THE World Famous Podcast takes on West Side Story

A transcript Written by Steve Wang and Megan Walters

West Side Story (1961 film) - Wikipedia
~ The cover photo you all are familiar with and love ~

*This is an audio transcript of an episode of the world-famous podcast Cultural Identity and The American Musical: The Show by renowned hosts Steve Wang and Megan Walters. In this episode, Steve and Megan examine conversations around race and ethnicity with regards to the popular 1961 movie musical West Side Story.* 

S: Good afternoon everybody and welcome to another episode of Cultural Identity and The American Musical: The Show. I’m Steve, and I’m here with my co-host, Megan, to talk about the implications of race and ethnicity as they are portrayed in West Side Story. I think today’s episode is going to be particularly fascinating because as we were preparing, we realized that we had somewhat different interpretations on how ethnicity is presented in this musical. I’d like to start by asking you Megan what you think about how race and ethnicity are presented in West Side Story.

M: Thank you for the intro, Steve! While this musical holds a very dear place in my heart, I found myself analyzing it a bit differently that when I first watched it as a 16-year-old in high school. From the moment they began ‘dance-fighting’ to when each gang would speak of their lives growing up (the sharks with their travels to America and constant deal with racism and poverty and the jets with having difficult home lives), I seem to keep finding more similarities than differences between the two gangs. I’m here today to explain myself a bit better as on the outside, these gangs look like they couldn’t be more different.

S: I think that’s such an interesting take on this topic. From the very beginning it seems very clear that the tension between the two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, isn’t just territorial, but also racial. The Jets are an all-Polish gang and the Sharks are an all-Puerto Rican gang, so if race wasn’t important whatsoever then this separation of ethnicities would not exist. I think the portrayal of these two race-divided gangs are meant to represent the race divides in real life, where white people tend to stick together and alienate people of color, while people of color tend to stick with other people of color of the same race and alienate anyone unlike them, including other people of color. Megan, What do you have to say about this?

M: Of course, there is an obvious racial divide. Rita Moreno, the actress who plays Anita, speaks often in interviews about how they made the jets cast members put on very pale colored make-up and the sharks donned in the same shade of brown. Everyone, regardless of race or natural skin color, had to show visual the extreme racial divide. However, in more recent portrayals of the musical like the Broadway 2009 revival, the racial structure is also portrayed as being more socially constructed. The sharks dress in cooler colors such as blues and greens and the jets dress in warmer colors, such as oranges and reds. You also mentioned that the jets are an all polish gang. This is seen particularly with Tony when he makes a passing comment to Riff, “With an American, who is really a Polack!” This also shows that there is also some immigration history within the jets and they not ‘oh so above’ the Puerto Ricans who moved to America as well. I did some research on Polish Immigration history and found that Polish Immigrant weren’t even considered ‘white’ until the mid-1900’s. So, had the story taken place just another fifty years earlier, it can be speculated that the jets would be in the position that the sharks are in at the start of the musical. Not considered ‘truly American’, untrustworthy, and not worthy of belonging. So yes, there is a racial divide, but I believe it to be a lot more social and a series of misunderstandings than just purely racial.

S: Thank you for the input Megan. Going on, I wanted to mention the choreography to the plot of the musical. It seems to me that West Side Story is mostly about how the differences in race and ethnicity of these two gangs drive them apart from each other. I want to take a look at the dance number, “Dance at the Gym,” where Maria and Tony first meet each other. This is one of the clearest instances of the divide between the Jets and the Sharks in the show. Even when they are set up to be paired with the opposite gang for the dance, they go back to their original gangs and dance in a competition against each other. The Sharks wear traditional Latin outfits and dance traditional Latin dances, while the Jets wear more American outfits and dance with very sharp and rigid movements, as if fighting the Sharks. Is this a more social or racial divide between the two gangs?

M: I definitely feel like this is more of a social divide. They want to hang out and be with their friends and what more of an awkward time to shake things up than a dance? They don’t want to fight or think about the people they hate; dancing is a time to be together with their girlfriends and boyfriends and socialize. So, when outside people come in and force them to dance with other people that are very different from them and they inherently do not like because they are different, of course not only are they going to be reluctant, they are going to be upset and angry. They are teenagers and do not like being told what to do either. Defiance is a part of their lifestyle at the moment. I believe the scene would end in a brawl regardless if Maria and Tony kissed or not.

S: I think that’s a fair point to make Megan. Even though race is an issue, there are also environmental and social factors happening that contribute to each gangs actions. I now want to talk about the musical number “America.” To me, this number very clearly represents a dichotomy between immigrants of color and white Americans in terms of how they view America through the perspective of the Sharks. The women in this number sing about a very naïve and idealistic view of what life in America is like, as if to pursue the “American dream,” while the men counter the women with more cynical views on what living in America is like due to the fact that they are Puerto Rican. I also find it ironic that the instrumentation of a song about America starts off sounding very Latin, with the use of the Spanish guitar. As the song progresses, the Latin sound gets lost, almost as a metaphor for colonialism.

M: I like that you brought up the music and how it affects the story. However, I always thought of the song America as a dialogue between the two contrasting views. Anita begins the song talking about how bad life was in Puerto Rico with the “population growing, the money owing,’ and how hot it was. She cries, ‘let it sinks back in the ocean!’ and while they bring up only the positives in their new American life, it also shows how unhappy the women were in their old life. And while the men are correct, that life is also difficult here, no one truly wins at the end of the song. It is a dialogue about how ‘the grass will always look greener on the other side’ and that hardships are a part of life no matter where you go. You also mentioned that the song becomes less Latin as it moves along but I’d like to make the argument otherwise. As someone who had the chance to play the music to West Side Story a few times my senior year of high school, the song’s overall groove remains more Latin than America with its compound rhythms. You can count it out even as you listen to it! One! One! One, Two, Three! One! One! One, Two, Three!

American music is known for also using compound rhythms but that is because it is originally derived from Latin American sambas and marches and was not held in high regard until the early 21st Century. American music is also known for sound very open, using chords that are major and songs that travel to the perfect fifth and down again to the root, or the bottom of the chord. ‘America’ is crunchy, the chords are close together and rather than a perfect, open fifth, there is a strong usage of going to the fourth note in the scale rather than the fifth. It’s overall, not fully American sounding; there’s too strong of a Latin presence within the piece. The compound rhythms are too compound and the notes are too close to each other to have that open, freeing feel to it. I’m going to link Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a classic example of ‘American’ music, and then ‘America’. They sound similar due to being written around the same time and both are written by American composers; but the argument stands, the Latin is not being erased from the Puerto Ricans even if they tried.

S: I think that is a really important point to make Megan. I didn’t know that about music either, really. We’re going to wrap it up here, but there is one more thing I wanted to discuss. I think the final scene that I want to make note of is the ending scene, after Riff, Bernardo, and Tony die. 

M: Where Maria looks at them and says how many more must die while she is holding the gun? Yes, that is a great scene to talk about! A lot has happened in the second act and all of it stems from miscommunication, a common theme throughout the musical really. I really want to bring up this other point from another song. You mentioned ‘America’, but I also want to talk about “Gee, Officer Krupke!’ The song is comedic and arguably the 11 o’clock number. It’s about how messed up all the boys are in the jets and how they ended up in a gang in the first place. And while they are primarily joking, I strongly feel like there is some truth to it. Riff plays different characters and explains what would happen to him if he actually got sent to jail. He is tossed around from mental hospital, to psychologist, to school, and back to jail. Different people blame him for being messed up and overall, not normal. The song with an almost f*ck (Krup you) you to the police officer as he is overwhelmed by the emotions that go into the song. This is particularly when I started making the connections between the jets and sharks. While they are inherently different in race and culture. Both of them come from very hard places where the usual world find them too difficult to love so they end up on the streets fighting over territory and creating disagreements where they don’t need to be. Because the world, America, in this sense, has left them behind and given them no other options. Even though the jets are white and appear to have less hardship, in this comedic song, they speak of parents who are drug addicts and don’t want them or are abusive. Without guidance for how to grow up properly, they are stuck being uneducated and without the skills to hold a job. However, even thought the Puerto Ricans are also poor, they still have their family to hold on to and are also able to find work in places that will take them. In the end, while yes, the sharks and jets are different, I also see that both groups are impoverished see fighting over territory as their only way to pass the time. This brings me back to the ending of the story, when Maria begs the question, “How many more must die?” I don’t think that is a question for the survivors of the rumble, but for the American system. The system that leaves people who are strangers to this country on the outside for generations and only when they learn to bring others down that they become integrated able to achieve the ‘American Dream.’ The musical ends in a tragedy, but with a lesson to be learned about misunderstandings and differences and what happens when they are not resolved. Perhaps if the jets had not seen the Puerto Ricans as a threat to their territory, neither of the groups would be as poor or miserable.

And with that, we are going to end our podcast. We hope you enjoyed our discussion of our different takes on this classic story.

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