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Focus on West Side Story

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's 1595 romantic tragedy, describes the feud between two families in Verona, Italy, and the tragedy of two "star-crossed lovers." This famous tale has been revisited and revised by many artists centuries after its creation. In 1953, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein produced the musical Me and Juliet, depicting a romance between a stage manager and chorus girl. Four years later, Romanoff and Juliet, based on a play by Peter Ustinov, premiered on Broadway, but the warring sides in this production were not the Capulets and Montagues but the Communists and Capitalists. But by far the most popular contemporary version of Shakespeare's celebrated play is the musical drama West Side Story.

Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story was written by Arthur Laurents with lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein. The musical is situated in the slums of New York City, where a local, all-American white gang called the Jets, look upon the Sharks—an immigrant Puerto Rican gang—with contempt. Meanwhile, the Sharks, who are new on the block, intend to defend their new territory and establish themselves in American society. The tension builds as the rivaling gangs attempt to assert their dominance in the neighborhood. When the Jets leader Tony and Maria (sister of Shark member Bernardo) fall in love, the opposing sides engage in battle. The warring between the Jets and the Sharks ultimately leads to the death of Tony and Bernardo (among others), leaving Maria brokenhearted, and the gang members with nothing but misery and loss. Please see our comparison table to easily view the similarities in characters and events between West Side Story and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

The original Broadway production of West Side Story, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, debuted on September 26, 1957 at the Winter Green Theater in New York City. This successful Broadway performance applied the traditional love story and the ethical and moral issues apparent in the original Elizabethan work to late-1950's American society. The same societal issues central to Romeo and Juliet were depicted as contemporary problems in the modern musical drama. West Side Story also integrated dance, music, and drama to recreate this Shakespearean classic. This creative critique of American society helped prompt modern audiences to recognize racial intolerance and the desperate need for change.

In 1961, under the direction of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story debuted in the movie theaters as well. This film version of West Side Story, adapted from the stage version by Arthur Lehman, was just as successful as its Broadway predecessor. The movie, starring Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony, claimed the following at the 1961 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Score, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Director, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing.

The issues of racial prejudice, violence, and ignorance evident in Shakespeare's tale were still applicable to American audiences in the late 1950's and 1960's—just as they are for audiences today all over the world.