Self- Preservation or Self- Sabotage: How Ethnicity and Difference Shape the Divide in West Side Story

Ava: West Side Story (1961), directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet. Instead of two feuding families, the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, are caught in the crossfire of rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. White, “native” young men comprise the Jets, holding their turf against the Sharks, a group of young Puerto Rican immigrants trying to carve out a home for themselves in New York City’s West Side. While the plot roughly parallels Shakespeare’s original, Arthur Laurents’ book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (over Leonard Bernstein’s composition) tell the story of real racial tensions in American culture. The creative design of the musical, from choreography to song, displays a division between the Sharks’ Puerto Rican culture and the “normal” whiteness of the Jets. Robbins turns a well-known tragedy in a new direction to highlight the differences between people that divide groups and make outsiders of some. By telling this story through a ethnic and racial lens, West Side Story forces audiences to reckon with the tragedy inherent in the American experience, as familiar to many as the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Sam: There’s a lot of places we could start with this musical, including the very beginning, but I think a great place is “The Dance at the Gym” (time: 31:46) This number comes after the Sharks’ and Jets’ conflict has already been established and a little of the cultural context, but is the first scene where the two groups meet head to head, both the male gangs and the women associated with the groups. It’s a great opportunity to understand West Side Story as a whole, because the choreography in this song visually establishes the divide between the Jets and the Sharks. There’s a lot to glean about the film from just this number alone.

Ava: The scene opens with dancing within the two groups, but when Maria arrives, the Jets notice Bernardo, and the dance leader tries to soothe tensions by arranging a circular “get-together dance.” Here, the rotating circles symbolize attempted integration, but when a Jet ends up with a Shark, they all switch back and remain with someone from their own group. In the literal action of the scene, as well as the symbolic meaning, these groups are unable to mix. The film’s plot isn’t shying away from openly displaying the rivalry and animosity between these two groups, but Robbins’ choreography helps solidify the division between these groups in a physical manner.

Sam: Yes! While there are some moments where both groups are doing the same choreography, which hints at some possible unity, they quickly separate to the two opposite sides of the room. And there, they begin choreography that blatantly displays culture. The Sharks’ movements, from the elevated arm placement and the layered skirts, evoke el baile flamenco and hispanic influences. On the other hand, the Jets’ choreography is a more “Americanized” style of dancing. The women twist their feet with their arms straight up in the air and the men take long steps, crouching low to the ground.

Ava: The difference in dance style is apparent, but made more so as the music changes depending on which group the film focuses on. When the Sharks are dancing, a complex, loud brass section plays, immediately evoking the music’s Latin influence. While the Jets dance, that influence leaves the music and instead has a softer, tinnier melody, reminiscent of vaudeville songs and marching bands. The Jets’ dancing even turns to acrobatic flips and quick spins, with faddish and “white” undertones. Even during a section of music to which both groups dance, they are separated in their own dance circles.

Sam: That’s true. And notice that the leaders of each group, Riff and Bernardo, each dance in the center of their respective circle. Bridging this gap is Maria and Tony, who spot each other from across the room, and everything else goes blurry. The choreography established the divide between the Jets and the Sharks, and that seems permanent, but here Maria and Tony act as a bridge between the two groups. They meet in the center of the room, which was unoccupied before, since the groups refused to overlap. Maria and Tony are both at home within their groups; they are not outsiders. And yet, this animosity between the gangs might not be as impervious as it seems. Behind the couple, we find other pairs from both gangs, slow dancing. For a moment, Maria and Tony are typical; their relationship, like every other in the room, is welcome and simple. Let’s not forget how the scene ends just after that though; Bernardo breaks into the couple and tensions build between the gangs. The climax of Tony and Maria’s struggle is set up in that moment, and that’s a last key thing to glean from this scene.

Ava: Absolutely. Okay, moving on! After Maria and Tony’s love-at-first-sight moment at the dance, we then get a grandiose expression of love in “Tonight.” This number, firstly, gives audiences a false sense of how love works and secondly (and more importantly) establishes early on the special quality their love has. Their love is unique, however unrealistic. And the content of the scene, as well as the affectionate acting given by the performers, displays that magic. In this, “Tonight” serves a purpose in validating Maria and Tony’s actions throughout the rest of the musical.

Sam: Yep. This is something audiences are asked to accept without question. I’d actually note that this is a departure from Romeo and Juliet, since that play had some irony surrounding the idea of the lover’s fall. I don’t read any of that here, this isn’t tongue-in-cheek, they’re just very in-love. And the song really helps us buy into it all!

Ava: Tony and Maria really confirm their feelings towards one another, with Maria saying, “Only you, you’re the only thing I’ll see. Forever, in my eyes, in my words…” and Tony reciprocating with “And there’s nothing for me but Maria. Every sight that I see is Maria” (57:48). Since “Tonight” parallels Romeo and Juliet’s unrealistic immediate love, I say both relationships are valid, mutual, and full of love, and the unabashed love here gets the audience rooting for Maria and Tony immediately. The lyric “I saw you and the world went away” (58:31) isn’t just further proof that their relationship is legitimate, but shows how their love separates them from the animosity and division that defines their communities.

Sam: I agree, regardless of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, once these two fell in love, they no longer saw themselves through the lens of their division or the communities they’re from.

Ava: Yes, plus if the quickness of their developing love makes viewers wary, “Tonight” communicates through its structure that both Maria and Tony have equal parts in this relationship. The song goes back and forth between the two of them, with each of them getting their own verses to express their love for the other. They come together at certain points in the song where the music swells with a powerful and impassioned string section, symbolizing their unity as a couple. Often, musicals will give the female character very little agency when it comes to romance, and the writing and plot are meant to somehow convince audiences that it is a healthy and equal relationship.

Sam: Yeah, while Maria isn’t given much opportunity to express agency throughout the plot, I’d actually say that when given the chance, Maria’s choices are as determining as Tony’s. There’s so much value and balance placed in this relationship and so much audience investment, it seems inevitable that tension erupts around it.

Actually, that’s what we can talk about next. Conflict between the Sharks and Jets peaks into the scene under the highway, where Bernardo kills Riff and Tony kills Bernardo. It’s a big moment, but later we see the emotional fallout in a big song: Anita’s “A Boy Like That.” What are your thoughts on this number?

Ava: “A Boy Like That” doesn’t have as dynamic of a visual performance as “The Dance at the Gym,” but lyrically it furthers the difference between how Maria and Tony see themselves and how the Jets and Sharks see them, through the conversation between Anita and Maria. There’s no dancing, and little movement on camera, but the content of the song is powerful.

Sam: And the performance is powerful! Rita Morena won Best Supporting Actress in 1962 for this role, and this song is her moment to shine. There’s a strong, tortured sense to the expression and the tension she brings to the way she plays out the number.

Ava: Lyrics like “One of your own kind, stick to your own kind” (2:06:55) shows Anita’s concern about Maria getting close to Tony despite him having killed Bernardo and being a Jet. Audiences might be annoyed that Anita is trying to dissuade Maria from being with Tony, but in fairness to her, being an immigrant means she’s experiencing oppression and abuse from both the Jets and their white societal power structures. While she is making a generalization about white people, it’s to protect herself and Maria from people who barely see them as human beings, not even worthy of living in the same city as them. Not only did Tony kill Bernardo, but even the group he comes from has given Anita nothing but harm, giving her no reason to believe otherwise that he is a good person. Meanwhile Maria believes Tony is an exception to all the oppression and violence. Tony killing Bernardo only validates what Anita assumed in the first place about him, as Anita relates this, the lyrics also foreshadow the tragic end of the musical: “He’ll murder your love, he murdered mine” (2:07:41).

Sam: Oh definitely. In fact, it’s foreshadowing in two ways, kind of. Tony’s murdering Bernardo gets him killed, but also Tony does, in a sense, kill himself. He ran all around screaming for Chino, inviting death on himself. So in a strange way, Anita is proven right;Tony murders Maria’s love, that is, himself. But Maria is also proven right; she argues that the animosity between the gangs, and their lacking openness to each other or each other’s culture, brings about the violence between the groups. In the end, that violence takes the form of Tony’s death. Maria’s optimism might be dashed, but everything she stood for she finds validated. Her hope for peace would have, if fulfilled, kept from death Riff, her brother Bernardo, and her love Tony. And Anita begs Maria to “stick to your own kind,” but is Maria actually better off and safer doing so, when the combative system is already doomed? West Side Story, with this tragic ending, makes a point about the coexistence of these cultures. With tolerance between groups, and love between Maria and Tony, life could have been spared and grief saved. Maria and Tony were the only source of hope for a peaceful coexistence between the groups. There’s a question in my mind: some texts represent forbidden love, like Maria and Tony’s, as doomed to encourage an audience’s disdain and pessimism. But I’d say this tragic ending does not serve as a punishment for the characters, but a tragic reality of wasted hope in the everyday, as abusive and closed-minded norms are left to stand. 

Ava: No doubt about it. We just focused on these three numbers, but even in those songs we can see that message. The lyrics and book spell it out clearly, and the music and choreography drive it home and make it stick. This is a tragedy not just about the death of three men, but the lack of unity as a result of sticking to the status quo and not reassessing societal structures. It reflects a wider American cultural climate, and leaves a strong message on America’s need for growth, for acceptance of “other” cultures and non-white races, not only meant for the ‘60s but also for right now.

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