Analysis Of The Songs In West Side Story

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West Side Story was written in 1957 by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. As the name suggests; it is set on the Upper West Side of New York in the mid-1950s. The musical is a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The show features two star crossed lovers from rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, of New York trying to navigate their love through a disapproving world. The musical is of how love, hate and misunderstanding and how these things can affect the youth of New York City. Themes of love, race and rivalry pervade the show with an ever-present undertone of a familial bond within each of the respective gangs. The show is comprised of an amalgamation of tones and styles creating a complex musical score. Bernstein uses classical music styles in a contemporary way to create a score in which the worlds of America and Puerto Rico are seamlessly married. The upbeat rhythm song ‘America’ provides comedic relief from the story with its major key and vibrant Latin style. This contrasts with the ‘Tonight Quintet’, an ‘I want’ song which carries a tone of violence and passion intertwined with innocence and love. While the musical does feature light-hearted comedy songs and ballads, there are also songs with a more sinister tone which hold the moral lessons of the story.

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Anita, played by Rita Moreno, is a feisty Puerto Rican woman who is thriving in America. She is the girlfriend of the Shark’s leader, Bernardo. Arguably Anita fulfils Deer’s (2016, pp.124) character archetypes of the ‘Soubrette’ and the ‘Red-hot mama’. Deer describes a soubrette as ‘a young female character who is attractive, but witty and spunky, as opposed to the pure loveliness of her friend, the ingenue.’ This can clearly be seen in the song ‘A Boy Like That’ as Anita shows her dominance and maturity in comparison with the innocent Maria. Anita’s strong-willed character is shown through her unapologetic disapproval of Tony and Maria within this number. She is a very opinionated character as she challenges the Jets, Maria, and Bernardo throughout the show, this therefore challenges the female stereotypes of the time and arguably making Anita a feminist character. However, though she is independent and feisty, she is also very devoted to her loved ones, especially Maria and Bernardo. Anita can also be considered as Deer’s ‘Red-hot mama’ archetype which he describes as, ‘A middle-aged, world wise woman. Usually singing about the joys of a life of sex and sin.’ (DeerThese character traits can be seen in the song ‘Tonight Quinet’ as Anita sings of getting her ‘kicks’ after the rumble. There are sexual allusions within this song with Anita presented in dim room with red lighting, rolling her stockings up as she sits on her bed. She is a sexually liberated character in her own right, and this is exaggerated through the juxtaposition between herself and Maria. Anita has a complex emotional journey throughout the musical. The song ‘America’ we see her excitement as she has moved to start a new life in America from her home in Puerto Rico. The song has an ironic divide between the lyrics of the song, favouring America, and the musical style, which features a traditionally Latin feel. Anita’s happiness quickly turns to resentment and grief when she learns Tony has killed her boyfriend Bernardo. Her acceptance of Maria and Tony’s relationship disappears and is replaced with a reinforced hatred of the Jets. This rapid change of heart could be argued as a rebuttal to Anita as a feminist character as this feeds into the stereotype of females being emotionally unpredictable and irrational. The song ‘A Boy Like That’ depicts this change of heart as she tells Maria that Tony ‘has no heart’. The outro of the song shows Maria and Anita bonding over being in love which ultimately persuades Anita to help Maria and Tony be together. In her efforts to help the protagonists, Anita is subsequently sexually assaulted by the Jets at the Doc’s which leads to another rapid change of heart leading to the fatal lie as she tells Tony that Maria is dead. This is the catalyst for Tony’s death. Throughout Anita’s journey in the show we see that she is a passionate character and feels her emotions very strongly. Her emotions, however, spark the events that lead to the story’s tragic end.

The song ‘Maria’ is a ballad sung by Tony after he and Maria meet at the dance. Cohen and Rosenhaus (2006, pp.94) describe a ballad as, ‘songs in moderate or slow tempo that convey a strong emotion through lyrical and expressive music.’ This song is without doubt a ballad and could be argued to be an ‘I want’ song as well due to the longing Tony has in his heart for Maria. This song introduces Tony and Maria as love interests and shows how quickly they fall for each other. Thus, the springboard of the song is the moment when Tony and Maria dance together and kiss at the dance hall. Both Maria and Tony feel instant affection for each other in a way words alone cannot express. This song allows Tony to bask in the sheer bliss of meeting his soulmate. The whimsical feel of the song enhances the enchanting effect the two have on each other while the string instruments create a heavenly sound which emphasises Tony’s delight. The melody is flowing and harmonious and evokes feelings of juvenile joyfulness and the tempo adds to this effect as begins slowly and gains pace in the middle before slowing once again, reminiscent of a juvenile display of excitement. This represents Tony’s emotional journey through the song. The quick succession of high and low notes in the score arguably mimic Tony’s racing heartbeat as he falls in love and encourages the audience to share his joy, not only through the lyrics, but through the music as well. It is a diegetic song in a major key which creates a fantasy-like euphoric atmosphere in which Tony explores his newfound feelings. The echoing voices chanting Maria’s name keeps both Tony and the audience suspended in the exact moment when he fell in love, as these fade Tony continues singing her name. This could convey how Maria and Tony belong to each other as even when others stop saying her name, Tony always will. The song as an obvious musical hook of the tritone which is repeated throughout the song and the musical to represent the couple’s love and the complications that come with it. The simplicity of the song’s lyrics, ‘Maria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria,’ juxtaposes the complicated road that the pair must navigate to try and save their love. This also indicates that Tony has not yet thought of the repercussions of this love as he is so enthralled by Maria. It suspends the blissful moment in time as Tony revels in Maria’s beauty. The song etherealises Maria and further adds to the maturity of Tony; not only has he left the Jets, but he is not concerned with the racial divides that his peers are so caught up in. The song uses positive imagery, ‘suddenly I’ve found how wonderful a sound can be,’ providing relief from the themes of violence and hatred in the musical and establishes Tony and Maria as the symbol of hope and goodness within the tragedy. The song ends with high notes and violins as Tony fades into a blissful daydream of Maria. The scene then changes to Maria’s point of view which further confirms their mutual feelings for one and other. Tony has finished reminiscing about his love and the story is ready to progress.

‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is, in the words of Cohen and Rosenhaus (2006, pp.94-95), a comedy song. They believe a comedy song should be ‘funny enough to make the audience laugh out loud.’ ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ does exactly that. Firstly, the staging of the song serves as the springboard as the police, including Officer Krupke, approach the Jets on the street which then inspires the number. Deer (2014, pp.46) notes that the chorus act as storytellers which is seen in this song as each of the Jets create a caricature of different roles such as Officer Krupke, a social worker and even themselves to make a satirical response to the way they feel they are treated as the youth of the city. The minimal use of props adds to the comedy of the piece as the group seemingly improvise their vignettes; using their bodies, clothes, and accents in different ways to disparage the older society of New York. Deer (2014, pp.48-49) talks about the ensemble as individual characters or as a group, interestingly in this song, the chorus serve both of these purposes as they seamlessly transition from their caricatures to group spectators and vice versa. This song’s use of staging is an excellent example of the importance of the ensemble as the effectiveness of its comedic relief would be severely hindered without the use of the chorus. Deer (2014, pp.47) also explains how the chorus can form a spectacle which is evident in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ as they are essentially putting on their own show for each other to make fun of how society treats them. The use of levels is important within this number for practical reasons as the stall and the steps in the scene are used to make sure all the actors can be seen at any given time. The stall, the street, the steps, and the gate are used for different sections of the song, this adds to the visual stimulation as the ensemble travel around the small space while the actors’ placement indicates where the audience should look. Jerome Robbins carefully choreographed this number to include summersaults and handstands, creating the illusion of teenage boys messing around on the street during the short musical interludes between each verse. The song, however, also foreshadows the denouement of the musical as the Jets’ childlike characters are explored. The juvenile joy in the song gives the audience a feeling of bittersweetness as it makes the tragic ending all the more personal to the audience as a rapport is made between character and audience member. There is an illusion of spontaneity as, although the actors all work together to create each part of the song, the exaggerated movements and sense of mockery uphold an illusion of impulse. Deer (2014) explains that Jerome Robbins kept all his Jets actors together, separate from the Sharks, during rehearsals in order to create a strong bond between them. This is evident within this number as the ensemble amplifies the comedic moments within the song and works together to seamlessly tell the story of the youth of New York.

Works Cited

  • Deer, J., Dal Vera, R. (2016) Acting in musical theatre: a comprehensive course, 2nd edn. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Cohen, A., Rosenhaus, S.L. (2006) Writing musical theatre, Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Deer, J. (2014) Directing in musical theatre: an essential guide, New York: Routledge.
  • West Side Story. 2020. Frequently Asked Questions [Online]. Available from: https://www.westsidestory.com/faqs [accessed 26 October 2020]
16 August 2021

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