‘West Side Story’: An Analysis

‘West Side Story’ is recognised as one of the most popular musicals of all time, and it is not surprising that it has its roots in Shakespeare given the tragedy and romance of the whole affair. Almost all the songs have been subsumed into popular culture, and are instantly recognisable. 

The story takes Shakespeare’s idea of two feuding families, and places them in 1950s New York. However the warring factions are not family, but Americans and Puerto Ricans. The conclusion of the story is that hatred leads to violence, and violence begets violence. Apart from the characters and setting, the play, and both films, follow Shakespeare’s plot to the letter, apart from the ending, as it is only Tony that dies… but more on that, later. The play seems to be part of many attempts to bring Shakespeare to a modern audience, and normalise his work. Having said this, the story can be seen to fit into the genre of realism, but also can be seen as unrealistic. The opening prologue of both films shows gritty, dirty building sites and back alleys, to show that this story is grounded in reality. The inclusion of the clicking, ballet and choreographed fighting takes the audience away from its more realistic images and settings. The films straddle both genres. 

‘West Side’ refers to the west side of America, New York, where the story takes place. The conflict between Puerto Ricans and Americans is historically founded. After America acquired Spain in the 1898 war, Puerto Ricans were declared American citizens in 1917, prompting an influx of Puerto Ricans coming to America. This peaked in the 1950s, with over 470,000 migrants moving to America. The presentation of Puerto Ricans in both films has been criticised, and to those who devised the original, I doubt it is likely that Puerto Ricans were chosen to explore their culture, but merely to match with what was going on at the time. Essentially the conflict that history offered to the writers was convenient at the time. Due to this, the Puerto Ricans seem like any other gang that the Jets have dispensed with in the 1961 film, and the war just seems like it is to do with land… not ethnicity or cultural difference. It is not until Spielberg’s version that some effort is made to dispense with harmful stereotypes, but more on that later. There was a rise in gang crime also at the time, especially following World War Two, and the general feeling that many men had been left behind by the system. 

The protagonists Tony and Maria share some of Romeo and Juliet’s qualities, and are both loving, passionate and ultimately idealists. Tony, played by Richard Beymer and Ansel Elgort, seems to be more the more active of the pair, as after the dance he pursues Maria, and later persuades her to run away. Tony, throughout the film believes in a better life, that something big is coming his way. This of course foreshadows his meeting with Maria, which in a way brings him back to life. The same can be said of Romeo, as when he first lays eyes on Juliet, and forgets his heartbreak. In both films, Tony used to be an integral part of the Jets, and in Spielberg’s version he is on parole. This gives some reason to Tony’s idealism, and the desire to keep his hands clean, and stay away from the gang war. He is convinced that he and Maria will be fine, and that Bernardo will love him. His idealism borders on naïveté. It is ironic that his love for Maria is what forces him to get involved in the war, in his attempts to try and break it up. Tony fits the mould for a tragic hero, as despite all of his love and idealism, is ultimately consumed by the hatred that surrounds him, and is ultimately crushed by it. Not only is it a tragedy that Tony dies, but it also acts as a metonym for the entire conflict that plagues the film, which leads to Maria’s moving speech about hatred at the end of both films. 

Maria definitely has a naiveté and girlishness. She has just arrived in New York, so everything is new to her. In a way, this makes her the audience surrogate, as we learn about the conflict between the Sharks and the Jets through her eyes. In her first scenes, she is displeased with the dress that Anita has made for her and is keen to make a good first impression at the dance. Maria, much like Juliet, exhibits an undying strength, a strength that comes from her love for Tony. This explains how both heroines forgive their male counterparts so quickly for killing their brothers. Maria has chosen love, and recognises that, if she were to hate Tony, she would only be perpetuating the hatred that killed her own brother. She transforms from being naive, to understanding the politics of the gang war and the concept of hate pretty quickly, and is even tough enough to stand up to both groups at the end of the film, after Tony’s death. Maria is probably the most innocent of them all, and is at risk of being corrupted by the hatred that surrounds her. However, she is strong enough, and clever enough, to hold it back. Anita succumbs, in my opinion, as demonstrated in her lie to Tony that Maria has been shot and murdered by Chino. 

Maria’s portrayal by Rachel Zegler is notable as Zegler is Latina, as is Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita. While some people have criticised that Zegler herself is not Puerto Rican, I do think that Spielberg has made effort to try and give more time to Puerto Ricans and Latin culture. This can be seen in his use of Spanish. Interestingly, Spielberg chose not to subtitle the Spanish because he did not want to give the English language control over Spanish. This is an interesting thought, and one I had not considered, and I do see his point. Conversely though, you could argue that without a translation, the divide between Spanish and non-Spanish speakers is only widened. This inclusion though does hammer home that the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks is ethnically motivated. Throughout Spielberg’s version also, the audience can see that signs are being down and replaced with words and images that harken to other cultures, like the creation of an Irish pub. It is clear that there are cultural differences which lead to conflict. 

Anita Moreno is well used by Spielberg to talk about assimilation and the merging of different cultures. She debates that, should she open her shop to the Sharks, she may be betraying her Puerto Rican culture. Anita in both films becomes disillusioned by America following Bernardo’s death, and fades away from the film at this point. Valentina’s singing of ‘Somewhere’ builds on her experience as a mature person, and emphasises the idea that, still, Puerto Ricans do not belong in America. Her relationship with Doc can be contrasted with that of Maria and Tony, one is successful, one is not. 

Considering the original was made in 1961, it is visually impressive. What stood out to me in both versions is the costuming. In both versions of the film, the Jets and Sharks wear different colours, to clearly mark their difference and rivalry. It is Maria who stands out in both versions though, wearing white at the dance at the beginning. A colour that no doubt implies her purity and innocence. Her red belt adds a touch of colour, and maybe hints at her passion and loving nature. The two colours of red and white always remind me of Tess at the May dance, and the Madonna-whore complex. I do not know if this complex can be applied to Maria, but like Tess, Maria’s wearing of white also implies that she is impressionable, and at first, a blank slate. The ideas and beliefs of those around her are projected onto her, such as hatred, and like Tess, she tries to combat them. As mentioned, Maria succesfully does.

In the 1961 version, the Jets wear purple and red, whereas the Sharks were blues, oranges and yellows. The shades of colour are not that far apart in this version interestingly, perhaps trying to imply that both groups are not that different, ‘both alike in dignity’ as Shakespeare says. Those on the outskirts of the dance wear a darker green, perhaps to show them as outsiders. Bernardo is horrified to find Maria and Tony together, but Maria claims that it was not the Jets as a whole, but ‘only him.’ She only has eyes, and love, for Tony. She does not see a group, but an individual, meaning that, unlike her brother she does not see the gang conflict, in part because she is new to the city. At the end of this film, Maria wears red. Originally she wanted to wear red to the dance. It is at the end of the film that Maria appears how she wants to, she is not being dressed by Anita, but is confident enough to dress, and be, herself. Tony brings this out in her. 

In Spielberg’s version, the divide is more obvious, the Jets wear blue, the Sharks wear red. Maria however flits between the two, and while she wears red at the beginning of the film, her choice of colour clearly changes. During Rachel Zegler’s beautiful rendition of ‘I Feel Pretty,’ she wears a blue dress with a red apron over the top. She is both Jet and Shark, American and Puerto Rican, as denoted by the two different colours. From this point on she wears blue, and in the final scene, Tony dies in her arms while she wears a blue dress. It is Tony’s death that unites the two gangs, and together they carry his body off in a funeral procession. Both films abruptly end here, probably to emphasise the tragedy that has just occurred, and to leave the audience with Maria’s speech and message that violence begets violence, perhaps in an attempt to ensure that the audience carries this message forward with them.

Maria survives though, which marks a departure from Shakespeare’s source material. This means that the ending is not totally depressing, and maybe means there is some hope for the future. Maria, like Valentina, in Spielberg’s version is in a minority, and perhaps, when she grows old, Maria may become a version of that character. Hopeful for change, having had a brief, but somewhat tragic, taste of that hope and idealism herself. 

Thanks for reading! 

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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