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In this lesson, we will explore ”West Side Story”, a musical written by composer Leonard Bernstein.

In looking at the story, we will also examine the songs and characters and learn a bit about Leonard Bernstein’s life and work.

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About the Musical

The 1957 musical West Side Story was a collaboration among composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The story is based on Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, featuring ‘star-crossed’, or ill-fated, lovers from opposite sides of the tracks. The Broadway production had nearly a thousand performances from 1957-1960, and was turned into a 10-time Academy Award-winning musical film in 1961.

Synopsis, Songs, and Characters

The curtain rises on the streets of the Upper West Side of New York City with a fight between rival gangs the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and the Jets, an American gang. The territory battle – which is fought through highly stylized dance moves – is interrupted by Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank. The Jets want to continue the fight, and plan to propose a rumble to the Sharks, led by Bernardo, that night at the school dance.

Riff, the leader of the Jets, wants his friend Tony to commit to the fight, but the rest of the gang questions Tony’s loyalty. Riff is sure Tony is still one of them, singing ‘Jet Song’.In the next scene, a Puerto Rican girl named Maria is working in a bridal shop, making a dress to go to the school dance with her boyfriend, Chino. But Maria tells her best friend Anita that she isn’t actually in love with Chino.

At the dance, Maria and Tony spot each other from across the room and immediately fall in love. They start to dance, but Maria’s brother Bernardo breaks them up and sends Maria home.Bernardo and Riff agree to meet up at Doc’s drugstore later on.

Meanwhile, Tony finds Maria’s apartment building and serenades her with ‘Maria’, which brings her out to the fire escape, a reference to the ‘balcony’ scene from Romeo and Juliet. They sing ‘Tonight’, a song about the excitement of falling in love. Meanwhile, Anita and the other Puerto Rican girls sing about the difficulties of adjusting from life in Puerto Rico in ‘America’.

The balcony scene from West Side Story.
Photograph of stage production

The next day, Maria and Tony make pretend wedding vows to each other in ‘One Hand, One Heart’. The rumble is set for later that evening, and the song ‘Tonight’ is reprised in a quintet, with Maria, Tony, Anita, the Sharks, and the Jets singing about the upcoming rumble. When the fighting begins, Tony tries to stop it, but knives are pulled out and Bernardo accidentally kills Riff. Tony, in a fit of rage, kills Bernardo. As sirens approach, the gangs scatter, but Tony stands in shock as he sees his best friend dead – and realizes he has killed Maria’s brother.

The rumble.
Photograph of stage production

At the beginning of Act 2, Maria, who has no idea what is going on with the rumble, sings ‘I Feel Pretty’. Chino comes to tell Maria that Tony has killed Bernardo. Maria can’t believe it, and when Tony climbs in her window, she is upset, but still loves him.

They decide to run away together in the song and dance number ‘Somewhere’.The Jets are making fun of the cops in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ when the tomboy Anybody’s arrives and tells the Jets that Chino has a gun and plans to kill Tony. The Jets set off searching for Tony.When Tony leaves Maria’s apartment, they make plans to meet at Doc’s drugstore and run away together.

Anita arrives at Maria’s apartment, realizing that Bernardo, her boyfriend, has been killed. She tries to warn Maria about Tony, singing ‘A Boy Like That’, but Maria won’t listen and tries to explain with ‘I Have a Love’. Anita tells Maria that Chino is looking for Tony and plans to kill him.

When Lt. Schrank shows up to question Maria about Bernardo’s death, Maria asks Anita to go to the drugstore to wait for Tony. The Jets are all at the drugstore and they assault Anita, making it clear she’s about to be raped, until Doc shows up and intervenes.

Furious, Anita lies and tells them that Maria has been shot by Chino and is dead.A devastated Tony sets off looking for Chino. When he finds him, he tells Chino to shoot him – and at that moment, Maria appears. As Chino shoots Tony, Maria catches him as falls to his death. Traumatized, Maria waves the gun around and even points it at herself, claiming that they all killed Tony because of their hatred for each other. The show ends with both gangs surrounding Tony and carrying his body offstage, showing that the battle is over.

The Composer

Leonard Bernstein was an American composer and conductor who lived from 1918-1990.

He wrote in many styles and forms, including musicals, operas, ballets, symphonic, and orchestral works. Bernstein is considered to be one of the most influential American composers, changing the face of American symphonic works. Bernstein was also known for his commitment to young musicians through classes and the formation of a training orchestra, and to humanitarian causes, such as through goodwill concerts. His awards and accolades included honorary degrees, keys to international cities, and lifetime achievement awards in the artsBernstein was born and raised outside Boston, MA; he found his way to New York by way of Harvard and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts. He began to find fame as a composer in the 1940s, but his real breakthrough onto the national stage came when he was named director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958.

Bernstein was a major supporter of American composers, and he traveled the world programming primarily American music to sold-out theatres. Of all Bernstein’s compositions, West Side Story is easily the most well-known and enduring.

Lesson Summary

West Side Story was a Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein that was turned into an award-winning musical film.

The story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, telling the tale of star-crossed lovers from rival factions. Tony, an American, falls in love with the Puerto Rican immigrant Maria, and their love unfolds amid the gang violence between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. In the end, Tony is killed and Maria gives an impassioned speech about how both gangs are at fault for his death, thereby ending the battle.

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