How 'West Side Story' Gave Romeo and Juliet a New Home in America

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Shirley Griffith.

Today and next week we bring you the story and songs from the American musical play "West Side Story."


"West Side Story" opened fifty years ago this month, in New York's Winter Garden Theater. It was an immediate hit and played there for almost two years. Since then, it has been performed in many other theaters in the United States and in other countries. And millions of people have seen the motion picture version released in nineteen sixty-one.

It is possible, however, to enjoy "West Side Story" without having seen the play or movie. For it is the music of composer Leonard Bernstein that is most famous.

Choreographer and director Jerome Robbins developed the idea for "West Side Story" about fifty-five years ago.

Most musicals of that time were not serious plays. They were written and performed purely for enjoyment. Robbins wanted to create a different kind of dance-musical. It would mix real social conflicts into a dream-like work of art. His idea was to make a modern American version of the great tragic play "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare.

In that play, two innocent teenagers, Romeo and Juliet, fall in love. But their powerful families are old, bitter enemies. They will not give up their hatred of each other. This leads to the deaths of several of their children, including Romeo and Juliet.

Jerome Robbins' idea was to make a musical play about the hatred between Americans of different cultures. He and Leonard Bernstein decided to base the play on the tensions caused by the immigration of Puerto Ricans to New York City.

Arthur Laurents wrote the words to the play. And Stephen Sondheim wrote the words to the songs.

Puerto Rico is an island commonwealth of the United States in the Caribbean. In the nineteen fifties, many Puerto Ricans were moving from their island to the west side of New York. They spoke Spanish. Their culture was different. Some native New Yorkers felt threatened by these new people in town.

The story takes place at the end of summer. We are introduced to two groups of teenagers. These two gangs are fighting for control of the streets. The local gang -- the "Jets" -- has long battled with the Puerto Rican gang -- the "Sharks." Now, the Jets want to push the Sharks out of their part of the city.

Our first song is sung by the actors who appeared in the first production of the play. In the song, the Jets declare that anyone who is a member of their gang -- a Jet -- is always a Jet. Loyalty to the gang is more important than anything else.


Tony is a past leader of the Jets. But he no longer believes much in the gang. He is beginning to imagine a life outside the gang's territory. In this song, Tony senses that something new and important is about to happen to him. The part of Tony is sung by Larry Kert.


Now, the action turns to the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Bernardo is leader of the Sharks. His seventeen-year-old sister, Maria, has just arrived from Puerto Rico. She has been brought to New York to be married. Her family expects her to marry Chino, another member of the Sharks.

That night, there is a dance. Both the Jets and the Sharks attend.


The dance takes place at a neighborhood center -- neutral territory. The situation is tense, even threatening. The gangs dance in their own groups. Then the boy, Tony, and the girl, Maria, see each other across the room. They meet. They dance together. They are from enemy gangs, different cultures. Yet they know, immediately, that they want to be together.

Suddenly, Bernardo -- Maria's brother -- sees them. He is angry to see Maria talking with a member of the Jets. He sends her home.

Tony leaves, too. He tries to find where Maria lives. He sings as he walks.


Tony finds the apartment building where Maria lives with her family. He calls to her window. She comes out quietly to the metal fire escape. Maria can stay for only a few minutes. She and Tony declare their love for each other. Then she must hurry inside. Carol Lawrence sings the part of Maria.


It is now very late at night. The Jets and Sharks are about to meet with members of their own gang to plan a big fight, a "rumble." The gang that loses the fight will be forced to leave the area to the winning gang.

The play has begun to move toward its tragic ending. That will be our program next week -- the final part of "West Side Story. " We close now with the song "Tonight," sung by Maria as she and Tony say goodnight.


Our program was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. You can download archives of our programs at Join us next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.