West Side Story Review and Commentary
First performed: On Broadway in 1957, where it ran for 732 performances
Story written by: Arthur Laurents
Music by: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by: Steven Sondheim (his Broadway debut)
Choreography by: Jerome Robbins
Produced by: Robert E. Griffith and Harold Prince
The setting is the upper West Side of New York City in the mid 1950s.
Robbins won a Tony Award for the choreography, and Oliver Smith won one for his scenic design.
Following the Broadway run, the show went on tour, and ran in London even longer than it had run on Broadway. It subsequently had numerous revivals and international productions.
For the musical1961 film adaptation, Robbins collaborated with Robert Wise, in which both shared directing credits.
Interestingly, Robbins had initially approached Laurents to write an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet back in 1947, but the project did not appeal at that time, and was shelved.
Warning: Spoiler Alert
Major spoiler alert! If you, like me, were hiding under a rock and have never seen this play, you might want to stop reading now. Or, continue reading if you want the stripped-down version.
Afterthought: I wasn't truly "hiding under a rock," I was merely too young to be aware of Broadway plays. When it debuted, I was only 9 years old; when the movie version came out, I was a very young-for-my-age, over-protected 13 years old. I wasn't aware of it then, either, and had I been, I probably wouldn't have had the full understanding I have as an adult.
Although this musical was first performed on Broadway, in September of 1957, and later made into a full-length movie, released in 1961, I had somehow never seen either version.
So, at the ripe old age of 71, in 2019, I finally watched the movie version. I was more or less shocked at the ugliness of the plot.
While I was aware that the story was essentially a modernized version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, I was not prepared for the modern twist of the story.
Instead of feuding families, it's about feuding rival street gangs, and not just any gangs, but groups whose main focus is racial bias.
The ugly prejudice and name-calling was something I did not expect; it is so blatant, and so much a part of the entire story! It was also very much a part of the era in which the events are set.
It was also very sad. It is, after all, a tragic love story, but I felt additional sadness at the seemingly endless inability of humans to just get along, and to recognize our mutual underlying humanity, and overlook the skin-level differences. This play truly emphasizes that failing, and multiple losses and tragedies are the result.
"Tonight" Probably the Most Recognized Song From This Play
The protagonists, Maria and Tony fall in love; unfortunately, their family members and friends belong to rival gangs.
Maria's family desperately tries to forbid her to see her love interest, telling her to “find one of your own.” Maria is Puerto Rican; Tony is American. The lovers continue their tryst in spite of external pressures. In the end, Maria's brother ends up dead, and so does Tony.
The “Jets,” the American street gang goes to battle with the “Sharks,” the Puerto Rican street gang, and in addition to Maria's brother, the lead member of the “Jets” also gets killed.
A "Rodney King" Plea
This truly is a case of art mirroring life.
What is so sad about this outcome, is that it's something we still see happening in this day and age: people railing against “immigrants,” all the while failing to recognize and accept that we are all immigrants to this country; or are the descendants of immigrants.
Not one of us, save the Native American Tribes, can truly claim full generational native-born status!
It's time to get over ourselves, and leave this divisiveness behind in the dirt where it belongs, and learn to get along with each other, and deal with the much larger issues facing us in the 21st century.
© 2019 Liz Elias