Subject Material

West Side Story

Published: 29.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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The musical is an extremely popular genre. For most tourists in London, a visit to a West-End theatre is a must, and the shows run for years on end. Catchy music, singing and dancing, combined with an entertaining plot is an all-time winner with most people. Although the music may be easy-listening and pompous, and the plot and acting may be both melodramatic and sentimental, most people love a good musical. Of all the familiar and famous musicals, there is one which stands out as one of the greatest – West Side Story.

Romeo and Juliet

West Side Story opening night on Broadway, 2009West Side Story opening night on Broadway, 2009
Fotograf: Peter Kramer
The original score of West Side Story was written by American maestro Leonard Bernstein with lyrics (the libretto) by Stephen Sondheim. It was first staged on Broadway in 1957 and was filmed in 1961, a film that took home ten Academy Awards. Thematically, the plot is based on the timeless Romeo and Juliet story – the two lovers who cannot have each other because they belong to conflicting groups. In Shakespeare’s play, the two families Capulet and Montague are enemies; in West Side Story, Tony and Maria come from different neighborhood gangs that fight each other – The Sharks and the Jets. Tony is the good guy who does not really want to be involved in The Jets’ activity any longer; but in trying to stop a rumble, he accidentally kills Maria’s brother, Bernardo, who is the leader of the Sharks. It is a dramatic and emotionally strong story. The score is a string of classic songs which have become standards of the musical genre: “Maria”, “Tonight”, “Somewhere”, “America”, “I Feel Pretty” to mention some of the most popular songs.

Race and identity

The Jets are white, straight American kids who want to defend their own neighborhood territory on upper Manhattan, and the Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants. The story raises issues about group identity and inner discipline, and the rules of belonging to a group – you stick to your own and fight for your territory, and you stand up for the others. The play focuses on the gang reality of the 1950s in a choreographed way. The white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks may from today’s viewpoint seem a bit childish and innocent with their finger snapping and dancing. But beneath the somewhat glossy surface of theatrical effects and sentimental songs, there is a harsh reality. We know that the gang culture in the USA has brought fear to the streets. Many “hoodlums” see the gang as their only family and are ready to kill to hold the turf. In West Side Story the youngsters claim that growing up on the street has given them "social disease". They clash with the police who are after them, but other grown-up correctives, e.g. from parents are close to absent. In this way, the play is an example of the new youth culture, which in different ways was protest and revolt against adult values.
The race issue is another important element of the play; the Puerto Ricans are intruders who have to be fought. One of the song lyrics goes: “Life is a right in America, If you’re a white in America”, which seems to express an underlying thematic point. The USA of the 50s was a society that focused strongly on race and identity, both in the ghettos of the big cities in the north and in the segregated communities of the southern states.

The Musical Effects

In a musical or an operetta, one has to accept the basic rule that the actors suddenly break into a song instead of speaking their lines. In that way a musical's plot and dialogue will never be realistic, but that is not the point. The total package is what thrills the musical lovers – the drama, the poetic language, the music and songs. On top of that comes the choreography, which is an important element of the stage act in most musicals. It is hard not to be affected by this massive combination of effects. West Side Story offers a three-hour stage show packed with all these ingredients. For some it may be a bit over the top, but that is the nature of a musical; the fascination lies in the sum of all its effects, and for a captive audience a good musical is equal to top entertainment.
The list is long - Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Cats, Bobby Elliot, Mama Mia, Jesus Christ Superstar, Buddy, and We will Rock you are all examples of the classic and popular musicals that have bewitched the audience and have been played on and on in the London West End theatres.

 

 

Tasks and Activities

  • Why do you think the musical as a genre appeals to so many?
  • Sum up the complementing elements and effects of the musical.
  • Do you know other modern versions of the Romeo and Juliet theme?
  • Read more about the original Romeo and Juliet here: Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare 
  • What do you think is meant by the phrase "social disease"?
  • There are many films about the gang culture in the USA. Have you seen any? How are the gangs and the gang identity portrayed? Check these links for more information about gang culture in the USA. Gangs - Safety in Numbers?   Gang Crime in St. Paul 
  • Check YouTube for clips from West Side Story. Is there any particular song or scene that you particularly like? Discuss whether it is difficult for young people to relate to this musical today.