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West Side Story

WEST SIDE STORY



USA, 1961


Directors: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Production: Mirisch Pictures, Seven Arts Productions, Beta Productions; Technicolor, Panavision, 70mm; running time: 152 minutes.


Producer: Robert Wise; screenplay: Ernest Lehman; photography: Linwood G. Dunn; editors: Thomas Stanford and Marshall M. Borden; assistant directors: Robert E. Relyea and Jerome M. Siegel; production design: Boris Leven; music: Leonard Bernstein; sound: Gilbert D. Merchant; sound recording: Murray Spivak; choreography: Jerome Robbins.

Cast: Natalie Wood (Maria); Richard Beymer (Tony); George Chakiris (Bernardo); Russ Tamblyn (Riff); Rita Moreno (Anita); Tony Mordente (Action); Tucker Smith (Ice); Simon Oakland (Lieutenant Shrank); William Bramley (Officer Krupkey); Ned Glass (Doc); Jose De Vega (Chino); Sue Oaks (Anybody's); John Astin (Glad Hand); Penny Santon (Madam Lucia); Jay Norman (Pepe); Gus Trikonis (Indio); Robert Trompson (Luis); Eliot Field (Baby John); Larry Roquemore (Rocco); David Winters (A-Rab).


Awards: Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound, 1961.


Publications


Books:

Kael, Pauline, I Lost It at the Movies, Boston, 1965.

McDonald, Dwight, On Movies, New Jersey, 1969.

Brode, Douglas, The Films of the Sixties, New Jersey, 1980.

Prouty, Howard J., in Magill's Survey of Cinema-Volume 4, edited by Frank Magill, Englewood, New Jersey, 1980.

Staskowski, Andrea, Movie Musicals, Minneapolis, 1992.

Garebian, Keith, The Making of West Side Story, Toronto, 1995.

Leemann, Sergio, Robert Wise On His Films: From Editing Room to Director's Chair, Los Angeles, 1995.

Thompson, Frank T., Robert Wise: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, 1995.


Articles:

Gussow, Mel, "West Side Story: The Beginnings of Something Great," in The New York Times, vol. 140, H5, 21 October 1990.

Kutner, C.J., "Robert Wise: Part Two: Life at the Top," in Bright Lights (Cincinnati), no. 11, Fall 1993.

Sanchez, A.S., "A Puerto Rican Reading of America," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), no. 39, June 1994.


* * *

The film West Side Story is based on the 1950s Broadway stage play, from an idea inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The idea of taking one of the most famous and tragic love stories of all time and translating it to modern America, focusing it around the racial and inner city problems arising at that time (and which still exist today) was a radical one.

The Capulet and Montague families are transformed into two street gangs whose members live in the urban ghettos. The Jets (the poor, white local youth) are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) who centres his hatred on the local Puerto Ricans who have moved into the area to make a new beginning. The immigrant gang, the Sharks, are led by the charismatic Bernardo (George Chakiris), who still believes in the customs and patriarchy of his old world.

Conflict arises not just between the two groups that struggle to live together in this emerging new society, but also within the factions when the conventions and beliefs of the older society are put to the test and are questioned. Thus, Tony (Richard Beymer) is torn between his old solidarity with the Jets, his wish to escape from the ghetto and move on, and his instantaneous love for Maria, a girl from a different culture and race. Similarly, Maria (Natalie Wood) must face the conflict that arises between her loyalty to her family, as epitomized by her brother Bernardo, and her love for Tony. Both Tony and Maria must pay the price for breaking the existing rules of the dominant society—and both Tony and Bernardo are sacrificed in order to establish rules for the new order.

Garnering ten Academy Awards, West Side Story is today regarded as a classic musical. The film boasts an impressive cast, a musical score composed by Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins's choreography, which introduced a new kind of dance in musicals. Robert Wise's clever and often shocking direction brought an immediacy and pace rarely seen in musicals. The audience is immediately immersed in the plot from the opening credits when the camera zooms in at great speed on the first shot. However, critic Pauline Kael commented that the use of stereophonic music in the opening sequence left her "clutching" her head.

The racial tension is evident from the beginning when gang members chase a Puerto Rican down the street only to be pursued in turn. Brilliantly choreographed, the energetic routines illustrate the violence and intensity of living on the streets through dance and movement. Most impressive is the fact that Maria is played by Natalie Wood who could neither sing nor dance. Most of the routines in which she is featured compensate for these deficiencies through skillful choreography and a clever use of camera.

Rita Moreno is excellent as Anita, Bernardo's voluptuous and sexy girlfriend, who manages and manipulates her lover very well. The innocent gossipy antics of the Puerto Rican girls, who are alternately excited by and frightened of their new country, are contrasted with the "political games" of their male counterparts.

Although for the most part the encounters between the gangs are part of a game to keep them all amused, the fun quickly spirals out of control when the Sharks and Jets plan a final confrontation, which results in Riff's accidental stabbing by Bernardo, and Bernardo's subsequent death at Tony's hands.

Tony is the least credible character in the film. He believes that he can leave the Jets and his past behind without any problems. He sees Maria at a dance and instantly falls in love with her, ignoring all of the obvious problems arising from an interracial love match. He seems too soft to belong to a street gang; yet Tony's loyalty to his friend Riff leads him to kill Bernardo, despite the impact this will have on Maria. Even after this tragic episode Tony croons "There's a Place for Us" to Maria, a future for them somewhere—but there is nowhere to run. He is killed by Chico, a Shark gang member who is in love with Maria. Only after Tony's death, when the police arrive and Maria has condemned both gangs for the senseless deaths of Riff, Bernardo, and Tony, do the two gangs finally join together and carry Tony away. The confusion and fear on all of their faces makes children of them once more.

In spite of its sadness West Side Story ends on a positive note— with the idea that out of the violence and hatred a better society can be created in which different groups can live together.

—A. Pillai

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West Side Story

West Side Story. Amer. musical in 2 acts on modernized version of Romeo and Juliet story with mus. by Leonard Bernstein, lib. by Arthur Laurents, and words of songs by Stephen Sondheim. Comp. 1956–7. Prod. Washington and NY 1957, London 1958. In 1960 Bernstein wrote the orch. work Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

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West Side Story

West Side Story ★★★½ 1961

Gang rivalry and ethnic tension on New York's West Side erupts in a ground-breaking musical. Loosely based on Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” the story follows the Jets and the Sharks as they fight for their turf while Tony and Maria fight for love. Features frenetic and brilliant choreography by co-director Robbins, who also directed the original Broadway show, and a high-caliber score by Bernstein and Sondheim. Wood's voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant dubbed Beymer's. ♫Prologue; Jet Song; Something's Coming; Dance at the Gym; Maria; America; Tonight; One Hand, One Heart; Gee, Officer Krupke. 151m/C VHS, DVD . Yvonne Wilder, Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass; D: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins; W: Ernest Lehman; C: Daniel F. Fapp; M: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim. Oscars ‘61: Art Dir./Set Dec., Color, Color Cinematog., Costume Des. (C), Director (Wise), Film Editing, Picture, Sound, Support. Actor (Chakiris), Support. Actress (Moreno), Scoring/ Musical; AFI ‘98: Top 100; Directors Guild ‘61: Director (Wise), Director (Robbins); Golden Globes ‘62: Film—Mus./Comedy, Support. Actor (Chakiris), Support. Actress (Moreno), Natl. Film Reg. ‘97;; N.Y. Film Critics ‘61: Film.

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West Side Story

West Side Story

by Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein

THE LITERARY WORK

A musical set on the West Side of New York City around 1957; written 1955-57, first performed in 1957.

SYNOPSIS

Rival street gangs engage in relatively harmless activities until one fight spells tragedy for two young lovers.

Events in History at the Time of the Musical

The Musical in Focus

For More Information

Four gifted New York artists collaborated to create the musical West Side Story. Conductor, pianist, and composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was already a remarkable success when he agreed to write the music for the show. He delegated the writing of the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim (1930-). The idea for the story line belonged to Jerome Robbins (1918-), also the show’s director and choreographer. Finally these three collaborators relied on screenwriter and playwright Arthur Laurents (1917-) to supply the rest of the text and to model the work as a whole on Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet.

Events in History at the Time of the Musical

The West Side

Roughly two hundred blocks make up Manhattan’s West Side, which stretches from Central Park West to the Hudson River and from 59th Street north to 110th. Within these boundaries, a visitor to New York City in the mid-1950s would have encountered staggering contrasts in housing, wealth, and ethnicity. It is in an economically depressed neighborhood in this primarily residential area that West Side Story takes place.

On the streets West End Avenue, Riverside Drive, and Central Park West, wealthier New Yorkers inhabited spacious apartments and elegant private homes. These residents were far outnumbered, however, by the people crowded into rooming houses and inadequately maintained housing projects. The gulf between the rich and the poor became even more apparent as the white middle class began to withdraw to newly built suburbs in a mass migration later called “white flight.” As many of them left, the West Side lost the revenue that had come from their taxes, consumer spending, and rent. Landlords tried to compensate by subdividing buildings and rooms in order to collect rent from more people.

Rent control measures enacted during the 1940s were often cited as a reason why old residential buildings had fallen into disrepair and why new ones were scarce. New laws allowed for voluntary increases, and tenants in more affluent sections of the city were able and willing to pay the higher rents in order to maintain their neighborhood. Yet rent control measures crowded poorer citizens into the less desirable neighborhoods where the buildings were often neglected and even dangerous. One observer likened the dwellings in New York’s slums to shoddy apartment houses he had seen in Moscow:

The same shoddy shiftlessness, the broken windows, the missing light bulbs, the plaster cracking from the walls, the pilfered hardware, the cold, drafty corridors, the doors on sagging hinges, the acid smell of sweat and cabbage, the ragged children, the plaintive women, the playgrounds that are seas of muddy clay....

(Salisbury, p. 75)

Tenants were sometimes reluctant to report violations, even serious ones, fearing that officials might condemn the entire building. Although the Housing Authority was under obligation to find such tenants another place to live, it frequently failed to find vacancies for them. As a result, the situation worsened, even as large-scale slum clearance projects were implemented on the West Side in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Newcomers to the United States tended to settle on the West Side, then move to the suburbs or the more prestigious East Side when their fortunes improved. Prior to the 1950s, waves of Russian, Jewish, German, Italian, and Irish immigrants, among others, had made the West Side their first home in America. West Side Story addresses the tension between established white youths like the Jets, a gang that Laurents dubs “an anthology of what is called ‘American,’” and Puerto Rican teenagers who represent a new wave of immigrants (Laurents, et al, West Side Story, p. 137).

Puerto Ricans in New York

The Sharks are the musical’s Puerto Rican gang, led by Bernardo. His sister Maria, the romantic female lead, has only been living in the United States for a month. New York was a common destination for Puerto Rican families after World War II; it promised work in the garment and hotel industries at a time when economic conditions on the island of Puerto Rico were dismal. Overpopulation, hurricanes, tropical diseases, and the lack of modern conveniences number among the reasons for leaving Puerto Rico enumerated in the tune “America.” The migration reached its peak in 1953—by 1956, Puerto Ricans accounted for almost 10 percent of New York’s population. They were concentrated primarily in the South Bronx and in parts of the Upper West Side. Puerto Rican women immigrated at a higher rate than men, a situation reflected by the trio of women who deliver the “America” number in the musical. In fact, female immigrants outnumbered the Puerto Rican males in New York about three to two, and dating of non-Puerto Ricans sometimes resulted. This is not exactly Maria’s case in West Side Story since a Puerto Rican boy is interested in her, but the statistics help put their “match” in her, their “match” in perspective.

There were adjustments to make after immigrating to New York. To begin with, the anonymity of the big city gave Puerto Rican youths a measure of freedom that often worried immigrant parents. The older generation tried to instill in their children a traditional regard for Roman Catholicism and patriarchal family structure, but sometimes it seemed as though the young people were completely beyond the family’s control. It was easier to pull in the reins on youths in Puerto Rico, where people knew one another, but in America the young could get away with mischief without their parents’ knowledge. One frustrated Puerto Rican mother told an interviewer:

Any way you want to look at it, the children here can do a lot more than they can in Puerto Rico.... For instance, if I’m going down the street in Puerto Rico and I see somebody’s daughter kissing a boy on a bench, I go to her father and say, “Look, your daughter is acting in a terrible way.” So he sends for her and reprimands her and she won’t do it again. But that’s not what happens here.

(Marguerita in Lewis, pp. 161-62)

Meanwhile, adults were preoccupied with other problems more serious than teen behavior. Puerto Ricans were often the victims of labor unions, night schools, and employment agencies, who would collect fees and then make almost no effort to meet their needs. Marriages were often strained by the fact that Puerto Rican women who hadn’t worked outside the home in Puerto Rico did so in America, and they enjoyed greater protection under the law than they had in Puerto Rico. New Yorkers sometimes openly harassed Puerto Ricans with ethnic put-downs, as reflected in West Side Story. The Jets echo their parents’ prejudices and Lieutenant Schrank tells the Sharks, “Clear out, Spies [Hispanics]. Sure; it’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But it’s a country with laws: and I can find the right” (West Side Story, p. 179).

Not only was America technically a free country, it was also the Puerto Ricans’ country. Puerto Rico was a territory of the United States, and the island’s inhabitants had been American citizens since the Jones Act of 1917. The U.S. government oversaw Puerto Rico’s foreign affairs. Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans could not vote for president, they were not represented by a voting member in Congress, and their young men were subject to U.S. military conscription. In response to Schrank’s comment, the Sharks whistle “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”), a patriotic song written in 1832 and traditionally taught to schoolchildren thereafter. Thus Puerto Rican students learned in school that America was their country too, but their experience in the outside world, where they were treated like foreigners, told them otherwise.

The Puerto Ricans’ ambiguous political status made harassment in New York all the more stinging and accounted for a desire among some immigrants to return to the island. Many of them did when conditions there improved in the early 1960s, but new immigrants still continued to arrive, and during that same time period, the Puerto Rican population living in New York rose to 700,000.

STREET TALK

Young people used a variety of slang on the streets of New York. Some of the following street talk surfaces in the musical, though Laurents also included slang terms that he invented himself.

Cool: A gang truce

Cool: Non-gang male

Daddy-o: Male friend

Debs: Female affiliates of male gang members

Hurt: Kill or wound seriously

Rumble: Gang fight

Shakedown: Police inspection to see if a youth is carrying weapons

Stool pigeon: Spy or informer

Swing with a gang: To be a gang member

Tea: Dope, marijuana

Uncle: Word cried out to admit defeat

Gang activity

To teenagers, membership in a gang offered a sense of power and belonging. By 1958, boys and girls in New York City made up somewhere between seventy-five to one hundred street fighting gangs, each determined to stake out and defend its turf.

For the most part, the street youths in West Side Story engage in relatively harmless activities, such as hanging out, sneaking into movies, and harassing the police verbally. They taunt one another too, using ethnic slurs like Polack (Pole), Mick (Irishman), and Wop (Italian), in addition to Spic (Hispanic). With the exception of Anybodys, who wants to join the Jets, the young women in the musical seem content to be the girlfriends of the gang members and deliver messages for them in an emergency. In real life, young women affiliated with a gang sometimes also kept weapons for the young men, stirred up trouble by relaying insults, or formed their own gangs, not hesitating to fight other bands of young women.

When gang members fought, they had a considerable variety of weapons to choose from, and the boys in West Side Story debate the possibilities at length. In New York, hand-to-hand combat, or “skin,” was always an option, but so were switchblades, broken bottles, tire irons, machetes, car antennas—the list was long. Street youths also had access to revolvers and the average cost of a “hot” gun (one that had been stolen or used in a holdup) hovered around $5. The self-made zip gun was a primitive assembly of rubber bands, wood, and metal, which fired a. 22 caliber cartridge and could be made in a school workshop.

Sometimes it was more important to have the weapons than to actually use them. These were teenagers who were also in the habit of going to the movies, flirting, and listening to the jukebox at the local candy store like other young people their age. But at the same time, most gang members shared the sense that conflict on the streets was inevitable, and that it was better to join a gang than be outside of the loop, unprotected.

Music, dance, and the generation gap

The focus on youth culture is undeniable in West Side Story, which tells a tale of thirty-five teenagers and only four adults. This focus reflects the fact that the nation was catering to teenagers in unprecedented ways during the 1950s, as big business kept pace with young people’s interests in music and dance. Like comic books and horror films, rock ‘n’ roll was blamed by many parents for a rise in juvenile delinquency.

Parents hoped the music was a passing fad, but their hopes were to be proven dramatically wrong. Radio stations had discovered a new audience, and sales of portable radios, portable record players, and 45-rpm singles skyrocketed. In fact, young consumers were spending $7 billion annually by the mid-1950s, thus in their own way contributing to America’s postwar economic boom. In 1956 a rising young star named Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show,a sign that the music had become part of the mainstream culture and was not just a passing phenomenon.

Dance carries a special significance for the teenagers in West Side Story. At the dance hall, the stage directions explain that “Both gangs are jitterbuging wildly.... The dancing is a physical and emotional release for these kids” (West Side Story, pp. 152-53). The teens also perform the mambo and cha-cha, and it is worth noting that the “American” Jets seem to perform these fast, difficult Latin dances as well as their Puerto Rican rivals, the Sharks.

The musical

Broadway musicals enjoyed a golden age in the years between 1940 and 1968, when the four creators of West Side Story were each solidifying their claim to fame through the New York stage. These expensive shows had large casts, multiple sets, and plots that tended to be wholesome and easily understood. The productions featured lavish dance sequences and songs that quickly became part of the popular culture.

Like any art form, the musical had its conventions. A few main characters were usually supported by a sizable chorus, which sang and danced in relative anonymity. Even at seemingly inopportune times, characters could be counted on to burst into song and explore their emotions. And as a rule, one could tell that the male and female romantic leads were destined for each other because they danced and sang well together.

West Side Story stood out from the other musicals for several reasons. Musicals were usually supposed to be cheerful, but the first act of this one ended with two corpses on the stage. Bernstein paraphrased the reasons why producers turned it down at first: “There’s nothing in it anybody could sing, too depressing, too many tritones, too many words in the lyrics, too rangy—’Ma-ri-a’—nobody could sing notes like that, impossible” (Bernstein in Guernsey, p. 46). The show’s main innovations, however, were the fluid staging, which Sondheim said reflected the influence of the cinema, and the fact that each member of the chorus had a name and a distinct personality. In fact, the show was novel enough that some people hesitated to call it a musical, instead labeling it a music drama or a new form of opera.

The Musical in Focus

The plot

The musical opens with a prologue, half-danced and half-mimed, that introduces a Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks and their rivals, the Jets. Distinct personalities begin to emerge as members of the two groups taunt one another; finally a brawl between them is stopped by the arrival of the police.

When both gangs refuse to explain how a gang member got hurt, Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank send the Sharks away. After the two policemen leave, the Jets blame the Puerto Ricans for the economic hardship in the neighborhood and vow to roust them once and for all with a rumble, an all-out fight. Riff, the leader of the Jets, sings the first song of the musical—which, like all its numbers, conveys a distinct message. In “Jet Song” he expresses the sense of family shared by the gang. After Riff proposes that they challenge the Sharks formally that night at a dance, the other Jets help finish the song.

Next, Riff tries to guarantee their success by recruiting a reluctant Tony, his best friend and an ex-Jet. Tony has outgrown the gang and now harbors new dreams. In the song “Something’s Coming,” he expresses the feeling that something wonderful is about to happen to him. Elsewhere, in a bridal shop, the Shark leader Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita, is putting the finishing touches on a dress for his younger sister, Maria, who will wear it to her first dance that night.

At the dance, Sharks and Jets wear their respective gang colors and dance the jitterbug. An adult proposes a get-together dance to diffuse the tension between the youngsters, but it fails; instead, the gang leaders and their girls compete to see who can dance the mambo best. Tony arrives during the contest and soon his eyes meet Maria’s. They are entranced by each other but quickly parted by Bernardo, who is intent on protecting his younger sister from involvement with an American. He sends Maria home and agrees to a war council with the Jets. As the lights dim on everyone else, Tony sings “Maria,” a song celebrating the name of the girl he now loves.

In a back alley, Tony calls to Maria, who appears at a window above him and joins him in singing “Tonight,” a duet about how different the world seems now that they have met. Tony hurries away as Bernardo, Anita, and their friends enter. Anita defends Maria’s right to have fun in America and see Tony. Together they all debate the advantages of living in the United States, a discussion taken up by the girls in the song “America.”

The two gangs meet at a drugstore to discuss the time, location, and choice of weapons for the rumble. When Lieutenant Schrank stops by, the boys pretend to be friends. After Schrank sends the Sharks away again, he tries unsuccessfully to learn the details about the gang fight he suspects they have been planning.

The next day, Tony meets Maria at the bridal shop and Anita agrees not to tell on them. After she leaves, the two lovers pretend to marry each other and sing a song that ends, “Even death won’t part us now” (West Side Story, p. 186). All of the young characters then sing about what they expect will happen that night, the night of the rumble. Subsequent songs continue to express the characters’ feelings about gang warfare and love.

Later, under the highway, the two gangs meet. Tony arrives and makes an effort to honor Maria’s request that he keep the fight from taking place. Instead he is goaded into taking part in it and kills Maria’s brother Bernardo, who has already murdered Riff.

Elsewhere, the Puerto Rican girls are primping for the fun they expect to have with the boys soon. After the others have left, Maria is visited by Chino, the young man Bernardo wanted her to marry. He discloses that the rumble did take place after all, and that Tony killed her brother. When Chino leaves, it seems likely that he intends to shoot Tony. The lovers meet, reconcile, and make a pact to run away together while Sharks and Jets search the neighborhood for Tony. Later, the Jets sing a humorous tune about how juvenile delinquents are seen by society, but then their behavior takes a reprehensible turn as they manhandle Anita when she tries to deliver a message to Tony. Anita retaliates by asking them to tell Tony that Chino shot Maria. Distraught, Tony tries to find Chino, apparently seeking his own death too. He both finds Chino and meets his own end, just as he sees Maria for the last time. She finishes the musical with a speech implicating everyone in the murders that night.

Solving delinquency

One of the songs in the musical, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lambastes the notion that adults had street youths figured out. While they sing, the Jets mock various authority figures, whose assessments contradict one another: the refrain changes from “there is good” to “we’re disturbed” to “we are sick” to “we’re no good” (West Side Story, pp. 206-08).

The typical street-wise gang youth often knew how to work the system. He might not have all the answers about his situation, but what counts is that he knows the adults’ answers and is willing to use them to his advantage. To the policeman, he is a punk. The officer sends him to the judge, who deems him psychologically disturbed and passes him along to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist finds him sociologically sick and insists an honest job will cure him. The social worker knows a job is not the solution—he needs a year in prison. This proposal seems a fitting end to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach taken by these adults, who each send the boy to someone else.

“Gee, Officer Krupke” pokes fun at the nation’s devotion to the opinions of experts in the 1950s. It is also a commentary on society’s need to solve or eschew what it does not understand. One producer withdrew her backing for West Side Story on the grounds that the show’s creators had not explained why the street youths were the way they were. Laurents, Bernstein, and the others felt they had created something of merit nevertheless and looked for another producer.

Composition and sources

West Side Story was originally an ill-fated love story about a Jewish girl and an Italian Catholic boy on Manhattan’s East Side. It was to be set during Passover, a holiday time important to both religions. The fact that all four of the show’s creators were Jewish or of Jewish heritage may still account for the themes of persecution and alienation in the final version.

In a 1984 interview, the artists could not stress enough how much West Side Story was a collaborative effort. Laurents tried to put it into words:

There was this wonderful, mutual exchange going on. We can talk here about details, “I did this, I did that,” but the essence of it was what we gave to each other, took from each other, yielded to each other, surrendered, reworked, put back together again, all of those things. It was a very important and extraordinary time.

(Laurents in Guernsey, p. 43)

In 1955, six years after Robbins had set aside his idea for a Jewish-Catholic story, he received a call from Laurents and Bernstein. While lounging next to a pool in Beverly Hills, they had seen a Los Angeles Times headline about Mexican and American gangs fighting in Los Angeles. Robbins was delighted with their proposal to resurrect the Romeo-and-Juliet-style show and make it about Chicanos in New York.

Laurents was entrusted with the task of relating the new version to Shakespeare’s play, and he carried a copy of Romeo and Juliet (also covered in Literature and Its Times) with him throughout the two-year writing process. The plots unfold according to a similar design: in each case, younger and lesser members of the feuding factions introduce the conflict, and authority figures quickly step in to restore order; soon, the lovers meet for the first time at a dance; both female leads already have other suitors but engage in a balcony scene with their true loves; killing and retaliatory killing among the boys in both plays complicate matters even more.

At this point, West Side Story begins to diverge rather sharply from the Shakespearean source. The lovers plan their flight differently, the misinformation about Maria’s death is delivered deliberately, and Maria lives at the end. And, of course, families, not ethnic groups, are the warring parties in Romeo and Juliet, where the presence of the older generation is stronger. Finally, Maria is older than Juliet by a few years, making the situation more credible for a modern audience.

Production and reviews

“It was the hardest show to cast I’ve ever heard of,” said Bernstein. “Everybody has either to be or seem to be a teenager, to sing a very difficult score, to act a very difficult role and dance very difficult dances” (Bernstein in Guernsey, p. 45). These complications made an unprecedented eightweek rehearsal period a necessity, and critics felt that the cast was still a little rough when the musical opened.

Because the show had been turned down and delayed so often before it was finally produced, its creators had had plenty of opportunity to revise it, and thus there were only a few changes made during rehearsal. The musical ran for three weeks at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., before opening in New York at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 27, 1957. Esteemed New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson turned in a conservative review that seemed to reflect the attitude some people held toward street youth:

But the crafty gangs in “West Side Story” are youths of the streets whose speech is acrid and ugly and whose conduct is neurotic and savage. Although they have their tribal code of honor—loyalty, daring, and silence—it is the code of hoodlums and gangsters. It is rooted in ignorance and evil; it has no relationship to anything that can be regarded as romantic or beguiling. It is part of the hideousness that lies under the shabby surface of the city.

(Atkinson, p. 1)

Despite a mixed reception, West Side Story enjoyed a run of 732 performances, toured the nation, and returned to Broadway for another six months. It was subsequently made into a film that won a record eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1961.

For More Information

Atkinson, Brooks. “West Side Story: Moving Musical Drama on Callous Theme.” The New York Times (October 6, 1957): sec. 2, 1.

Guernsey Jr., Otis L., ed. Broadway Song and Story: Playwrights/Lyricists/Composers Discuss Their Hits. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1985.

Laurents, Arthur, et al. West Side Story. In “Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story.” New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1965.

Lewis, Oscar. A Study of Slum Culture. New York: Random House, 1968.

Mills, C. Wright, Clarence Senior, and Rose Kohn Goldsen. The Puerto Rican Journey: New York’s Newest Migrants. 1950. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967.

Salisbury, Harrison E. The Shook-Up Generation. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958.

Trager, James. West of Fifth: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Manhattan’s West Side. New York: Atheneum, 1987.

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