West Side Story is a musical written by Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and was originally produced, choreographed, and directed by Jerome Robbins. West Side Story debuted on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater on September 26, 1957 and played 732 performances before going on tour - a very successful run for the time. It was nominated for Best Musical in 1957, but lost out on the Tony Award to Meredith Wilson's The Music Man.
The main theme of the story is its conflict. There are two rival gangs of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds that loathe one another. Yet the innocent young protagonist, who belongs to an established local gang (the Jets), falls in love with "Maria," the sister of the leader of the rival gang (the Sharks).
The dark theme, sophisticated music, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theater, which had leaned previously toward light themes. West Side Story is produced frequently by local theaters and is produced by occasionally classical opera companies.
Bernstein's score for the musical has been extremely popular. Some of the songs include "Something's Coming", "Maria", "America", "Somewhere", "Tonight", "Gee, Officer Krupke", "I Feel Pretty", "One Hand, One Heart", and "Cool". Some music he wrote but did not use later became integrated into the Chichester Psalms.
In the Prologue, a conflict between two rival teenage gangs, the Jets (2nd generation Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) is enacted through dance. The boys are struggling for control of the neighborhood. Accented by police whistles and taunting phrases, the Prologue establishes the fierce rivalry between the two groups.
Following a brief exchange with the ineffective policemen, Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke, Riff, the leader of the Jets, devises a plan to gain control of the street ("The Jet Song"). The members of the gang boast of their strength, restate their bond to one another and declare their intention to protect their turf. Riff and the Jets decide to initiate a rumble, with control of the neighborhood as a prize for the winning gang.
Riff has a harder time getting his best friend Tony to re-join the gang. Riff convinces Tony to join the Jets at the neighborhood dance where Riff's plan will be put into motion. Tony agrees out of a sense of loyalty to Riff, but expresses his unhappiness with his current life. He feels himself growing away from the gang and envisions a different and better future ("Something's Coming").
Maria, the sister of the Shark leader, Bernardo, has only been in America a short time. She works with Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, in the bridal shop. Anita is making Maria a dress to wear to the neighborhood dance. Maria sees this dance as the official beginning of her life in this country. Like Tony, she is full of hope. Bernardo arrives with Chino, a quiet, intense member of the Sharks. Maria's family has selected Chino to be her future husband.
A social worker, the Gladhand, introduces the rival gang members and their girls; they dance sociably for about two minutes. Then a challenge dance erupts. Tony and Maria, however, suddenly see one another. In a moment of romantic suspension, they dance together, oblivious of the tension around them. They fall in love. The romantic idyll is interrupted when Bernardo roughly pulls Maria from Tony's arms. Maria is sent home, as Riff and Bernardo arrange a War Council at the local coffee shop which is considered neutral ground.
Unaware of the plan between the two leaders, an ecstatic Tony sings of his newfound love ("Maria"). As he sings, Maria appears on a fire escape above him. They profess their love for each other ("Tonight").
Anita and Rosalia, along with other Puerto Rican girls, are gathered on a city rooftop. They begin to express conflicting views about their lives in the United States ("America").
At the drugstore, the shopkeeper, Doc, tries to convince the Jets not to have a rumble with the Sharks. The gang try to show Doc their pent-up tension they feel ("Cool"). Ignoring Doc, Riff and Bernardo set up the rumble for the next day and agree on weapons. Tony suggests a less dangerous fist fight. After the others leave, Tony dismisses Doc's fear with his conviction nothing can go wrong because he is in love with Maria.
The next day, Maria learns about the rumble from Anita at the Bridal Shop. When Tony arrives, Anita leaves. Maria begs Tony to stop the rumble and he promises her he will. They enact a mock marriage ceremony ("One Hand, One Heart") swearing that "even death can't part us now."
Later that night the boys on both sides prepare for the upcoming rumble, Anita prepares for her date with Bernardo after the rumble,and Tony and Maria sing of the excitement they feel for when they will see each other again ("Tonight Quintet").
Tony tries to stop the rumble in progress under a highway. In the midst of insults, pushing, and shoving, Bernardo stabs Riff. As he dies, Riff passes Tony his knife, as if he knows what is going to come next. In blind fury, Tony angrily stabs Bernardo in an act of revenge. The sirens scream; everyone runs except Tony, who stands transfixed at what he has done. Anybodys, a tomboy whose dream is to become a Jet, has followed the gang, and prods Tony to escape, just in time. The curtain comes down on a stage which is empty except for the bodies of Riff and Bernardo.
Unaware of the tragedy under the highway, Maria sings to her friends about her reactions to love ("I Feel Pretty"). She speaks of marriage, and her friends assume she is thinking about Chino. Chino enters with the news Tony has killed Bernardo. Left alone, Maria is praying; Tony enters through the window. He explains why he killed Bernardo in a moment of anger over Riff's death. Maria forgives him, and they declare their determination to be together. They both imagine a new world where they can live together in peace and acceptance ("Somewhere"). At the end of the dream, Tony and Maria are in her bed, in each other's arms.
In an alley, the bumbling Officer Krupke is questioning the Jets about the murders. The gang ridicules him and the adults (social workers, cops, psychiatrists, and judges) who fail to understand what motivates their behavior ("Gee, Officer Krupke"). Anita arrives at Maria's apartment. Tony escapes through the window, telling Maria to meet him at the drugstore so they can run away together. Anita realizes Tony has been with Maria and turns on Maria in fury for making love to the man who killed her (Maria's) brother ("A Boy Like That"). However, when Maria explains ("I Have a Love"), Anita realizes Maria loves Tony as much as she loved Bernardo. She warns Maria Chino has a gun and is planning to kill Tony. When Shrank arrives to question Maria, Anita agrees to go to the candy store to tell Tony to wait for her.
Anita is prevented from reaching Tony by the ethnic prejudice of the Jets. The gang's verbal taunting of Anita gets physical and is turning into rape when she is saved by Doc. In her fury and humiliation, Anita lies and tells Tony's buddies Chino has killed Maria. Doc tells Tony, who is hiding in his cellar, Maria and his dreams for the future are gone because she is dead. Feeling there is nothing to live for now, Tony runs out to find Chino. On the street, he sees Maria. As they run towards each other Chino appears and shoots Tony. Tony is still alive, but struggling. As Maria the Jets and Sharks flock around the lovers, Maria tries to pull Tony back from the brink of death ("Somewhere Reprise") . But Tony is mortally wounded, and he dies in Maria's arms. The adults arrive at the scene, and Maria takes Chino's gun. She tells everyone that hatred is what killed Tony and the others, and now she can kill them because their hate has affected her. But she is unable to bring herself to fire it, and she collapses in her grief. She brings the cycle of violence that the gangs have had to an end.
Gradually, all the members of both gangs assemble on either side of Tony's body. They agree to stop their feuding and resolve their differences, as Maria kisses him gently. The Jets and Sharks form a procession and together they carry Tony offstage. Chino is hustled off to jail by Krupke, while the adults stand by, still helpless.
Criticism in Puerto Rico
Worth noting is that the production made a commentary on racism in a time when public displays, or articulations of race issues (and many other issues that are commented on in the production), was uncommon in popular mainstream films and entertainment.
Specifically contained in the song "America", what stands out is that the movie version (1961), plays the United States as the horrible place to live, versus the play version (1957), in which Puerto Rico is portrayed as a poorer choice to live.
To this day, however, mentioning "West Side Story" in Puerto Rico is practically a taboo, and most Puerto Ricans perceive the play and subsequent film (still, even more than forty years after their publication) as the originators of an offensive stereotype that has been slow and difficult to remove from the collective American psyche.
Many Puerto Rican scholars have panned the musical as culturally inaccurate at best, and blatantly racist at worst. Some of their criticism is directed at Bernstein's lack of use of true Puerto Rican musical influences in his score (for example, "Mambo" is decidedly afrocuban, while "America"'s rhythm and instrumentation mimics that of Mexican and Central American musical forms, but nowhere were autochthonous musical forms such as bomba and plena used). Ambientation, character names and cultural nuances have also been depicted as inaccurate. The selection of Natalie Wood, whose ancestry was Russian, as the lead character in the film version is occassionally mentioned as a minor negative. However, the bigger offense seems to be the perceived unfavorable portrayal of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the story.
Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Anita in the motion picture version (and a Puerto Rican herself), has defended "West Side Story" by stating: first, that Italian-Americans and other second generation Americans had the same right to feel offended by the unfavorable portrayal in the story; second, that (unfortunately, in her view) the general subtexts of gang violence and poverty being prevalent among Puerto Ricans were true at the time the play was written. She does recognize the lack of authenticity in many aspects of the play and subsequent productions, but puts them in the context of the time and place when it was first produced. Finally, she reminds people that the basic premise of the story -love conquering hatred- and the veiled criticism of racism and bigotry in the plot are missed by many of the play's detractors.
In 1984, Bernstein decided to re-record the musical, conducting his own music for the first time. Generally known as the "operatic version" of West Side Story, it stars Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, Jos√© Carreras as Tony, Tatiana Troyanos as Anita, Kurt Ollman as Riff, and Marilyn Horne as the offstage voice who sings "Somewhere". It won a Grammy award in 1985 and the recording process was filmed as a documentary.
The original 1957 stage production starred Larry Kert as Tony and Carol Lawrence as Maria.
A 1980 Broadway revival starred Debbie Allen as Anita. A 1987 tour starred Jack Wagner as Tony. A 1995 tour starred Marcie Harriell as Maria and H.E. Greer as Tony. A 1998 tour starred Rikki Lee Travolta as Tony. A 2002 tour starred Natasha Harper as Maria.
George Chakiris, who won an Academy Award as Bernardo in the 1961 film version of West Side Story, originated the role of Riff in the 1958 London stage premiere.
The Jets (Montagues)
The Sharks (Capulets)
Some of the characters in West Side Story have counterparts in Romeo and Juliet.
Male Lead. Modern-day Montague. Both characters are portrayed as growing out of youthful pastimes in favor of romantic pursuits. Both die in the end: Tony from an enemy's gunshot; Romeo from poisoning.
Female Lead. Modern-day Capulet. Both are forced into engagements with men they do not desire. Maria's survival at the end of the story (despite her threats to commit suicide with the same gun that killed her lover) departs from Shakespeare's ending wherein Juliet willingly commits suicide with Romeo's dagger.
The Embittered Fianc√©. Both are engaged to the female lead. Paris dies from a duel with Romeo in Act V. However, Chino survives after having shot Tony to death in the final scene.
Ring-Leader of the Sharks and Capulets, respectively. While Tybalt is Juliet's cousin, Bernardo was written as Maria's brother and protector, creating a closer familial bond. The male lead kills both.
Friend to Tony/Romeo. Both men are indifferent and dismissive to the male lead's new romance and/or life goals. Both men are killed by their enemy's ring-leader, and their friends kill their assassin in retaliation, resulting in a path that leads to tragedy.
Friend to Tony/Romeo. Although he consorts with the Jets/Montagues, he is opposed to the bitter rivalry between the two gangs/families and wishes the fighting to stop. He is always encouraging his fellows to leave the scene of battle and not participate, but his wishes are often ignored by the more aggressive gang/family members.
Friend and confidante to the female lead. However, Anita is also Bernardo's girlfriend, which adds considerable interpersonal conflict. Both know about the romance between the leading characters, but choose not to subvert it. In fact, Nurse aids Juliet in her secret marriage to Romeo. Anita reluctantly chooses not to reveal Maria and Tony's relationship to Bernardo (her boyfriend), though she angrily denounces it to Maria a few scenes after Bernardo's death.
Confidante/father figure to the male lead, as their real father figure is dead/uncaring about them. Friar Laurence blesses and officiates Romeo and Juliet's private nuptials. Doc loans a considerable amount of money to Tony so that he may flee New York City with Maria. Keeping with a theme of tragic irony, both characters unwittingly send the male leads to their deaths by relating the tragic "news" that Maria/Juliet has died.
Authority figure attempting to keep the fragile peace between the warring sides. However, Schrank is sympathetic to the Jets, unlike the neutral Prince.
The score for West Side Story was orchestrated by Bernstein himself, with assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. The orchestra personnel required for a proper performance of the score is among the largest in the musical theater repertoire. The score calls for five woodwind players, seven brasses, five percussionists, a keyboardist, a guitarist, and twelve string players. In all, 30 musicians are needed to perform the score as intended by the composer.
Basis upon tritone
The work is notable for being largely based upon the interval of a tritone, also known as an augmented fourth or diminished fifth. This interval, the basic dissonance, normally represents tension or unrest and so fits very well with the story of the musical. The tritone is most obvious in the first two notes of the song "Maria" (in this case the distance between E-natural and B-flat), but there are instances of the interval in nearly every number in the musical. The first three notes of the song span a tritone and then a rising half step, a motif first introduced in the Prologue that is very important in the entire musical, appearing in numbers such as the "Mambo" and "Rumble" and forming the both ostinato bass line and the melody of the song "Cool." In addition, the accompaniment of the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" switches between the home key of the melody and the key a tritone away (e.g., C and F-sharp) and the introduction to the song "One Hand, One Heart" is based on the tritone-half step motive. The tritone appears for the final time near the very end of the piece, where several times a pianissimo C major chord in the high registers of the orchestra is interrupted by a low F-sharp in the bass register. Only in the final bar is the C chord allowed to remain uninterrupted, thus creating a very last-minute release of tension.