukewarm ones in Philadelphia, West Side Story opened to mixed reviews in New York City. Henry Hewes, in his review "West Side Story Brilliantly Expresses the Character of Teenage Gangs," praises it for its realistic portrayal of gangs and says it is "the best treatment of the juvenile-delinquency problem in our theatre to date." But it was criticized by Wolcott Gibbs, in his review "The Plot of West Side Story Is Implausible," for a lack of "real emotional content." Some said it presented a stereotyped view of Puerto Ricans, while others praised its sympathetic portrayal of minorities. Some were shocked to see gang violence on stage; in fact, the musical had problems finding financial backers because potential supporters found it too violent and angry.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1957: Massive Puerto Rican immigration to New York City is underway. The arriving immigrants face poverty and discrimination.

    Today: The Puerto Rican population in New York has declined, with some of those who are better off having left for the suburbs. Some of those remaining still suffer from poverty, but discrimination has at least officially disappeared; the 2009 Puerto Rican Parade in New York drew hundreds of thousands of attendees; and in 2009 a Puerto Rican New Yorker, Sonia Sotomayor, is nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • 1957: Youth gangs become enough of an issue that there are movies made about juvenile delinquents, and newspaper headlines feature gang violence.

    Today: There is disagreement over whether the gang situation is worse or just reported on more. Drug wars and violence are common among the various ethnic gangs.

  • 1957: Gender roles are fairly strictly observed, and girls who want to join boys and their gangs are rebuffed as tomboys.

    Today: Although gangs remain largely male, with the general loosening of gender roles, there is an increasing number of girls in gangs. Though female crime remains largely nonviolent, there are instances of female assaults and even murder.

  • 1957: At the height of the Cold War, fear of Communism swept the United States, leading to blacklisting of entertainers and harassment of those suspected of having radical associations.

    Today: With the Cold War over, the fear of Communism is a thing of the past, but the 9/11 attack and the war in Iraq have led to new fears that in some cases have led to the curtailing of civil liberties. One notable example of a sort of blacklisting was the cancellation of a television show after its host, Bill Maher, made controversial remarks about the 9/11 attack; but there was no widespread blacklisting as in the 1950s.

In later years, however, the idea of a musical tragedy won high praise. Perhaps the turning point was the run in London, where Kenneth Tynan, as quoted in Keith Garebian's The Making of West Side Story, praised it for being a "rampaging ballet." Another British reviewer cited by Garebian compared it to Georges Bizet's much admired opera Carmen. Much later it would be compared, by Wilfrid Mellers, in his article "The Narrative and Thematic Significance of Music in West Side Story," to George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. And it won praise from Denny Martin Flinn in his article "The Significance of Dance and Song in West Side Story," for "pushing the envelope of American musical theatre" by introducing a tragic

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Rita Moreno as Anita

Rita Moreno as Anita in the 1961 film version of West Side Story (AP Images)

story and also by integrating the dancing so much into the story.

Another turning point may have been the release of the cast recording (1957) or of the Academy Award-winning film (1967). Eventually, it became so revered that some critics began to say it was superior to its source material, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, because it included a social dimension (about prejudice) missing from Shakespeare and because it provided better motivation (also connected to prejudice) for some of the events of the story rather than relying on chance as Shakespeare had.

By the end of the twentieth century, West Side Story was being treated like a classic and was widely performed in the theaters and in schools, but it could still stir up controversy. For instance, in the 1990s it was banned in one high school because of its portrayal of Puerto Ricans and its supposed glorification of gangs. But in general it remained in favor, with revivals on Broadway in 1960, 1968, 1980, and 2009, and two books devoted entirely to it. Keith Garebian, the author of one of those books, The Making of West Side Story, calls it "a landmark musical." Mary Williams, the editor of the other book, Readings on West Side Story, says that West Side Story was ahead of its time, but came to be "quite influential," setting "a bold new standard for American musicals."

CRITICISM

Sheldon Goldfarb

Goldfarb is a specialist in Victorian literature who has published two academic books on William Makepeace Thackeray as well as a novel for young adults set in Victorian times. In this essay, he explores the conflict between youth and age in West Side Story.

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In transforming William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the creators of West Side Story chose to set it in the midst of gang conflict and to introduce the issues of prejudice and immigration. In doing so, it is generally accepted that they added a social dimension to a love story, even if at least one critic (Stanley Kauffmann, in his article "An Exceptional Yet Disappointing Film Musical") finds the social commentary in it, or at least in the film version of it, "facile." Mary E. Williams, in her essay "West Side Story and Its Creators," declares that in West Side Story "the disastrous fate of [the] principal characters is a result of hatred and prejudice—society itself possesses the tragic flaw." The most extreme version of this view can be found in Scott Miller's article "An Examination of West Side Story's Plot and Musical Motifs," in which he says: "Everything in West Side Story happens as a result of racial prejudice." In addition to the love story from Romeo and Juliet, and the overt social commentary inserted by Laurents, there is yet another level to the story in its modernized form. One can see it as a thwarted coming-of-age story.

Though Miller's claim seems extravagant, he can point to the views of one of the show's creators, Arthur Laurents, who was the one chiefly responsible for the details of the plot. Laurents, as reported by Garebian, described the theme of West Side Story as "young love destroyed by a violent world of prejudice." Elsewhere, in his book Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood, he spoke of the "world of violence and prejudice" in West Side Story, adding that when he came to write it, he "had more than enough anger at prejudice to fuel and fire the musical."

Within the musical itself, there is plenty of evidence of the social dimension Laurents said he wanted to introduce. Both the police and the Jets make derogatory remarks about Puerto Ricans, Bernardo complains about discrimination, and the reason Anita fails to deliver an accurate message to Tony at the end has much to do with the taunts and racial epithets hurled her way by the other Jets.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • For an account of a production of West Side Story in which one of the gangs was played by deaf students, see Deaf Side Story by Mark Rigney (2003).
  • For a study of the portrayal of immigrants in American popular culture, including a chapter on West Side Story, see Immigration and American Popular Culture: An Introduction by Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Paul Melnick (2006).
  • For a study of the Jewish immigrant experience in America, the experience of the families of the four creators of West Side Story, see Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers (1976).
  • For a coming-of-age novel written by a teenage girl, see S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, published in 1967, about two rival groups of characters from broken homes.
  • For a gritty account of gang life, read Inside the Crips: Life inside L.A.'s Most Notorious Gang by Colton Simpson, with Ann Pearlman (2005).
  • For a classic novel about gang warfare in a futuristic setting, read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962).

Following on this notion of prejudice as central to the musical is the sense that the tragedy is inevitable. Given the nature of society, given the prejudice and hatred, Tony and Maria's love is doomed. As Garebian puts it, they live "in the wrong time and in the wrong Page 294  |  Top of Article place"; he emphasizes the inevitability of it all by speaking of "conditioned responses and provocations." Or, as Miller says, "Here was a musical with the unheard of message that love not only will not triumph over all, but cannot."

The lovers themselves share this view. "… it's not us!" says Maria. "It's everything around us." Tony later says, "They won't let us be." And the Jets and Doc argue about whether the gangs make the world "lousy" or whether it was that way before, leaving the audience with a choice between blaming the youth gangs and blaming adult society.

But what if the whole question is being posed the wrong way? What if the problem is not to find out who made the world lousy, but to stop and ask if the world is really as lousy as is being suggested. One might, of course, look at the gangs with their "rumbles" and their knives and guns, and say, Of course, the world is lousy, and it is because of the gangs. One might look at the tenements, the darkness, the discrimination, and say society is to blame.

Now, it is certainly true that the gangs end up using guns and knives, but it may be interesting to see how in the musical they end up doing so. And though the landscape of the musical is certainly bleak, the young lovers at first seem able to transcend it. What, then, goes wrong?

The answer may perhaps be found by looking more closely at the differences between West Side Story and its Shakespearean original, especially the differences between Romeo and Tony.

Romeo and Juliet ends tragically too, of course. The blame may be Fate's, or it may be Romeo's. Romeo certainly acts rashly at times, rushing eventually to his death when he falsely believes Juliet to be dead, somewhat as Tony rushes to his death at the end. However, there are some key differences between Romeo and Tony.

At the beginning of West Side Story, Tony is already halfway out of the gang. He has been absent for a month or more and has taken a job for Doc at the drugstore. Romeo, like Tony, misses the first fight of the story, but he is not absent because he is trying to leave the Montagues or because he is tired of feuding. Nor has he got a new job. It seems almost silly to say that, but it raises an important point. By shifting the story to twentieth-century America, the creators of West Side Story introduced a very specific social situation. In Shakespeare's version of the story, in contrast, Romeo hardly seems situated at all; he is more a depiction of love incarnate, mad passionate love that burns itself out through premature death.

Tony is not like that. Tony is an American teenager who is growing up. As one of the Jets says in "Gee, Officer Krupke" about an imaginary youth, "The trouble is he's growing." Or as another gang member says, "The trouble is he's grown!" Tony is growing up, leaving the phase of gangs behind him, taking a job, and also searching for something else, as he says in "Something's Coming," though he is at first unsure what that something might be.

When he meets Maria at the dance, Tony becomes certain about what it is he has been searching for. It is Maria, or love, or marriage, or even a family with children. As he tells Doc near the end, "Doc, you know what we're going to do in the country, Maria and me? We're going to have kids and we'll name them all after you…."

This is an interesting difference: Romeo's plans do not extend beyond marrying Juliet and evading the consequences of his banishment for killing Tybalt. For Romeo, everything is focused on the romance itself and the obstacles that must be overcome to consummate it. Tony, in contrast, is looking farther ahead, looking toward the sort of respectable middle-class family that was the 1950s ideal.

In addition to the love story from Romeo and Juliet, and the overt social commentary inserted by Laurents, there is yet another level to the story in its modernized form. One can see it as a thwarted coming-of-age story, with Tony moving from teenage gang member into respectable family man.

The question is, Why is it thwarted? And here the answer may require a re-examination of the lovers' claims at the end of West Side Story. Maybe Maria is exactly wrong when she says "… it's not us! It's everything around us." Maybe it is Maria and Tony who are to blame.

It seems perfectly natural for Tony to progress from gang member to drugstore employee and serious lover of Maria and, eventually, a family man. What seems less natural is his attempt in the play to go back to his old gang to try and stop them from carrying out their normal gang activities, that is, fighting. And why does he do this? He does it because of Page 295  |  Top of Article Maria, who is horrified at the very notion of fighting and wants Tony to prevent even a fistfight.

Now, the interesting thing is that it was Tony who convinced the gangs to conduct a fistfight rather than use more dangerous weapons. In doing so, Tony is perhaps adopting something of a parental role, and channeling the energies of the Jets and Sharks into a fairly innocuous fistfight seems like a good thing.

Even at that stage, though, Tony has almost become too much the adult, a bit like cantankerous Doc. He arrives on the scene while the gangs are discussing weapons and immediately exaggerates the dangers of the proposed fight. The gangs have been suggesting using bats or clubs or bricks, but when Tony arrives, he starts talking as if they had been planning to use guns or knives. Having set up that phony extreme, invented by himself, he then proposes a more moderate alternative. It is a reasonable alternative, and yet he somehow seems to have manipulated the gangs into it by distorting what they were originally proposing, like some sort of meddling outsider. Tony by this time—indeed, from the very beginning of the play—is no longer a true gang member or adolescent but is approaching events from a different perspective.

This perspective might be characterized as an adult perspective, as something more mature than an adolescent perspective, but it does seem almost out of place in the "war council" between two teenage gangs. Still, the result—an innocuous fistfight—seems positive.

But then Tony intervenes again, at Maria's urging, to stop even the fistfight. The result of that is catastrophe. His attempt leads to a fight with knives between Riff and Bernardo, and when he tries to stop that, he merely distracts Riff enough to let Bernardo kill him, after which Tony kills Bernardo.

It is a disaster, and it clearly seems to be caused by the quasi-adult Tony trying to stop the fight, trying to stop a fairly harmless and natural expression of youthful energies. Anita has a quite different attitude to such a fight than does Tony or Maria. Maria, angry about the fighting, asks the reason for it, and Anita says: "You saw how they dance: like they have to get rid of something, quick. That's how they fight." Anita respects the imperatives of youth, especially the urges that motivate young males. She even celebrates these, for the energies expressed in a fight, in her view, carry over afterward, so she expects Bernardo to be very "healthy" after the rumble when he joins her.

But Maria, expressing perhaps the horror of a child, or perhaps that of a wife-to-be, will have none of this. The fight must be stopped, even if it is only a fistfight. But if we accept Anita's analysis of young males, Maria's view may be a terrible mistake. To suppress natural energies, to drive them underground, to try and prevent a fairly innocuous fight, may be to cause those energies to erupt in a much less innocuous form, which is exactly what happens. The attempt to suppress a fistfight leads to something much worse, something much more deadly, than a fistfight.

Thus it may not be mad passion, as in Romeo and Juliet, that causes the tragedy. It also may not be primarily prejudice and ethnic hatred that are to blame. The blame may be linked to an attempt to suppress the natural energies of youth, an attempt carried out by someone (Tony) moving out of the youth phase and into the adult phase of life.

What may be lurking beneath the love story and the social document, in other words, may be another story about the conflict between teenagers and adults. In this context, the comic song "Gee, Officer Krupke," which some see as out of place in a tragic story like this one, seems to fit in perfectly. In the Officer Krupke song, the Jets mock a whole range of adult approaches to the supposed problem of juvenile delinquency. Judges, social workers, policemen, and psychiatrists all get their comeuppance, and at the end one is left thinking, What fools these adults are, meddling with youths who, after all, at the beginning of the play seem relatively harmless.

At the beginning of West Side Story, the Jets seem almost like innocent little boys. They want to hang a sign saying "Visitors forbidden" and they will have none of the girl Anybodys joining them. It is like boys in a clubhouse saying "No Girls Allowed." Even in the first fight, A-rab goes zooming around like a make-believe airplane, like a boy playing a game. It is true, he then gets cut by the Sharks, but it still seems like kid stuff—so much so that when the police ask about it, the Jets clam up entirely. In general, though the police try to work with the Jets against the Sharks, the Jets repeatedly refuse. It is as if the true enemy is not the Sharks, not the Puerto Ricans—though, granted, the Jets do make some conventional derogatory remarks about Puerto Ricans. The true enemy is the Page 296  |  Top of Article police force and, by extension, all adults: those social workers and psychiatrists who think they can "cure" the teenagers of their supposed problems.

But what if the teenagers have no real problem, except the problem that adults keep meddling with them? What if the Jets and Sharks were allowed to do as they please, engaging in a few rumbles and a fistfight? Perhaps they would never have progressed to serious weapons and deaths. Certainly, some of the Jets seem quite uneasy at the prospect of serious weapons. Tony's notion that the Jets are eager to use guns and knives seems quite wrong. When Baby John hears talk about zip guns, his response is the nervous one of "Zip guns … Gee!" And when Snowboy says, "But if they say knives or guns," Baby John comments: "I say let's forget the whole thing."

Riff the leader does say he will get a switchblade if it is required, but it is significant that he would have to "get" it. It is not something he already has. Meanwhile, with the war council looming, Snowboy goes off to the movies, and when talk turns once more to weapons A-rab says nervously that he hopes it will not be more than rubber hoses.

Near the very end of the play, after two killings and the false rumor about Maria's death, Tony calls out: "It's not playing any more!" He is quite distraught over Maria and is looking for death, but it is interesting that he suggests that at one time it was playing. At the beginning of the story it was playing. In the "Jet Song," what the Jets look forward to is being the "top cat in town, … the gold-medal kid / With the heavyweight crown." They are imagining themselves in a boxing match and winning a medal.

It is as if the Jets and the Sharks are preparing for some sort of athletic contest, a football game perhaps, and the adults around them refuse to let it go on. The adults do not simply try to put limits on the game; they try to suppress it entirely, and that way lies disaster.

The underlying message of West Side Story, therefore, is not so much that prejudice and hatred are bad, though they are, nor that true love is doomed because it must exist in a violent, hostile world, but that boys should be allowed to be boys, that teenagers should be allowed to have their "rumbles," and that if only adults stayed out of the way, things would have a chance to work out.


Carolann M. Sanita as Maria and Ryan Silverman as Tony

Carolann M. Sanita as Maria and Ryan Silverman as Tony in a 2004 production of West Side Story at the German Opera in Berlin (AP Images)

Source: Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on West Side Story, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.

Christopher Morley

In the following review, Morley notes the reactions to West Side Story productions, then and now.

Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story hit the world stage in New York's Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957. Its impact was astonishing.

With audiences brought up on the cosy, chocolate-box happy-ever-after operetta and musical—even the brutal Carousel ends with a redemption in Heaven—the show hit hard in its depiction of inner-city gang warfare and racial tension.

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Though it ends in reconciliation between rival tribes, we remain wondering how fragile this truce is. And, of course, its subject-matter remains painfully relevant today.

Its Romeo and Juliet story-line had occurred to the choreographer Jerome Robbins as far back as 1949, when he conceived an East Side Story depicting a love-story between members of the Catholic and Jewish faiths in an America where anti-Semitic feelings were running high.

But tensions between young Los Angeleans and Mexican immigrants during the early 1950s sparked the idea of Latin-American dance-rhythms in Bernstein's mind and the action was shifted to New York with its element of proud, sassy Puerto Ricans among its population. Amazingly and brilliantly, Robbins kept the casts of the rival Jets and Sharks gangs apart during rehearsals for the show's opening run, raising the simmering rivalry to boiling-point by the time they met onstage.

The Shakespearean background to the subject-matter has become almost a cliche', as expressed in John Godber's hilarious play Teechers, written for Hull Truck Theatre Company in 1987:

NIXON (drama teacher): I think it would be a very good thing for us to start with a very important person in the world of drama. Mr William Shakespeare. And in particular a play that you've probably seen but don't realize it. Romeo and Juliet.

(GAIL and HOBBY groan.) Which is a tragedy.

GAIL: And it's the basis for West Side Story, and it's about neighbours arguing.

HOBBY: We've done it….

But never mind such dismissiveness, West Side Story remains one of the most important works ever written for the stage. It opened the doors for musicals which dealt with the most serious of subjects, from the Passion of Jesus Christ to the Vietnam War, from the French Revolution to the Cold War.

And to achieve this stature it needed a composer of the utmost integrity and versatility, one who could turn his hand to a variety of styles but who could also boast intimate involvement with the greatest examples of "classical music".

That man was Leonard Bernstein, already an acclaimed composer of symphonic music and a world-renowned orchestral and operatic conductor (he had conducted the American premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes at Tanglewood in 1946 and the world premiere of Messiaen's immense Turangalila-Symphonie in Boston in 1948). He later became music director of the famous New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a successor down the line to the mighty Gustav Mahler who had held the position in the early 1900s.

On the most unforgettable evening of my life, one August night in 1968, I stood backstage in the wings at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice to hear and watch Bernstein conducting his NYPO in Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

Afterwards, in such a gracious and kind meeting, Bernstein told me how, had he been born 50 years earlier, he was sure he would have composed a work in exactly the same vein (Mahler and he were both composer-conductors, both Jewish, both exiles from their homeland).

So Bernstein's musical pedigree was immaculate, and it certainly shows in West Side Story with ensembles of operatic vibrancy, such as "A Boy Like That" and the wonderful Balcony Scene in which Tony and Maria express their new young love across the racial divide.

Later on in the action, the "Tonight" which they have sung to each other becomes the core of an amazing five-part ensemble in which different characters express vastly differing emotions, as brilliantly built as any of the great setpieces by Mozart or Verdi.

Bernstein uses his "classical" experience in such subtle ways, one example being the fugue he introduces into "Cool," the musical material here derived from Beethoven's awesome "Grosse Fuge." Godber's Mr Nixon might well have told his unruly pupils that they'd been listening to late-period Beethoven without realising it.

But there are several kinds of "American" music in the score, too, with the many famous examples of various Latin-American dance rhythms, the ballet sequence depicting a "Somewhere" as wide-eyed and innocent as Copland's "Appalachian Spring," and the uproarious vaudeville of "Gee, Officer Krupke" with its brazenly witty lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Bernstein and Sondheim were present for the European premiere of West Side Story at the Manchester Opera House in December 1958. As was Bert Hackett, until recently the Page 298  |  Top of Article much-loved cartoonist Gemini on the Birmingham Post, and at that time working for the Manchester Evening News.

"In those days I used to read Time and Life magazines, to keep up with what was happening in America," he remembers.

"The show got rave reviews, so when I learned it was coming to Manchester, I booked up for it.

"I was really excited about it, and found it electrifying. It was a grand gala occasion, and both Lenny Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were there.

"The reaction of the audience was interesting.

"There were a lot of elderly bluerinse women, who at first expressed disappointment, and then anger. They'd been expecting to see something along the lines of The Sound of Music, the traditional American musical coming over to England, which had been a big success.

"But the younger elements in the audience were so excited and so moved by the energy and relevance of the show." Just a little postscript. Before I was appointed classical music correspondent of the Birmingham Post on April Fool's Day 1988, I used to do a lot of conducting. I was persuaded out of retirement in 1992 to wield the baton in a week-long run of West Side Story at Dudley Castle.

It rained every night. To protect the instruments, they put the orchestra into a dungeon with banks of closed-circuit television screens, with a camera upon me; I insisted upon staying in full contact with the stage, protected by a little tented kiosk like an ice-cream-seller's.

The dancers risked their limbs on that rain-sodden staging, the audience shivered in their cagoules. But Lenny, I'm sure, was up there, blessing and smiling, and I felt I was paying him back for that magical evening 24 years earlier.

Source: Christopher Morley, "Classic That's Still Ready to Rumble," in Birmingham Post, April 15, 2009, p. 18.

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SOURCES

Flinn, Denny Martin, "The Significance of Dance and Song in West Side Story," in Readings on West Side Story, edited by Mary E. Williams, Greenhaven Press, 2001, pp. 64-65.

Garebian, Keith, The Making of West Side Story, ECW Press, 1995, pp. 9, 35, 39-40, 71, 75-76, 79-80, 140.

Gibbs, Wolcott, "The Plot of West Side Story Is Implausible," in Readings on West Side Story, edited by Mary E. Williams, Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 115.

Hewes, Henry, "West Side Story Brilliantly Expresses the Character of Teenage Gangs," in Readings on West Side Story, edited by Mary E. Williams, Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 120.

Hine, Thomas, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Harper Perennial, 2000, http://www.thomashine.com/the_rise_and_fall_of_the_american_teenager_3432.htm (accessed August 25, 2009).

Kauffmann, Stanley, "An Exceptional Yet Disappointing Film Musical," in Readings on West Side Story, edited by Mary E. Williams, Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 126.

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Laurents, Arthur, Original Story by Arthur Laurents: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood, Knopf, 2000, p. 349.

———, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story: A Musical, new ed., Heinemann, 1972.

Mellers, Wilfrid, "The Narrative and Thematic Significance of Music in West Side Story," in Readings on West Side Story, edited by Mary E. Williams, Greenhaven Press, 2001, pp. 67, 70.

Miller, Scott, "An Examination of West Side Story's Plot and Musical Motifs," in Readings on West Side Story, edited by Mary E. Williams, Greenhaven Press, 2001, pp. 78, 81.

Olson, James S., Historical Dictionary of the 1950s, Greenwood Press, 2000, p.149.

Phillips, Lily, "Blue Jeans, Black Leather Jackets, and a Sneer: The Iconography of the 1950s Biker and Its Translation Abroad," in International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, March 2005, http://ijms.nova.edu/March2005/IJMS_ArtclPhilips0305.html (accessed August 25, 2009).

Williams, Mary E., ed., "Introduction" to Readings on West Side Story, Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 12.

———, "West Side Story and Its Creators," in Readings on West Side Story, Greenhaven Press, 2001, pp. 15, 20.

Zadan, Craig, "The Creative Process behind West Side Story," in Readings on West Side Story, edited by Mary E. Williams, Greenhaven Press, 2001, p. 52.

FURTHER READING

Ayala, César J., and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898, University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Ayala and Bernabe present a history of Puerto Rico under American rule and also discuss the situation of Puerto Ricans on the American mainland, especially in New York.

McGee, Mark Thomas, and R. J. Robertson, The J. D. Films: Juvenile Delinquency in the Movies, McFarland, 1982.

The authors present an informative survey of movies treating juvenile delinquency, including the movie version of West Side Story.

Palladino, Grace, Teenagers: An American History, Basic Books, 1997.

Palladino presents a history of the rise of the concept of the teenager, discussing everything from rock and roll to Seventeen magazine.

Shoemaker, Donald J., Juvenile Delinquency, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

After presenting a historical overview of juvenile delinquency, Shoemaker examines the issue from a variety of perspectives, discussing drug use, female delinquency, schools, religion, family, race, and class.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"West Side Story." Drama for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 27, Gale, 2010, pp. 280-301. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2279400025%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D5ad9e505. Accessed 23 Jan. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400025

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  • American culture
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • American dream
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 288
      • 27: 294
      • 27: 299
  • Anger
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 293
  • Cold War
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 290
  • Coming of age
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 287-288
      • 27: 294-296
  • Conflict
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 286
      • 27: 290
      • 27: 293
  • Dance
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
      • 27: 299-300
  • Death
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 284
      • 27: 290
  • Emotions
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 299
  • English literature, 1558-1603 (Elizabethan)
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289-290
  • Friendship
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 286
  • Generation gap
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 288
  • Hatred
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 293
      • 27: 298
  • Hispanic American culture
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 298
  • Hispanic Americans
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 285
  • Imagery (Literature)
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • Immigrant life
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 288
      • 27: 290
      • 27: 293
      • 27: 298-299
  • Irony
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • Juvenile delinquency
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 287
      • 27: 289-291
  • Language and languages
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • Love
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 282-283
      • 27: 286-288
      • 27: 293
      • 27: 294
      • 27: 298
  • Loyalty
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 286
  • McCarthyism
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 290
  • Metaphors
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • Middle class values
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 294
  • Music
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
      • 27: 297-300
  • Northeastern United States
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 290
      • 27: 298
  • Prejudice
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 285
      • 27: 288
      • 27: 290
      • 27: 293
  • Race relations
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 296
  • Reality
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 285
  • Revenge
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 287
  • Rivalry
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 297
  • Satire
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • Setting (Literature)
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • Sex roles
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 288-289
  • Similes
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
  • Social commentary
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 293
      • 27: 294
  • Tragedies (Drama)
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 280
      • 27: 286
      • 27: 291-292
      • 27: 299
  • Transcendence
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 286
  • Urban life
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 288-290
      • 27: 298-299
  • Violence
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 283-286
      • 27: 291
      • 27: 296
      • 27: 299
  • Warning
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 285
  • Youth
    • West Side Story:
      • 27: 289
      • 27: 290
      • 27: 294-296
      • 27: 298-299