By Yurika Takahashi
Yurika Takahashi’s essay comparing and contrasting West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet was written for Music 3019 and nominated by Professor Elizabeth Wollman. Wollman writes that Takahashi’s essay is “well-organized, carefully written, and flows nicely” and “exhibits a careful balance between student opinion and fact-based research.”
On October 18, 1961, MGM Studios released the now famous film adaptation of the classic American musical West Side Story, a story of forbidden love between two rival gangs: Tony, co-founder of the Italian-American gang the Jets, and Maria, sister of Bernardo, who leads the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. Their love blossoms in secret but eventually comes to a tragic end, drawing parallels to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Both of these works changed their genres and mediums forever: West Side Story revolutionized the modern American musical, and Romeo and Juliet changed what we know of romantic writing.
Throughout the years, many versions of Shakespeare’s work have been put to film. This paper will deal specifically with Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. This unique film takes the characters from Romeo and Juliet’s classic setting of Verona and places them into a 1990’s California beachside setting called Verona Beach. Stylistically, the film captures William Shakespeare’s attempt to relate the story of Romeo and Juliet to the period of its inception.
The aim of this paper is to explore the similarities and differences between West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet. The two works in the film are intertwined in many different ways, including in their settings, plots, themes, and their use of music. To fully understand West Side Story, one must consider its major influence and inspiration: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. When we approach both of these works together, rather than simply considering them as works unto themselves, our understanding and appreciation of both of them changes and improves.
West Side Story begins as a fight breaks out between two rival gangs of teenagers: the Jets, an “American” gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang who have recently moved to America, infringing on the Jets’ territory. The Sharks attempt to mug a Jet member before the rest of his gang steps in. When the police arrive, Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke break up the fight and order everyone to go home. Tension builds between the two gangs when the Jets convene to decide what to do about the Sharks. The two gangs decide to have a rumble: a no-holds-barred fight to finally decide who controls the West Side. News of the rumble is to be delivered to the Sharks at the high school dance held that night and Riff, leader of the Jets, decides that fellow gang member Tony will act as his second-in-command. Riff rushes off to find Tony and tell him the news. Tony reluctantly agrees to accompany Riff to the dance that night and deliver the message to the Sharks. Tony shows little interest in the conflict between the two gangs, having fallen away from his old ways because, as he explains to Riff, he feels that “something’s coming” in his life that will change it forever.
Later that night at the dance, Tony and Maria meet each other amidst all the dancing. There is love at first sight as the two dance together, but their exchange is quickly broken up by Maria’s brother and leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. Tony breaks into a song about Maria while Riff challenges Bernardo and the Sharks to a rumble. Bernardo accepts the challenge, and the two agree to meet outside later to decide where the rumble will take place. They meet and Tony suggests a fair, weaponless fight should take place. The two gangs agree.
The next day, Tony and Maria meet in secret and she begs Tony to have the fight called off, so he goes to where the gangs are meeting in an attempt to stop it. Bernardo attacks Tony after he tries to stop them, but Tony doesn’t retaliate. The Sharks begin to mock Tony and Riff attacks Bernardo in Tony’s defense. At this gesture, Bernardo pulls out his switchblade and Riff follows suit. The two engage each other in a knife fight and Bernardo eventually stabs and kills Riff. Tony, enraged at his friend’s murder, picks up Riff’s knife and stabs Bernardo, killing him. A fight breaks out among the gang members, and as police sirens loom in the distance, the street clears out, leaving only Riff and Bernardo’s bodies behind. Maria hears about what happened from Chino, a member of the sharks who is also in love with Maria. He tells her Tony killed her brother before storming off. Tony then arrives to Maria’s anger. After explaining to her what happened, he asks for her forgiveness and they reassert their love for each other.
Ice, a new leader of the Jets, one who is convinced the Jets will get their revenge on the Sharks, has arisen from within the ranks. The Jets are warned that Chino, who is carrying a gun, is searching for Tony, so Tony arranges for Maria and him to meet and run off together. Lieutenant Schrank comes to Maria’s house and questions her about the events that took place. She lies to him and says she doesn’t know Tony at all, nor what happened at the rumble. Being held up by the police officer, she sends her friend Anita to meet with Tony to explain why she hasn’t met him yet. When Anita arrives at Tony’s hiding place, she is harassed by a large group of Jets and in her anger tells Tony that Maria was shot down by Chino for loving Tony. In despair, Tony walks the streets, shouting for Chino to come and kill him too. After wandering for a while, Tony spots Maria at the playground and thinks he is seeing things, but soon realizes that it is in fact her. As they run towards each other, Chino appears and shoots Tony in the back. Tony falls into Maria’s arms where he dies, telling Maria that he loves her. After he dies, Maria accuses both gangs of being responsible for the deaths of Riff, Bernardo, and Tony. The two gangs then lift Tony’s dead body and carry him off, ending the feud between them.
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet strays little from Shakespeare’s original formula: two ill-fated lovers, each from a rival family, fall in love and are forced to live out their relationship in secret. They attempt to maintain their relationship, but are fated to die tragically together. The difference between this film and the work it is based on, however, is that Romeo + Juliet is set in modern day California, in the fictitious city of Verona Beach, and instead of swords, the characters carry 9mm pistols. The Montague and Capulet families are also now depicted as modern business empires at war over market shares. Names of certain characters have also been changed for the modern adaptation: Prince Escalus is now named Captain Prince, Count Paris is Dave Paris, and Romeo and Juliet’s parents are now named Ted and Caroline Montague, and Fulgencio and Gloria Capulet, respectively. The dialogue is spoken in Elizabethan English and is mostly true to the original text, although there is editing for modern audiences.
”The West Side Story Fact Sheet” claims that Arthur Laurents, author of the book for the musical West Side Story, said that the second half of the story diverges from Shakespeare because Romeo and Juliet “rests on Juliet’s swallowing a magic potion, a device that would not be swallowed in a modern play” (Gottlieb). Instead he chooses to rest the climax of the story on the fight and eventual deaths of Bernardo and Riff. This supports the idea that Laurents consciously considered Shakespeare’s work while writing the plot of West Side Story. But this is not the only parallel: while Shakespeare has rival families, Laurents creates rival gangs. When Romeo draws a sword, Tony draws a switchblade. Instead of the famous balcony scene, Tony appears, standing under an apartment’s fire escape (Gates 13). West Side Story is a film in which “Romeo becomes Tony, a young man beginning to drift away from the gang and to feel the urge to do something in life, and Juliet becomes the beautiful Maria” (Taylor 484). These parallels contribute to West Side Story‘s familiar, yet renewed story of forbidden love.
But what about Baz Luhrmann’s film, Romeo + Juliet? Although the film does not skew much from the original path, its attempt at modernizing the age-old story does so in ways that are very similar, but sometimes different from, West Side Story. This comes through clearly in West Side Story’s setting, when compared to that of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Both works attempt to modernize the setting and circumstances of the story so that an audience of the time can better reflect on and identify with the films. This is seen clearly in West Side Story through the inner-city setting, the wardrobe of the characters and the style of songs the characters sing, all of which were identifiable in popular culture at the time of the film’s release.
Romeo + Juliet attempts to accomplish the same goal, but does so differently. The modern elements of the film—the cars, the guns, and the music—are all taken from pop culture, but Verona Beach itself and the events that transpire in it clearly exist in a fantasy world. West Side Story is more realistic in content (although more theatrical in acting) in the sense that something along the lines of the story could occur in real life, whereas Romeo + Juliet takes place in a world where gun fights in the streets and murder go unpunished, and lavish drug-fueled parties are common aspects of corporate culture. The characters of Romeo + Juliet are portrayed as amoral (Hamilton). Therefore, Romeo + Juliet attempts to portray a hypothetical setting while West Side Story‘s portrays a realistic one.
The plots of the two works have their obvious similarities: Tony and Maria mirror Romeo and Juliet as warnings to the modern world about bounded love. However, their paths to tragedy are slightly different. In Romeo + Juliet, the climax is driven by Romeo being exiled to Mantua, and Juliet secretly faking her death so that she may join him there, away from her family ties. After being misinformed of Juliet’s death, Romeo commits suicide upon her fake coffin, with Juliet following suit when she wakes to Romeo dying. In West Side Story, however, the plot is driven by a murder committed by Tony, and the couple’s need to unite and escape from their persecution by the police and rival gangs. After being misinformed of Maria’s death, Tony walks the streets looking to be killed by Chino, who he believes killed Maria, eventually succeeding but only after realizing Maria was alive all along.
Other specific plot elements of the two stories also mirror each other very closely. As Romeo + Juliet opens with a dramatic gunfight between the Montagues and Capulets, West Side Story also begins with a fight between the Jets and the Sharks. Just as the first fight in West Side Story is broken up by Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke, Captain Prince, Chief of the Verona Beach Police Department, flies in on a helicopter, ending the opening gun battle of Romeo + Juliet. In both films, the couples meet at a party: Romeo and Juliet meet after Romeo and his Montague friends crash a Capulet party; in West Side Story Tony and Maria make eye contact across the dance floor at the high school dance. The party in Romeo + Juliet is followed by the famous balcony scene where Juliet utters, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” This scene is referenced in West Side Storyduring a scene after the dance, where Tony finds Maria standing outside her bedroom window on her apartment’s fire escape. In the rumble scene of West Side Story, Bernardo stabs and kills Riff. In anger, Tony takes Riffs knife and kills Bernardo. In a similar fight scene in Romeo + Juliet, Tybalt stabs Mercutio with a shard of glass, killing him. In his anger, Romeo retaliates by murdering Tybalt.
Both films feature secondary characters who are also in love with the leading female roles. In West Side Story, Chino has an interest in Maria, and in Romeo + Juliet, Dave Paris was engaged to Juliet in an arranged marriage. Both films also feature a conflict between these characters and the leading male characters. In West Side Story, Chino sets off to kill Tony to avenge the death of Bernardo (and presumably because of his own desire for Maria). In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (this scene is omitted from Baz Lurhmann’s film), Paris duels Romeo near Juliet’s coffin, with Romeo eventually killing Paris. Finally, both films deal with the misunderstanding of Romeo and Tony about the deaths of Juliet and Maria. In Romeo + Juliet, Romeo misses receiving a letter from a priest informing him of Juliet’s plan. Instead he is confronted by Balthasar, who tells him of Juliet’s death, sending Romeo rushing back to Verona Beach. In West Side Story, Anita is given the task of informing Tony that Maria cannot meet with him because of the police interrogation. However, since the Jets attempt to assault her, Anita lies and Tony believes that Maria has been shot dead.
The main characters of Romeo + Juliet hold parallels to the main characters of West Side Story in many ways. Tony is a modern interpretation of Romeo, with both characters willing to transcend their social circumstances in order to live out a romantic relationship with the women they love. In Romeo + Juliet this circumstance is the family/company rivalry, and in West Side Story, it is the rivalry between the Jets and Sharks. Similarly, Juliet and Maria are very closely related. Like their male counterparts, they are looking past their social status to live out what their hearts truly desire. They both also feel the pressure put on them by family and friends to be loyal to their family/gang over their hearts. Riff can be compared to Mercutio, the apparent leader of the young Montagues, and a good friend to Romeo. Bernardo can be compared to Tybalt, the leader of the young Capulets and cousin of Juliet (Bernardo being the brother of Maria). Chino from West Side Story can be compared to Dave Paris in Romeo + Julietbecause, like Paris for Juliet, Chino shares a romantic interest in Maria, and is willing to fight Tony for her. Finally, the policemen, Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke can be compared to Captain Prince, the Chief of Police who attempts to mediate between the two rival families.
The themes of the two works are also very similar. The two films attempt to explain that people’s desires for love should face no boundaries, societal or otherwise. Both stories also use violence as a device to contrast the love found between the stories’ main characters. They show that self-interest and interest in one’s own social, racial, or familial group leads to the separation of peoples, but also that love can cross those boundaries and unite them.
Music is an important device in both movies, although it is used more in West Side Story. The film is a musical, so along with spoken dialogue the characters sing songs. Through singing, the characters of the film express emotions that are otherwise indescribable. The mood of the songs reflects the mood of the characters, and upon hearing the songs the listener is encouraged to feel just as the characters on screen do. Whether happy, sad, or tense, the songs in the musical help the viewer understand what is happening in the characters’ worlds. The choreography also lends to this, urging the viewer to “leap into the film and become involved with every turn” (Johnson 58). West Side Story has produced some of the most famous musical numbers such as “Maria,” “America,” and “I Feel Pretty.” The “Chart Beat: ‘Romeo + Juliet’ Adds Drama To Chart ” article states that the soundtrack to the motion picture was in the Top 200 on the billboard charts for forty-eight weeks (Bronson). The popularity of the songs from the film shows just how effective the creators were in having viewers relate to their story and its characters.
In Romeo + Juliet, the soundtrack is comprised mainly of pop songs from the 90’s to complement the contemporary setting. The soundtrack’s lengthy position in the top 200 on the Billboard charts is proof of how well people related to the setting of the film (Bronson). The music functions as a supporting device to describe the mood and feelings of the characters on-screen. Rather than have the characters speak directly through song, the music is presented on a soundtrack. What is interesting about the music in Romeo + Juliet is that the lyrics of the songs often function as if the characters themselves were singing the words. In the movie’s theme song “Kissing You,” Des’ree sings, “Pride can stand a thousand trials,/ the strong will never fail./ But watching stars without you,/ my soul cried.” This line echoes Romeo’s love and dedication to Juliet: although pride and strength can endure, without love they become meaningless. Thus the music in Romeo + Juliet is employed in a different way, but to a very similar end.
From this comparison, one can see why it is important to understand the parallels between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet andWest Side Story when trying to appreciate the famous Broadway musical. Similarly, understanding their parallels breathes new life into Baz Luhrmann’s modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. By considering aspects of these works ranging from the role music plays in developing their stories to how modernizing their settings refreshes their themes, a viewer can now look at them in a new light, grasping more completely the meanings and emotions brought forth by their authors.
Bronson, Fred. “Chart Beat: ‘Romeo + Juliet’ Adds Drama to the Charts.” Billboard. 7 Dec. 1996. Web. 8 Nov. 2008.
Downing, Crystal. “Misshapen Chaos of Well-Seeming Form: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2002): 125-31. Print.
Gates, Anita. “One Juliet Has the Vapors, Another Packs a Gun.” The New York Times. 27 Oct. 2006. Web. 8 Nov. 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/1996/10/27/movies/one-juliet-has-the-vapors-another-packs-a-gun.html> .
Gottleib, Jack. “West Side Story Fact Sheet.” The Official West Side Story Web Site. United Artists Pictures, Inc. Web. 8 Nov. 2008. <http://www.westsidestory.com/site/level2/archives/fact/fact.html>.
Hamilton, Lucy. “Baz vs The Bardolaters, or Why William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet Deserves Another Look.” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2000): 118-24. Print.
Johnson, Albert. “West Side Story.” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4 (1962): 58-60. Print.
Kenrick, John. Musicals101.com – The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film. Web. 8 Nov. 2008. <http://www.musicals101.com/1960sfilm2.htm>
Taylor, Gary J. “‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘West Side Story’: An Experimental Unit.” The English Journal, Vol. 51, No. 7 (Oct, 1962): 484-5. Web. 8 Nov. 2008. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/811316>.
West Side Story. Dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Perf. Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer. 1961. DVD. MGM.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 1996. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2002.
Published on December 14, 2014