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 Willson’s The Music Man.
The story explores the enmity between two rival gangs of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and is based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The innocent young protagonist, Anton (“Tony”), 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, occasionally, by 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 that Bernstein wrote that was originally intended for “West Side Story” wasn’t used in the production. This music became later integrated into the Chichester Psalms.
A conflict between two rival teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, is enacted through dance. Most of the scene is silent. The tension between the gangs is quite visible. 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.
Riff has a difficult time getting his best friend Tony to re-join the gang (“The Jet’s Song”). Riff convinces Tony to re-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 (“Something’s Coming”). He feels himself growing away from the gang and envisions a different, better future.
Maria, the sister of the Shark leader, Bernardo, has only been in the United States for a short time. She works with Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, in a 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 (“Mambo”). Tony and Maria, however, suddenly see one another. In a moment of romantic suspense, they dance together, oblivious to the tension around them. They fall in love. The romantic idyll is interrupted when Bernardo roughly pulls Maria from Tony’s arms (“Maria”). Maria is sent home and Riff and Bernardo arrange a War Council at the local luncheonette, which is considered neutral ground.
As for Maria’s request, Tony tries to stop the impending rumble. Though Bernardo taunts Tony, ridicules his attempt to make peace, and provokes him in every way, Tony stays his ground. During the rumble, Riff and Bernardo get in a fight involving knives. Tony warns Riff to back away, but Riff blows him off and continues the fight. Bernardo stabs Riff. In blind fury, Tony angrily kills 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 daydreams during her work hours. Her friends wonder at Maria’s strange and sudden euphoria (“I Feel Pretty”). Maria mentions marriage, but 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, 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 luncheonette 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 that Chino has a gun and is planning to kill Tony. When Shrank arrives to question Maria, Anita agrees to go to the luncheonette 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, begging for Chino to kill him too. On the street, he finds Maria to be quite alive. As they run towards each other, Chino turns up 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”). Tony dies in her 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, suggesting that the feud may be over. The Jets and Sharks form a procession and together they carry Tony offstage. Chino is hustled off to jail by Officer Krupke, while the adults stand by, still helpless.
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