West Side Story: Connection To Romeo And Juliet
West Side Story, written by Arthur Laurents, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is a gargantuan work within the world of musical theatre. Drawing inspiration from one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, this comes as little surprise. But which elements of West Side Story bear closest resemblance to the titanic story of Romeo and Juliet? Not only does West Side Story draw on one of Shakespeare’s most famous works but it is also a commentary on society itself, even up to the modern day: dealing with racial tensions, class struggle, relationships, and heated emotion boiling over into violence. West Side Story uses a classic storyline that the masses are familiar with to impart strong messages about society that remain relevant, even using musical structures such as the tritone and a number of musical motives to psychologically influence audiences and provide poignant story moments.
The obvious comparison to Romeo and Juliet lies in the central plot: the two stories revolve around the major conflict between two families/gangs disagreeing on the relationship between the two key characters. The Jets represent the Montagues, and the Sharks represent the Capulets. There are also key plot points that are mirrored in the two stories, in particular the opening on the fight between the rival gangs/families, the meeting of the lovers at the dance, only to be received harshly by Bernardo/Tybalt. There is also the famous balcony scene present in both stories, with this location and the respective bedrooms of Juliet and Maria being the only places that the lovers are truly able to express their feelings for each other unimpeded. The families/gangs become suspicious of the lovers’ involvement with someone of the other side, which leads to the fight (or rumble) where Riff/Mercutio is killed, and Bernardo/Tybalt is killed in retaliation.
Later in the story, after the exiled Romeo is told to meet in the Capulet’s family tomb by Juliet, he has a confrontation with and kills Paris in the tomb. Thinking that Juliet is dead, he then kills himself, resulting in Juliet awakening and taking her own life. This is mirrored in West Side Story with the moment of Chino (Paris) killing Tony (Romeo) as Maria holds him as he dies. However, she does not take her own life. Instead, she threatens both gangs with the quote: “You all killed him, and my brother, and Riff! Not with bullets and knives, but with HATE! Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate! How many can I kill, Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?”.
This quote pays homage to Romeo and Juliet, but also differs in the fact that Maria does not actually take her own life, but instead uses the moment to pontificate to the two gangs of the consequences of their actions and the ramifications of such hate, by implying that the hate she now feels could drive her to commit a similar act. This echoes the scene in Romeo and Juliet where Prince Escalus confronts the two families on the consequences of their hatred after the discovery of Romeo and Juliet’s bodies.
Interestingly, West Side Story was originally being framed as East Side Story, set as a clash between a Catholic gang and a Jewish gang set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But when playwright Arthur Laurents joined the creative team, he was worried that the show would be seen as a musical version of 1922’s Abie’s Irish Rose, which was already a romantic story involving Irish Catholics and Jews, written by Anne Nichols. The idea for West Side Story came when Laurents and Bernstein saw a newspaper headline about Chicano gang violence, which led to a conversation around changing the Jews to Puerto Ricans, of which there were a large influx emigrating to New York City. In the 1950s, Puerto Rican immigration to the US peaked at almost 500,000 making it a hot topic to put into a work of theatre.
The choice to echo such a popular, well-known play was a clever choice, as it allowed the creative team to experiment with more progressive ideas in terms of social commentary and music.
A core element of West Side Story is the surrounding social pressures and the social realities of the times that encompass the story. The artistic vision of the show is rife with social issues of racial tensions, gang violence, immigration, and run-ins with law enforcement. Some parts of West Side Story appear archaic to us now, in the modern age, but a lot of its commentary on society remains incredibly relevant. The pervasive ‘us vs them’ mentality eerily echoes the gang wars that are visible within West Side Story with the recent US government shutdown and the left vs right wing debacle that continues to unfold. The themes of xenophobia and heavy anti-police brutality movements are also key ideas within West Side Story that are still all too familiar to us in the present day. The opening lyrics to Somewhere still ring true in the modern age:
‘There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
Bernstein also makes use of a minor seventh within this song, which has become synonymous over time with a motif of hope and coming out on top against the worst case scenario.
West Side Story ousts the angst and the temper of the youth gangs through dance, dialogue and the orchestral score much more than it does via song and lyrics. However, one noticeable deviation from this is the number Gee, Officer Krupke, which shows that the members of the Jets are realistically not very high above the immigrants of the Sharks in the actual scope of the social ladder at the time. The gang sings:
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand –
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly moses – natcherly we’re punks!
Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We’ve never had the love that every child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
Deep down inside us there is good!
This song is asking the authorities not to perceive and profile them as juvenile delinquents, but rather to see their side of the story as being people who are born to lose. This is quite a deep statement, but the tempo notation of a ‘fast, vaudeville style’ it turns a song about juvenile delinquency into camp, which was a technique that Bernstein used quite often when topics shifted to a controversial topic, such as gender or politics. The song also includes references to cross-dressing and transgender behaviour, as well as begging for jobs, social security and economic safety. This, however, is all wrapped up within a happy-go-lucky number, provides both a compelling social point while also allowing for some light relief after the preceding deaths of Riff and Bernardo.
The decision to change the two gangs to American Polish youths and Puerto Ricans was very apt for the time, with segregation of public schools being a hot topic. The Supreme Court had recently ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional in 1954 during Brown v. Board of Education. It was also in 1955 that Rosa Parks famously and defiantly refused to relocate to the ‘coloured’ area of the bus, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Ultimately, in 1957, the Civil Rights Act was signed, and West Side Story made its debut on stage amongst a plethora of civil rights movements and at a significant point in America’s racial history. This meant that West Side Story, intentionally or not, ended up playing a role in incorporating the theatrical world into what was happening in society around it at the time. We may have lost some of the idea of how strict racial segregation was back in the mid-20th century, and some of the casting decisions in West Side Story are today condemned as being tokenistic and the show is broadly criticised for being stereotypical of people of Latin American descent. This was rectified somewhat in the 2009 Broadway revival, with Lin-Manuel Miranda rewriting many of the lyrics in Maria, A Boy Like That and I Feel Pretty into Spanish, to help give more identity to the Puerto Rican characters in the show. Some of these were later changed back to English for audience intelligibility and “…to provide a bigger dramatic wallop” as per Jeffrey Seller, one of the show’s producers. In particular, the lyric in A Boy Like That: ‘A boy like that who’d kill your brother’. It reaffirmed for Arthur Laurents – who directed the 2009 revival and wrote the original book for West Side Story more than 50 years prior that no production ever needs to be ‘frozen’ and can always be developed.
Another area that West Side Story pushed boundaries was with the use of music to psychologically influence audiences. Leonard Bernstein utilises a dissonant musical interval as a unifying sonic motif throughout West Side Story. This sound, present in music since the 10th century, is known as the tritone. It is commonly referred to as ‘the devil in music’. It indicates towards insecurity, uneasiness, and lack of resolution in sound. It is famously present in the first two notes of Maria.
The tritone is used in West Side Story to demonstrate lack of closure from the show’s beginning, right through to its end. It sends a sonic message about psychological conflict and instability. Audiences tend to long for ultimate reolution, but in West Side Story, there is no resolution of conflict or dissonance, as the show ends on a tritone, as Tony dies in Maria’s arms. This makes use of both the musical element and the social commentary that is present within West Side Story to further enhance the message of the story to create a more thought-provoking experience, as all of the themes within West Side Story remain relevant even to this day.
Also present within West Side Story is the Somewhere motive. Motive A consists of the melodic idea that goes alongside the phrase “There’s a place for us”. The beginning of this phrase is a minor 7th, which is quite large. This normally indicates great longing, and this example is no different.
Motive B is more of a rhythmic idea, being a short-long rhythm on a major second interval. In Somewhere, it is present in the phrase “someday, somewhere” immediately preceding “we’ll find a new way of living”. Although, both of these motives appear in the show far before we hear them sung in Act Two. Motive B and its short-long rhythm first show up in the ending of Maria. Motive A appears in the underscore of Tonight as Tony sings on stage by himself. This is the first instance where the minor 7th appears, and Bernstein uses it here to indicate how much Tony is longing for what is to come. There are six variations of Motive A present underneath the dialogue between Tony and Maria. Afterwards, in the ending tag, both Motive A and Motive B are present in full. This could lead audiences to associate a feeling of loving or desire with Somewhere, but the full ramifications of this aren’t present until much later in the story. Normally, the theme is made concrete and then built upon, but with Somewhere, the seeds are sown early in the show, and then brought to fruition later in Act Two.
West Side Story is different to most musicals in that it doesn’t finish with a huge, show-stopping number. Instead, there is a huge amount of thematic significance attached in the music in the closing moments of the show. Bernstein uses the tritone and the Somewhere motives to possibly pose an answer to West Side Story’s main question: can love triumph over hatred?
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