Journsplit: West Side Story

Tonight, tonight, it all began… four hundred years ago? In this episode, Eliora and Rei discuss the love, hate, and Romeo and Juliet references in West Side Story.

Here’s the West Side Story album if you want to hear the music! 

Eliora: Hey guys, we’re back with another episode of Journsplit!

Rei: Today, we’ll be talking about Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of the musical West Side Story!

E: TLDW: Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, this story is set in the mid-1950s in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City, which was a multiracial, blue-collar neighbourhood. The musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds — the Sharks are immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Jets are white Americans. The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. 

R: It’s a classic in musical theatre history because of the spectacular dancing and sophisticated music.

E: And Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist for the original musical, made a return in this remake.

R: The movie opens with the iconic three-note Jets whistle. [insert Jets whistle]

E: The first two notes are also part of the Tonight theme, which we’ll be talking about later.

R: We see the Jets deface a mural of the Puerto Rican flag and get into a fight with the Puerto Rican Sharks, and then the police show up. 

E: The Sharks sing La Borinqueña, the revolutionary version of the Puerto Rican national anthem, the police leave, and we hear The Jet Song.

R: This song, which serves as an opening number, showcases the deep familial bond between the Jets — a type of bond that they don’t really have anywhere else, as Tony mentions later in the movie.

E: The lines [When you’re a Jet, if the spit hits the fan//You got brothers around, you’re a family man] really show this. If they get in trouble, the gang will help them. And it’s also interesting how the term ‘family man’ usually implies a nuclear family, which none of the Jets have, so the gang is like a substitute for that. 

R: Furthermore, this sense of belonging makes the Jets feel elevated above their actual status — they sing [little boy, you’re a man//little man, you’re a king!] 

E: Later on, Riff directly talks about why the Jets mean so much to him. [You know, I wake up to everything I know either gettin’ sold or wrecked or bein’ taken over by people that I don’t like. And they don’t like me. Know what’s left outa alla that? The Jets. My guys. My guys who’re just like me.]

R: What’s fascinating about that line is that Riff is clearly desperate for human connection, and yet he reviles the Sharks because they aren’t like him.

E: Also, this line reveals how Riff believes that since the Sharks and the Jets have a mutual dislike of each other, whatever horrible things the Jets do to the Sharks are justified.  

R: You can kind of see how this story was inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Except here, we know how the feud started, and it’s plain xenophobia.

E: Among the numerous references to Romeo and Juliet is Tony telling Maria that he’s a ‘by-the-book type’ when she kisses him at the dance where they first meet. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is the one who says ‘You kiss by th’ book’.

R: While the same phrase is used in both instances, they actually mean different things. In the original play, Juliet is complimenting Romeo on being a good kisser, ‘by th’ book’ here means that he does so expertly, as though he had studied it as a subject. In West Side Story, Tony means that he’s a traditional guy, and that’s why he’s surprised by Maria’s forwardness.

E: As in the play, there’s a balcony scene where the two lovebirds sing a duet declaring their love for each other. Bernardo calls out to Maria, just as Nurse calls out to Juliet in the original play. Tony turns to leave but Maria calls him back, just as Juliet calls Romeo back. Both Juliet and Maria confess that they forgot why they called their love back, and in response, Romeo and Tony say that they’ll wait until she remembers. Maria asks Tony for his full name (Anton) and tells him te adoro, ‘I adore you’. He repeats it to her, and they bid each other good night.

R: In the morning, Bernardo mentions a dream he had where he and his girlfriend Anita had six kids in Puerto Rico. Anita responds by telling him to marry a cat. He ends up fighting with Maria and Anita about life in New York vs Puerto Rico. This is followed by the song America.

E: And what a song it is! The catchy music with its alternating time signature makes it incredibly danceable, and the astounding choreography as well as the bright costumes of the dancers make this scene iconic. 

R: In this song, Anita and the other Puerto Rican women argue with Bernardo and the Puerto Rican men about what life in America is like. The women are idealistic and prefer life in New York, while the men argue that life is worse in New York because they are treated like second-class citizens.

E: This disagreement may be because the men aren’t so used to facing bigotry of this level, whereas the women are familiar with sexism even back in their home country. Plus, as Anita is a Black woman, she is doubly familiar with being excluded from communities. So for Anita and the other women, New York, where they have more opportunities and better living conditions, is a huge upgrade. If they face racism here, it’s just another sort of marginalisation, which as women, they were already used to. But for the men, it’s a nasty shock.

R: Perhaps especially because the men appear to interact and clash with their white counterparts far more frequently than the women do, getting into fights on the streets. On the other hand, we never see the Puerto Rican women interact with the white women much at all, so they may be more sheltered from racism because they don’t see white people much.

E: The Puerto Rican men may also feel pressured to protect their families from the white people, like how Bernardo tries to defend Maria’s honour by being aggressive to Tony at the dance. So they may be frustrated at the women for not understanding how difficult it is for them to face racism themselves and also have to shield the women from it. 

R: this song deftly sums up the nuances of the immigrant experience, while also being an Entire Bop.

E: In the time between America and the climax of the story, which is the rumble, Tony and Maria are married in a self-conducted ceremony in a chapel-turned-museum. 

R: By the way, this rumble is happening because Bernardo is upset with Tony for being involved with his sister, and also because the gangs have been building up to a confrontation like this for a while now. In fact, this line from the Tonight quintet, [Well, they began it//Well, they began it//And we’re the ones to stop ’em//Once and for all.] nicely summarises why neither side is willing to back down— both believe they are in the right. 

E: That’s right. Even though the Sharks agreed not to bring knives to the fight, we see that they  are bringing them anyway. On the other hand, the Jets buy a gun. Both sides feel the need to prepare for even more violence than previously agreed on, just to ensure their victory. Neither side trusts that the other will abide by their agreement, so both sides want to betray said agreement first to get ahead of each other.

R: If you remember Riff’s lines from earlier about how he doesn’t like the Puerto Ricans because they don’t like him — yeah, this is what it leads to.

E: Going back to our Romeo and Juliet, we hear them singing their lovers’ duet while the Jets and Sharks sing about the impending rumble in the background [Today, the minutes seem like hours (they began it, they began it)//The hours go so slowly (they began it, they began it)//And still the sky is light (we’ll stop them once and for all)], which is a neat audio representation of how the feud is happening around them while their relationship develops. 

R: While they aren’t directly involved in the feud, it still threatens their budding romance. Which, by the way, had exactly the same level of development as that of the original Romeo and Juliet. Which is to say, not very much at all. Heck, even Riff and Tony had more chemistry.

E: Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, Tony shows up to the rumble and attempts to convince the gangs not to fight. However, Bernardo gets agitated and Riff, upset at Tony’s refusal to fight, tries to step in and fight Bernardo on Tony’s behalf. This scene is surprisingly similar to the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio in the original play, and just like that scene, the rumble ends in death. 

R: While Tony has Riff distracted, Bernardo stabs Riff, and in anger, Tony stabs Bernardo. This is exactly what happened in the duel in the original play, just with the names changed. 

E: Right after the rumble, we hear I Feel Pretty, where an oblivious Maria sings about how Tony’s love makes her feel pretty. But this song is not just a song about how she’s in love, it’s also about how Tony has changed her.

R: Throughout the movie, the Jets and their associates are mostly in blue, while the Sharks and their associates are mostly in warm colours. However, Maria wears a blue dress in I Feel Pretty, showing the effect Tony has had on her. 

E: The placement of this song right after the rumble shows how ignorant Maria is of what has happened. She thinks Tony is going to stop the fight for sure, and can’t wait to see him again. We viewers know the carnage that has happened and know that she’s going to find out sooner or later, and this dramatic irony seems to emphasise how horrific this violence and hatred is, and how it has affected the characters. 

R: We see Maria laughing and dancing and naively thinking everything will be alright, but we know that that’s not the case. We feel sorry for her because, while her naivety is understandable, we also dread seeing her suffer its effects.

E: It’s more like we can’t help but wonder why she didn’t expect that something like this would happen when she chose to date a guy like Tony.

R: And when she finds out, she’s devastated. Tony shows up at her window, but although she is furious at him, she still isn’t willing to let him turn himself in to the police. She’s just lost Bernardo, so she doesn’t want to lose another person who’s important to her. Anita, coming back after having identified Bernardo’s corpse, walks in on Tony leaving through Maria’s window.   

E: Understandably, she gets angry at Maria for staying with Tony after he killed Bernardo. We hear A Boy Like That / I Have A Love, where Anita, in her grief, yells at Maria for making the same mistake that she made — falling in love with a guy so involved in violence.

R: Maria says that Anita [should know better], and how although she knows logically that this might be a bad choice, she wants to follow her heart. [When love comes so strong//There is no right or wrong]

E: Which reminds me of how, although as a viewer I felt the urge to yell at Maria and Tony for being careless or stupid, they would not need to be so cautious if this were any other normal teenage love story.

R: Kind of like Romeo and Juliet. Also, the song ends with [Your love is your life] which is a very extreme way to view the importance of love. This extremity is very characteristic of the original play – Romeo and Juliet’s love was what their lives revolved around, and in the play as well as in this musical, the feuding houses/gangs’ lives revolve around their hate for one another.

E: Although the musical has received criticism for, among other things, being a story about Puerto Rican immigrants while none of its original creators were Puerto Rican themselves, it should receive credit where credit is due — in multiple instances, it demonstrates intersectionality in its portrayal of discrimination.

R: Yea. Although Anybodys is white as well, he is excluded and misgendered by the Jets. The white women will tell Anita that ‘no one wants her there’, and in the next breath, beg the Jets to let her go when they try to assault her.  

E: That was the starkest example of intersectional oppression in this film; showing how Anita has two overlapping marginalised identities — being Puerto Rican, and being a woman — and how the white women, who discriminate against her, realise that she is marginalised in a similar way to them, and so try to protect her from the same harm they have faced. This probably helped them to understand her and relate to her better. 

R: As we mentioned earlier, Anita is actually also marginalised for another reason: her skin colour. The actress who plays her, Ariana DeBose, is Afro-Latina; both Black and brown, and of mixed race. She is darker-skinned than most brown Puerto Ricans, and though we never see Puerto Ricans discriminate against her, she seems to feel that they have or will. 

E: In their aforementioned fight, Bernardo tells Anita to stay out of an argument he’s having with Maria because ‘this is about family’, and she responds indignantly in Spanish, “Oh and now I’m not a part of the family? Because I’m dark?” Though Bernardo denies it, it feels like he’s said something like that before and it really touched a nerve.

R: The Jets also make fun of her skin, calling her ‘Bernardo’s black pig’. They know to target her specifically not just as a Puerto Rican, but also as a Black woman.

E: It’s interesting how a half-white actress, Rachel Zegler, was cast as Maria beside Ariana DeBose. Maria is closer to the white Jets than most Puerto Ricans because of her and Tony’s romance. Even the colour of her clothes changes to match that of Tony’s and the Jets’, as we mentioned before. Anita, on the other hand, hates white people, though not to the same extent as Bernardo.

R: It’s also worth noting that Maria’s character is younger, more innocent and pure, while Anita’s character is louder and somewhat cruder, and more mature (she is said to be seductive). This may be the result of the stereotype that fairer skin equates to moral pureness and civilised manners, as well as the objectification of darker women. 

E: However, while the Jets may be white and the oppressors in terms of race, they are also themselves marginalised because they are of low socioeconomic class. They’re unemployed, poor and without stable families while many of the Puerto Ricans have jobs and a community that they feel secure in.

R: This is something that Tony and Maria argue about at one point in the film, where Tony defends Riff, saying that the Puerto Ricans at least have hope, while Maria takes offence at the implication that the Puerto Ricans have it any easier because of that.

E: As in the original play, hate breeds hate and the end result is that everyone winds up miserable, or at least, more miserable than they would have been otherwise.

R: A big part of this is revenge – they keep trying to exact revenge on each other for the hurt they’ve sustained at the others’ hands, but this just creates a vicious cycle that snowballs into a disaster.

E: Bernardo kills Riff, so Tony kills Bernardo in revenge, and then Chino wants to kill Tony as revenge.

R: Because of the perceived slight that was the Puerto Ricans ‘taking over’ their neighbourhood, the Jets had existing hatred for the Puerto Rican Sharks. This, combined with the residual adrenaline from the rumble, results in the Jets trying to assault Anita when she arrives at Doc’s as a messenger.

E: Anita, as revenge, then says that Maria was shot dead by Chino, which is completely false. As a result, Tony becomes suicidal and goes looking for Chino, yelling [kill me too].

R: Which Chino does. Maria, who witnessed the murder, picks up the gun and shouts at Chino and threatens to kill everyone and then herself.

E: Thankfully, she doesn’t shoot, and the violence ends with her. The Jets and Sharks both help to carry Tony’s body away, while policemen come to arrest Chino. It is her choice not to participate in the violence of revenge that finally stops the carnage that resulted from the gang’s feud. However, the damage has already been done. The film closes with everyone walking away from the murder scene, Maria following listlessly after the makeshift funeral procession. A total of three young men died as a result of this pointless violence.

R: Perhaps if both sides had been able to recognise how, as different as their situations were, they were both disenfranchised and suffering, and that they had much in common, the story would not have come to such a tragic end. 

E: This story, like the original play it draws from, serves as a cautionary tale – this is what happens when hate is allowed to fester.

R: It showcases different types of hate like racism, misogyny and transphobia, and demonstrates the destructive power of revenge. 

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