West Side Story



An Essay by Linda Hoskins



West Side Story is a musical based on Shakespeare's tragic love story, 'Romeo and Juliet'. The music was composed by the talented Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim. Already a huge stage hit on Broadway, the film was released in 1961 directed by Robert Wise and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

Right from the beginning we are aware of conflict between two gangs in New York. This tension is heightened by the fact that one gang, the Sharks, are Puerto Rican. The inevitable happens: Tony, the ex-leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Their relationship is doomed from the start. Rather than being happy they are Shakespeare's "star crossed lovers". Their love does not have a chance.

Tony, urged by Maria, tries to stop a fight between the two gangs. However, Riff his best friend and the new leader of the Jets is killed by Maria's brother, Bernardo. Tony in turn kills him. Maria is prepared to stand by Tony but an unfortunate series of events leads to Tony being killed by Chino, one of the Puerto Ricans.

The opening of the film is very innovative. The importance of the musical content is emphasised. This is no mere pragmatic presentation of credits. Instead we have an indecipherable pattern set against a sequence of changing colours. At the end of the musical introduction (which is rather like an operatic overture) a sudden change occurs which initiates a feature revealed throughout the film. The abstract picture suddenly changes to a realistic and identifiable view of New York's Manhattan Island. The music suddenly becomes the naturalistic sound of street traffic. For a few minutes we have a realistic and documentary like view of New York from the air. Editing has produced 12 varying views of the city and then the camera zooms into downtown New York and at the same time moves from documentary to the extremes of stylism.

From now until the end of the film all of the different scenes are rather staged: the streets, the gym hall for the dance, Doc's shop, the tailors, Maria's house and the rooftop scenes. Shakespeare's audience could see: " In fair Verona, where we lay our scene." The camera has shown our setting to be New York.

The film obviously fits the genre of a musical. No less than 17 numbers are present in the film, many becoming much loved favourites over the years. Much of the score is accompanied by spectacular dancing routines showing the participants to be full of energy. The colour in the film is very pronounced, a trait of musicals especially ones of that period. As has been previously mentioned, the settings are rather stagey and unrealistic. Although the underlying theme of the film is all too true to life, the rather unrealistic bursting into song and dance at what seems to be inopportune moments, makes it fall into the category of musical. As a contrast to the theme of tragedy giving it traits of a musical is the humour, fun and laughter present in the film. Both gangs have fun at the expense of the police and there are some good, humourous lines: "Top of the morning, Lieutenant!" and: "Can you translate that into Spanish". A lot of the humour comes from the words of the songs: numbers like America and Officer Krupke are full of fun but both have bitter underlying messages; "Everything's free in America. For a small fee in America", and "Gee officer Krupke we're very upset, we haven't had the love every child ought to get" etc. Humour also comes in the Jets treatment of Anybody's although to a certain extent there is rather a nasty element to the humour: "It's the only way she'll ever get any man to touch her", and "Go walk the streets like your sister", when they want rid of her.

In spite of their lack of opportunities both gangs have a lot of fun at the dance (although it is laced with tension). This fun is portrayed by the vibrant colours of the girl's dresses and the boys' shirts, the frenetic music and the quick editing.

The final point I would like to make about the musical genre is that the director's portrayal of the tragic couple, Tony and Maria, fits more or less into this category. This couple are almost too good to be true. They are presented in a rather sickly sweet way. She is pure, innocent, beautiful and newly arrived from Puerto Rico. She implicitly trusts Tony, the good looking, hard working, all American boy. He is rather naive to think that he can stop the rumble. He is blinkered enough to think that, even after he has killed Bernardo, Maria and himself can have a life together. Most musicals do end on a happy note where love conquers all. This one deviates slightly from the norm.

To conclude on genre, it should be pointed out that because of the innovative new ideas put forward by the director and the choreographer, typical musical audiences might feel rather uneasy. The result of these ideas is a combination of realism and high stylisation. The rather balletic and operatic scenes might not appeal. Although there is love interest, the setting is not one of conventionally romantic never-never land but rather the underside of the real world. There is no happy ending with the girl being rescued by the knight in shining armour.

The narrative structure used by the director is clearly classical in nature and he uses the wonderful music and lyrics to advance the storyline. The opening is classical in convention in that we are immediately asking ourselves questions about what is going on and what is going to happen next.

Thereafter several strands of conflict move the narrative on: conflict between the Jets and the Sharks; conflict between both gangs and the local police; disagreement between Anita and Maria; conflicts between Anita and the Jets; the conflict caused by Tony and Maria's relationship: the final conflict towards the end of the film. Unfortunately most of this conflict is unresolved.

The film develops along two main parallel narrative strands: the conflict between the gangs and the relationship between Tony and Maria. In the first twenty minutes of the film during the singing and dancing routine conflict is established right away. The camera first of all focuses on the Jets and a big close up and the subsequent actions of Riff establishes him as the leader. The camera then moves to an aerial view of the Sharks establishing Bernardo as the leader by following him closely as he moves about the streets. The quick editing and the camera following both gangs as they run and dance through the city is very effective. The rather ferocious music linked to this and the continual close ups of each of the leaders (the camera quickly moving from one to the other) shows the conflict and antagonism.

Aerial views of the graffiti representing both gangs adds to the idea of territorial conflict. The plot is moved on by the singing of both gangs: "Against the Sharks we need every man we got" (Jets) and: " We're gonna hand them a surprise, some day" (Sharks). One particular device used during the chase scenes is to split up the action by having a car, bus or tram moving very quickly across the screen. This clever editing enables the camera to move naturally from gang to gang and it expands on the idea of speed.

The section near the beginning when Baby John is writing on the wall in the Sharks territory and is caught is very effective. He looks up as does the camera and sees one after another of the opposing gang sitting on the wall. As the camera focuses on each of the opposing gang we hear threatening sforzando chords. The camera is now above Baby John and the fact that it follows the Sharks jumping down to his level make him seem extremely vulnerable.

Further into the film there is conflict between both gangs and the local policemen, Lieutenant Shanks and officer Krupke. The superior is immediately antagonistic towards the boys: "You hoodlums don't own the streets" and "Get your friends out and stay out, Bernardo!" Later on when he is trying to find out where the rumble is going to be held he becomes intolerant of and extremely racist to the Puerto Ricans.

It is significant that the gangs are united against the police: the lieutenant is the villain of the piece. Although the boys hate each other they are united against the authorities. When the policemen come into Doc's cafe, the composition of the shot is rather surprising: both gangs are chatting together, playing cards, playing darts etc. The camera moves slowly around the cafe letting us as the audience see the different groups getting on together. We obviously know that it is a front as does the lieutenant. However the fact that he causes further conflict by throwing the Puerto Ricans out is significant.

The conflict of the rumble lasts for 8 minutes on screen. The lighting of the playground is dark and shadowy in contrast to the high colour of the rest of the film. The Sharks arrive first by climbing over the fence, the camera looking up to them. The camera then cuts to the arrival of the Jets at the other side of the screen. The camera looks up to show them rather threateningly standing in a line at the top of a wall. This shot makes them seem powerful.

Once the fighting actually begins Tony appears right between Riff and Bernardo and then as he shouts, "Hold it!" we have an extreme closeup of him showing his importance in the subsequent action. Although he tries to stop the fight, he actually makes things worse. When we have increased lighting and a speeding up of music after Riff punches Bernardo in the face we realise that the real action has begun. Our thoughts are further confirmed by the camera focussing on the flashing of Bernardo's knife. During a rather staged and balletic fight Tony comes and pulls Riff back. At this we hear a diminishing chromatic scale on the piano. Immediately afterwards, Riff is killed and this is rather significant because the preceding music sounded as if his very life blood was diminishing.

The closeup of Bernardo staring at his knife is rather shocking because we realise that although all of the boys act tough, none of them really wanted things to go this far. The silence on screen is ominous and when Tony lunges at Bernardo killing him, it is not totally unexpected.

The noise of police sirens breaks up the fighting of the gangs and again the playground is bathed in dark shadows. The police searchlights breaking into these shadows at the end of this scene is rather creepy. The striking of the clock at midnight adds to the general gloom of the scene as it reminds us of Maria and Anita waiting for their respective partners.

At various stages in the film there's conflict between Anita and Maria over Tony. This conflict is more or less resolved. A very moving scene takes place after the girls discover that Bernardo has been killed by Tony. Anita finds out that Tony has been with Maria. The music and the lyrics of the song "I have a love" make this scene so powerful and emotional. The camera does very little, simply focusing on the girls holding hands. After this, the girls are united against the policeman and Anita agrees to go to Doc's store and pass on a message to Tony, a brave thing for her to do remembering that he has just murdered her boyfriend.

This brings me on to the conflict between Anita and the Jets when she gets to Doc's - For me, this is a most disturbing and realistic part of the film. She has all my sympathy. Although Anita is obviously frightened and uneasy when she goes into the cafe to a certain extent she plays along with the boys. Throughout the scene her terror and uneasiness is all the more marked because of how confident and vivacious she has been throughout the film.

She has always been loyal to Maria, not giving her away when she meets Tony in the shop, not alerting Chino to Tony's whereabouts etc. However because of the despicable way she is treated, her grief and anger turn to sheer hatred of Americans and what they stand for: "Bernardo was right. If one of you was lying in the street bleeding, I'd walk past and spit on you!" She moves on to tell the lie that in effect causes Tony's death: "I've got a message for your American buddy. You tell that murderer that Maria is never going to meet him. You tell him that Chino found out about them and shot her!" Earlier on in the film she had been singing the praises of her new country, America. Now she realises what a horrible, cruel place it can be. It is significant that during her scene of harassment the music on the jukebox has refrains of 'America! The action in the cafe is rather frantic as she is shoved around from one Jet to the next. This is reminiscent of the frantic dancing to America on the roof. There is a bitter irony in the words of the song now: "I want to be in America, Okay by me in America".

Why I find the scene so disturbing is because it is so realistic. The boys angry because their friend has been killed by Bernardo, are taking their anger and hatred out on his girl. She couldn't have picked a worse time to be taking Tony a message. Anita is on the floor surrounded by the Jets and had it not been for the intervention of Doc at this particular point she would surely have been raped.

Just before Doc appears we see the crowd of boys looking down on her rather as if they are in some sort of rugby scrum. The camera is looking up at them therefore we see the scene from her point of view. No wonder she is terrified and no wonder she turns against Tony and Maria.

By this point in the film we realise that things must come to a climax: it is not going to be a happy ever after musical. The climax comes when Tony is killed by Chino. To a certain extent the conflict has been resolved because of the three deaths. However the ending is extremely pessimistic because we know that there will always be hatred between rival gangs/rival cultures/groups of people etc.

The increase of real life violence and violence on the screen might have slightly dated the film. Modern day audiences may find the balletic violence disconcerting. We can no longer reconcile nice tunes with supposedly violent people. The theme has not dated. Before his death the composer Bernstein was to say: "Alas, the materials of the work have not become dated. Would that they had for the sake of our world!" I can only agree with him wholeheartedly.

Along with the conflict we have the parallel narrative of Tony and Maria's love. It is significant that our first sight of Maria is immediately after Tony has sung the ballad "Something's coming". When the camera moves to Maria in the tailor's, we know that the 'something' of the song must be her. The dialogue tells us that she is going to the dance so instinctively we know that they are going to meet there especially when the closing words of this scene are: "Today is the first day of my new life as an American girl!" When they do meet at the dance, the camera shows the impact of their meeting. She stands out amongst the colourful dresses in her white dress. She is almost ghost like and this is enhanced by the soft focusing of the camera on her. At the other side of the screen we see a closeup of him also in soft focus. Meanwhile the fast dance music becomes a slow cha cha. They dance dreamily, staring at each other. Eventually the other dancers fade into oblivion.

During their conversation the camera cuts from one face to the other showing the intensity of their emotions. The speeding up of the music heralds the inevitable interruption. Just as they are kissing, Bernardo catches hold of Maria and sends her home after confronting Tony.

Tony walks straight out of the dance hall into a fantasy sequence. He walks the city streets into a night which has become charged with a magical glow. The fact that he loses his grip on reality makes us feel uneasy as, even at this point, we realise their relationship is doomed. The scene outside Maria's bedroom parallels Shakespeare's balcony scene. They are together for less than five minutes on screen. Their illicit meeting makes us feel uneasy and the fact that Maria's father keeps calling her adds to this feeling. They could be caught at any time. The fact that they are prepared to take such risks moves the narrative on making the audience aware that they will be prepared to make huge sacrifices for their love.

For me, the scene where they meet in Maria's shop is very poignant. The unfortunate couple act out a charade using the tailor's dummies. They pretend that after the rumble they will meet each others respective parents. They go on to act out a respectable wedding scene with Riff and Anita as best man and bridesmaid which by the nature of things can never come to fruition. The lyrics and the music of "One hand, one heart" makes this especially poignant.

The fact that Tony kills Bernardo does not split up the couple. If anything in the face of grief, their relationship is stronger. Maria is grief stricken and angry but her love for Tony means she is unable to send him away when he appears. She is kneeling down praying when she sees him in the mirror. This device used by the director is very effective as it lets the audience see both of their faces at the same time and it lets their eyes meet in our view.

Even at this point in the film Tony is still optimistic about their future. Maria is less so and her comment "It's not us but everyone around us" leads on to the ballad Somewhere . Clinging together desperately, they envisage a place where they can be free from prejudice: "We'll find a new way of living, We'll find a new way of forgiving, somewhere". Once again, we as the audience know this is not to be and are preparing ourselves for the inevitable climax.

Tony leaves his hiding place and wanders through the streets calling on Chino to come and get him. Maria has been searching for him and just as they embrace, Chino shoots Tony. Both gangs appear and surround the couple, the camera moving round the whole scene. An extreme close up show Tony dying and Maria's grief. The camera cuts to the Jets standing in a row looking down and then to the Sharks who are likewise. Maria, overcome by grief, confronts both gangs blaming them for the evenings tragedies. It is significant that now she is dressed in red as opposed to the white she has worn throughout most of the film. She is no longer pure and innocent but has learned the harsh realities of life. When the lieutenant arrives she won't let him touch the body. Instead she sits over Tony looking up at both gangs. The camera cuts to the gangs looking awkward because of her outburst. They realise her words are indeed the truth. When the Jets have difficulty lifting Tony's body, two members of the Sharks help. Baby John lifts Maria's black scarf onto her head. The gangs have been drawn together by the tragedy. The conflict is unresolved though in the eyes of the audience because we know that this kind of racial hatred will always be present.

As has already been pointed out, downtown New York has been shown as a rather unpleasant place to live. To a certain extent the Jets are portrayed as nice boys really but they just happen to have been born in the wrong area. New York has been represented as a mean, harsh place to grow up in. These boys are no hopers and have little to look forward to in life. The thought of working seems alien to them. As one says of Tony: "But he's working. What's he want to go and get a job for?" Apart from Tony who appears to be trying to better himself, they seem to have accepted their lot in life. They realise they are underprivileged and that the area has a lot of social problems. They feel that they simply must get on with things. Their outlets seems to be violence. The funny but bitter lyrics of Officer Krupke sum up how they are represented: "Gee officer Krupke, we're very upset, we never had the love that every child ought to get." and further on:" They didn't want to have me but somehow I was had, leapin' lizards that's why I'm so bad!"

Although they try to act tough and mean, we get the impression that they only act like this through necessity. When Riff and Bernardo are killed the Jets are genuinely shocked. Baby John is crying but tries to hide his emotion from the others. They are all very upset and it needs Action to pull them together by singing : Keep Cool . He is their new leader now.

The violence of the boys towards Anita in the cafe show them as young American thugs but the fact that they don't actually rape her (because they are interrupted by Doc) goes in their favour. To a certain extent they are portrayed as grief stricken young men who are taking their anger out on the girlfriend of the boy who killed their friend. They can't see why she would want to help her boyfriend's murderer. They see her presence as a threat to Tony so perhaps that can be an excuse for their bad behaviour. The Puerto Rican males are to a certain extent not represented at all in the film although of course we have attitudes towards them represented. Perhaps for fear of accusations of racism Bernardo is gentlemanly like and by implication his nameless and faceless followers share the same qualities. The Puerto Ricans are struggling to make a new life for themselves in America in the face of adversity.

On the whole they appear to be positive, happy and rather flamboyant; although the words of 'America' are at times rather bitter. At the dance the bright colours of the dresses of the Puerto Rican girls are in contrast to the American girls. They show themselves to be better dancers and better movers. To a certain extent they are trying to show they are better than the Americans at something. The fact that we individuate the American characters because they each have a distinct identity, shows the Puerto Ricans as an alien group in 'white' America.

The intolerance and hatred of the average American is personified in the character of the lieutenant. He is the voice of authority and he abuses his position. His treatment of the Puerto Ricans is dreadful. Even his questioning of Maria is nasty. Considering her brother has just been murdered his unsympathetic attitude is disgraceful. As has been previously mentioned everyone in the film, including Doc, is against the police. Shanks is portrayed as bitter and aggressive and Krupke seems just to be plain stupid. Everyone in the film is disillusioned by the America of the 50's early 60's. The ending where the gangs seem to come together, is little comfort. The main theme of the film is still pessimistic as is the representation of America.

As regards the making of the film the studio knew that they were probably not taking all that much of a financial risk as already the show had been a smash hit on Broadway in 1957. The director, Robert Wise had a proven record. By using stars such as Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood he hoped to appeal to a young audience. The love interest and the universal theme of the film along with the spectacular music would appeal to a wide audience. Robert Wise had the difficult task of transferring a stage show to film. By using popular stars and by using techniques already discussed, he did so very successfully. It must be said however that certain aspects of the musical which work eminently on stage do not transfer all that well to film. On stage the ensemble of 'Tonight' is spectacular because the audience can see the whole cast as they express their different emotions which are woven together into one dramatic spectacle. On film Wise is forced into a position of having to use quick editing to have flashes of the different groups which inevitably fragments the entire scene.

It must be said that the accolades awarded to the film at the time were well merited as can be seen by the continuing popularity of the film which has gathered an almost cult following. I first saw the film at the age of 12 and was totally captivated by it. Today it is still one of my favourite musicals along with another Robert Wise production, The Sound of Music . Although alas Bernstein is now dead his music still lives on.

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