by Siddiq Mohamed
Saddiq Mohamed’s personal review and critical analysis of West Side Story was written for Music 3019 and nominated by Professor Elizabeth Wollman. Wollman writes that Mohamed’s paper offers “a particularly dense blend of personal experience and interpretation of scholarly articles about the musical West Side Story” and is “remarkably sophisticated in its use of secondary sources and in its reflection of the author’s insight about his world and his life experiences.”
Related Writing Guide
- Learn more about how Mohamed uses summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting to support his analysis.
Unlike countless Americans, I was never interested in Broadway musicals. But I recently journeyed to Avenue Q and found that, interestingly enough, there was relevant social commentary to be found amidst the crude hilarity onstage. I was surprised that the show was a serious work of art, even though this was not immediately obvious. Although I found that I enjoyed one musical, I was still skeptical of the art form itself. This was until I found the film adaptation of the Broadway musical West Side Story, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, co-directed by Robert Wise, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. This musical fashioned many conflicting emotions; it was not only a compelling work of art, but a production that left me with many more questions than answers. This was due to the complex use of racial stereotypes and even overt bigotry that propelled the work on-screen. Subsequently, what became interesting was not only the methodology of the film adaptation and musical itself, but also the critical reception of West Side Story. How did these responses mirror or differ from my own?
Understanding the background of the movie became my first priority. To learn the history it was imperative to understand the formation of the musical production that would eventually be adapted to film. John Bush Jones, in his book, Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theater, discusses the origins of West Side Story. Jerome Robbins had originally set out to form a Romeo and Juliet musical that mirrored the modern times in the 1950’s. Robbins had originally intended for West Side Story to be based upon a religious feud that prevented a Jewish boy and a Catholic girl from being together. With that, the title would have been East Side Story (Jones 191). As one might imagine, the initial idea of this being a religious feud would have created social arousal due to the fact that it was a form of communal division. The idea for the musical was discarded and wasn’t brought back until 1954 (Jones 191).
On the official West Side Story website, Jack Gottlieb’s “West Side Story Fact Sheet” notes that in mid-1950, “the newspapers were filled with reports of street riots by Chicano Americans in Los Angeles. Those headlines turned the trick, triggering the imaginations of the collaborators” (Gottlieb). Furthermore, due to the rise in gangs as well as the rise in the Puerto Rican population within America, the collaborators now had a basis upon which to attach their Shakespearean remake (Johnson 192). However, a main cause for concern was the creators’ distance from their source material. Stephen Sondheim was quoted saying, “I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican” (Zadan 11-12). This fact in particular intensified my split between fully loving the film version of West Side Story and questioning the film’s possible use of stereotyping.
Furthermore, as declared within the “West Side Story Fact Sheet,” the 1961 Academy Award-winning film version made important alterations to the original play that allowed for a coherent plotline. Songs such as “I Feel Pretty” were changed to work in the bridal shop. The placement of the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” was also switched with the number, “Cool,” because it made more sense to have the white immigrant Jets keep their calm after the deaths of both Bernardo and Riff, which occurred during a climactic knife fight. Moreover, it was also important to keep a constant build up of tension and doom before that specific knife fight (Gottlieb). Also important were the changes to Sondheim’s lyrics for “America,” which were now performed by the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks and their girlfriends, as opposed to just the girlfriends in the original (Gottlieb).
Because the film adaptation of West Side Story was recognized as a top film that received an abundance of Academy Awards, I went in with high expectations for the plot, direction, and acting. At first, I did not care too much for the lyrics or dancing during the exposition. What I found as the plot progressed, however, were highly choreographed scenes and dramatic lines that included racially motivated dialogue and even well intentioned but tragically flawed ideals. Accordingly, my initial expectations for the movie weren’t let down by any degree based on musicality, choreography, acting or even singing. From the beginning what was illustrated was a highly choreographed fight between a white Italian-American gang known as the Jets and a Puerto Rican-American gang known as the Sharks. Bernardo (leader of the Sharks) and Riff (leader of the Jets), in their fight for territory, established the overall racial tension that was inherent throughout the film. Noticeable within the first scene were the stylistic similarities in both the Sharks and the Jets, for they would both snap their fingers to establish a constant tempo within the music. Surprisingly, the dancing established was also magnificently choreographed with hints of flips and spins all over.
It was through the chaos that Bernardo’s sister Maria and Riff’s best friend Tony would meet and engage in many romantically charged scenes that paralleled Romeo and Juliet. It was through their meeting, as well as Maria’s incessant optimism, that the main conflict would arise. Tony, upon meeting Maria at a ballroom dance (which was considered neutral territory for both the Jets and Sharks), found that their love could not coexist in a realm of hatred and racial intolerance. This main conflict thus led to their hidden relationship and also the struggle to keep the relationship alive amidst the racial tension. Although their love was the main conflict, additional conflicts were in place. From the perspective of Riff and the Jets, their problem was elucidated through Riff’s overtly bigoted assertion that these “PRs keep coming like cockroaches” and “were moving in right under” their noses, taking away all that they had worked to preserve. From Bernardo’s perspective and as well as the Sharks, the issue was that they weren’t able to use any of the proclaimed Jets territory without facing intense racism or being pushed around.
Additionally, my initial viewing of West Side Story was also able to bring about some unexpected and long forgotten memories from my elementary and middle school at PS 207 in Howard Beach, Queens. During the scene in the ballroom, which happened after the initial scuffle between the Jets and Sharks in the park, the camera started to focus on the separation between cultures. Due to the fact that Guyanese- and mainly Caribbean-Americans in Richmond Hill were zoned for schooling in an Italian neighborhood, I personally related to many moments of bigotry established within the movie. At times, I became the victim of many minor racial incidents. Furthermore, the camera was also able to show how each racially-based gang, as well as their girlfriends, stayed to their own race and would only mix when forced to. For this, the dance scene reflected the underlying tension that was always present at my school, but rarely spoken about in the presence of adults. This was also paralleled in the movie on many occasions, where the Sharks and the Jets would pretend to be nice in the presence of authority, which would only intensify their hatred for each other after the authority would disappear. This was also brought to mind during Riff and Bernardo’s “War Council” meeting. Here, although Doc (a storekeeper and Tony’s friend) tried to reason with the Jets before their proposition to have a “rumble” (a gang brawl), the Jets and the Sharks would not listen. The Jets claimed, “Puerto Ricans make trouble for us.” Furthermore, when Lieutenant Schrank entered Doc’s store, almost all racial tension was quelled immediately on the surface. Here, the bigoted cop was able only to further Bernardo’s hatred for Americans and even talked down to the newly Americanized Sharks. Here, Schrank’s authority made it possible for him to get away with saying, “You Puerto Ricans get what you’ve been itching for…use of the playground…use of the gym, the streets, the candy store…so what if they do turn this whole town into a stinking pigsty?” Talking down to the Jets by stating that their families were “immigrant scum” also showed the class distinction within America during that time period and not just the racial distinction. Moreover, surprisingly the meeting for a war council was something I experienced as well, but the only one I partook in was against my will, for I was trying to defend myself as a bunch of racially intolerant teens made their way through the park close to my school. At that point in watching the film, I was disgusted with what I saw, not because it was shocking or graphic violence, but because it reminded me of my early years.
Moreover, the “War Council” was the main cause of the whole conflict. As Riff stated, Bernardo crossed the line in jumping Baby John (a member of the Jets) in the park. However, Bernardo’s rebuttal brought to light the reason for the underlying tension. As he stated, it was the Jets who attacked him on the first day he moved to the west side of Manhattan. The character Action then replied, “Who asked you to move here?” It was for that particular reason that Bernardo’s disillusionment with the American people had formed. Moreover, it was also the reason for his misplaced hatred towards Tony, who had attempted to engage in public displays of affection with his sister Maria, and later accounted for Bernardo’s willingness to fight Tony even though Tony tried to reason logically with Bernardo. This was apparent in the rumble that took place in the movie where Maria, in her incessant optimism, thought that she and Tony could both stop the bad blood between the gangs. Unfortunately, when I viewed these scenes all I could think about was my personal role switch with Bernardo, for his feelings often paralleled mine. The only difference was that I did not act out in the same manner during my experience.
Furthermore, upon hearing the song “America,” which was mostly performed by George Chakiris’ character, Bernardo, and Rita Moreno’s character, Anita, I felt my own fears and conflicts about the role of immigrants in the United States paralleled. What Anita and her friends expounded upon within “America” were the opportunities and ideals that the United States were based upon. However, what were declared through Chakiris’ character were the actualized emotions of being an immigrant. As the back and forth occurred, Bernardo’s character often addressed the flaws within the stated ideals: Anita claimed “Lots of new housing with more space”; in juxtaposition, Bernardo stated, “Lots of doors slamming in our face.” Here Bernardo and the other Sharks acknowledged that opportunity for jobs and even acceptance is scarce and that he and his friends were easily excluded. Anita proclaimed, “I’ll get a terrace apartment” only for Bernardo to soon reply, “Better get rid of your accent.” Like Bernardo, I feared for a long time that assimilation was a crucial element of life within America and at times had many conflicting emotions about how to act towards people in order to better fit in. Anita and her friend Consuelo then rebutted once more, “Here you are free and you have pride,” only for the Sharks to reply, “Long as you stay on your own side.” Like the Sharks, I too wavered from the optimistic view of civil liberties and actualized freedoms within America. Even though the characters portrayed within the movie were facing this dilemma as immigrants at that point in time, this was still an actualized issue as a present-day brown-skinned American. Subsequently, after Anita and Consuelo proclaimed, “Free to be anything you choose,” Bernardo and his gang replied, “Free to wait tables and shine shoes.” Here, upon listening to Bernardo’s last line, I shuddered at the thought of having my life amount to nothing due to the fact that I was actually Guyanese-American. It was for this song that I not only fully understood the character Bernardo, but also his original intentions. I found that my optimism at times had mirrored Anita’s (and even Tony’s and Maria’s) more so than Bernardo’s pessimism, even with all of my fears and bittersweet experiences.
Although it was quite easy to fall for the ideal that romance conquers all, and just simply look at West Side Story from the perspective of an avid movie or drama buff, I couldn’t help but witness the similarities between my fears about the social issues in New York seen from an immigrant’s perspective. This almost made me hate the fact that I loved this movie. I had loved the acting, especially that of Rita Moreno, whose dynamic approach to the character Anita made her situation very believable. This was no more apparent than in her scene where she attempts to help Tony even after her boyfriend Bernardo’s death at the hands of Tony. Her loss of optimism due to the manhandling she received by the Jets was something to behold. For this reason, Anita’s character development was something that I found especially frustrating and amazing at the same time. Anita’s ending realization, “Bernardo was right! If one of you was lying in the street bleeding, I’d walk by and spit on you!” showed the dynamics of the character. Before, although she thought she was fully assimilated, the Jets brought her back down to a racial minority. Although very thought provoking, this change in Moreno’s character and the Jets was quite disturbing to watch. Nevertheless, it was not enough to make me dislike the movie.
However, there were certain aspects of the movie that were not to be overlooked. One main issue I did have with the movie came in the form of stereotyping the Puerto Rican race. Chakiris’ brown-faced makeup to play the character Bernardo was one very hard thing to overlook. Also, some of the lyrics and speech hinted at a stereotyped speech pattern where Puerto Ricans would speak in broken English. One example of this came through when Bernardo sings, “I think I go back to San Juan.” Although not overt, this was a stereotype used to categorize Puerto Ricans throughout the movie. This led me to inquire about the other critical responses to this musical.
Parallel to my own thoughts on West Side Story, Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez noted the hidden racial aspects of the film and the musical production. In “West Side Story, A Puerto Rican Reading of ‘America’,” Sandoval-Sánchez proclaimed that the reason behind writing his article was the cheering of Anglo-Americans who only knew about Puerto Ricans from what they saw in theaters. He stated that not only were the lyrics to “America” distanced from the emotions of Puerto Ricans and himself, but he also found the number to have “an iconic ideological articulation of the stereotype and identity of Puerto Rican immigrants in the U.S.A.” (Sandoval-Sánchez).
For this reason, he proposed an oppositional look to West Side Story in order to fully understand the thought process used to stereotype Puerto Ricans. He states, “the drama articulates a binary and hierarchical opposition of power relations, and this binarism establishes the dominant paradigm of the musical film: Jets/Sharks; U.S.A./Puerto Rico; Center/Periphery. Even the following binary oppositions can be read: Empire/Colony; Native/Alien; Identity/Alterity; Sameness/Difference” (Sandoval-Sánchez). These distinctions add up to a set of differences that were attributed to representing Puerto Ricans as an unassimilated people. Moreover, in these word pairings, Sandoval-Sánchez allowed for an understanding of stereotyping within the film. As Sandoval-Sánchez argues, the very constructs of the musical production come into question by looking at the methodology of the writers. Regarding the groupings of rival gangs that were chosen by Laurents and his team, Sandoval-Sánchez stated:
It is interesting to observe how ethnic and racial minorities replaced each other. The writers moved comfortably from Jews and Italians to Chicanos to blacks to Puerto Ricans. They were just searching for a confrontation between people of color and Caucasian Anglo-Americans.
Thus, in his opinion, the writers were looking for a way to concentrate on racial issues between minority groups in order to address the issues the white population confronted against others. Although I do not fully agree with this idea of pitting full-on confrontation between minority groups for the sole purpose of making a great work of drama and addressing timely concerns, it wasn’t a hard image to conceptualize.
Sandoval-Sánchez also found the physical appearances of both gangs significant. What he found appalling was the fact that most of the Puerto Ricans were given a tanned look, black hair, and even looked rather thin as opposed to the healthy, white Jets (Sandoval-Sánchez). I too had noticed that the construct of the Puerto Rican within West Side Story was one worthy of concern. In real life, many Puerto Ricans are not a uniform tan but instead have many different shades of skin tones, but in the film, Maria was the only Puerto Rican who did not share the uniform tan. In Sandoval-Sánchez’s recount of the usage of stereotypes within West Side Story, he stated that Jossie DeGuzman had to darken her skin in order to play Maria in the 1980 production. Moreover, as DeGuzman stated in Nan Robertson’s New York Times article, “‘Oh, my God, I am Puerto Rican—why do they have to darken my hair?’” Robertson adds, “They darkened her pale skin too…” (qtd. in Sandoval-Sánchez).
Delving deeper into the song “America” was of concern for Sandoval-Sánchez. Sandoval-Sánchez stated that Sondheim had made quite a statement when the original text for “America” was brought into question. In keeping with my questions about Sondheim, Sandoval-Sánchez also asserted Sondheim’s lack of knowledge about Puerto Ricans: “Then, what are the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story? Are they simply literary products, ideological signs, and cultural discursive stereotypes of the Anglo-American sociopolitical system of power?” Within the original text of Sondheim’s “America,” this was indeed a true question. Sondheim wrote in the original lyrics:
Puerto Rico…You ugly island…
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing.
Always the population growing…
And the money owing. And the babies crying.
And the bullets flying (Sandoval-Sánchez).
These lyrics were changed in the film because of the negative portrayal of Puerto Rico. Like Sandoval-Sánchez, originally I thought that Anita’s assimilation had shown a darker portrayal of Puerto Rico, and as Sandoval-Sánchez elucidated in his article, it was much worse than I had understood, for his analysis of West Side Story was one that had him conclude that the whole play was made up of usage of stereotypes. Although I had not thought about these issues in depth since I was drawn to the plot and the production as a whole, this was now something to research.
After adjusting to the thoughts of Sandoval-Sánchez, the importance was now to find other critical responses. How did other articles describe West Side Story in either its musical production or film adaptation? Fortunately, I came across a film review by Albert Johnson that was dated in the summer of 1962. Johnson stated, in his article “West Side Story,” “The entire film is beautifully visualized” (58). His opinion was of great regard for the movie, but sadly was founded on underlying stereotypes. As he stated, “In the role of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, George Chakiris brings out a certain haughty pride which is, interestingly enough, somewhat more intellectual than one might find in EspanHarlem” (Johnson 59). What did Johnson mean when he said this? Moreover, why would he say something like this in a film review if not to undermine a racial minority? Now Sandoval-Sánchez’s article made much more sense. It was dangerous to have West Side Story as one’s only source of knowing Puerto Ricans. Once again, I was left conflicted. Should I adore the movie, or deplore its use of stereotypes?
Nonetheless, as Jones reiterated about the critical reception of West Side Story in musical form, it did go on for 981 performances after an original run of 732 performances (192-93). In addition, as he proclaimed, “that kind of run was impressive for just about any musical at the time, and especially for one as risky and innovative as West Side Story” (Jones 193). As one could imagine, the musical, even with disconnected lyrics by Sondheim and the implication of stereotyping by the creators, still managed to do well. However, it didn’t take a genius to notice that even without all the negativity, West Side Story was still a sight to behold, for it delved deeper than just usage of comedy and drama. It gave people something to think about, stereotyped or not. At the end of West Side Story, Tony was shot by Chino, and as Doc had declared earlier, “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!” At least the message of the creators was symbolic, for ignorance and hatred will only breed more of the same—which was quite ironic due to the creators’ usage of stereotypes at times.
West Side Story did merit both appreciation and discontent. Having looked at West Side Story from a Guyanese-American perspective, a Puerto Rican perspective, and even an Anglo-American perspective, what I found was a largely bittersweet experience that only could have been made possible by the creators. Although the film was rife with minor flaws, it is safe to say that the bad found within the movie did not outweigh the good, but truly made one contemplate whether the creators chose to be harsh with stereotyping to further explicate tensions found within the movie, or perhaps just, unaware, placed stereotypes into their play. Regardless, with all of its innovations and drawbacks, West Side Story still deserves to be revisited, for its account of a modern day tragedy was still posed as a timeless work of art.
Gottlieb, Jack. “West Side Story Fact Sheet.” West Side Story. 2001. Web. 4 Dec. 2008. <http://www.westsidestory.com/site/level2/archives/fact/fact.html>.
Johnson, Albert. “West Side Story.” Film Quarterly 15.4 (1962): 58-60. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2008. <http://www.jstor.org>.
Jones, John Bush. Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theater. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2003. Print.
Sandoval-Sánchez, Alberto. “West Side Story: A Puerto Rican Reading of ‘America.’” Jump Cut 39 (June 1994): 59-66. 1 Dec. 2008. <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC39folder/westSideStory.html>.
West Side Story. Dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. DVD. MGM, 1961.
Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Company. New York: Harper and Row, 1986. Print.
Published February 7, 2010
Photo credit: “File:West-Side Story in Carre, Bestanddeelnr 912-6940.jpg” by Joop van Bilsen / Anefo is marked with CC0 1.0