What would Romeo and Juliet be like if Juliet hadn’t died? What if Paris killedRomeo, instead of vice versa? What if instead of occurring several centuriesago, it took place on the streets of New York City during the 1950s, with abunch of fresh-faced youths posing as street toughs and dancing and singingtheir hearts out? Well, just take a look at West Side Story, and you will haveyour answers. It is impossible for anyone familiar with both texts to not notethe obvious major similarities between the two plays. From the opening scenes inboth, up through the rumble in West Side Story/death of Mercutio in Romeo andJuliet, the plays mirror each other (Poelstra).Order now
It isn’t until the last part ofWest Side Story, where Tony, our modern-day Romeo, dies and Maria, Tony’sJuliet, doesn’t (unlike the two star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare’s work), thatthe major difference between the two works becomes apparent. Granted, instead oftension between feuding families, West Side Story offers prejudice betweenraces, as illustrated between street gangs, the Jets and Sharks. Some of thecharacters in West Side Story are carbon copies of those in Romeo and Juliet:Maria (Juliet), Tony (Romeo), Bernardo (Tybalt), Lt. Schrank (Prince), and Anita(Nurse). Others appear to be a composite of characters, namely Riff, acombination of Benvolio and Mercutio, and Doc, who appears to fulfill the roleof Friar Laurence (possessed somewhat of a peacekeeping nature: “Youcouldn’t play basketball?”, he asks, when informed of their upcoming”war council” ) yet, at the same time, it is implied inthe film version, not the play that he is a pharmacist, and there was, afterall, an apothecary in Romeo and Juliet . The tomboyish Anybodys, a Jet wannabe,would best fit into the role of Balthasar (although Doc’s character fits intothis role marginally as well), since it was she who aided Tony in escaping afterthe rumble, which resulted in the deaths of Riff and Bernardo, as well as laterinforming the other Jets that Chino, the Paris of the Sharks, had a gun and washunting down Tony.
In the opening act of Romeo and Juliet, Sampson and Gregory,servants of Capulet, harass Balthasar and Abraham, servants to the Montagues. “I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bearit,” boasts Sampson (I. i. 48-50). In the opening scene of West Side Story,several Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo, harass A-rab (notice thesimilarity in name to Abraham), a white dude, a Jet, and therefore, an enemy ofthe immigrants.
In no time at all, other Jets, led by Riff, rush to A-rab’sside. No words are exchanged between the gangs, since it is, after all, amusical, and they basically just jump around in exaggerated fashion. Nevertheless, the scene, like the opening of Romeo and Juliet, sets the stagefor the remainder of the production. It is here where Lt. Schrank and hisfaithful compatriot, Officer Krupke, happen on the scene to break apart apotential rumble just like Escalus, Prince of Verona, did in Romeo and Juliet:”If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit ofthe peace” (I.
i. 103-4). Or, as Schrank would phrase it, “I got a hotsurprise for you: you hoodlums don’t own the streets” (Laurents 6). Following the altercation between the gangs, it is decided by Riff that the timehas come to take care of the Puerto Ricans once and for all, “clean em upin one all-out fight!” (Laurents 10). Riff will challenge them at the danceat the gym later that night. But, he wants his old pal Tony, who founded theJets with him, in as his Lieutenant (Laurents 12).
So, he goes to fill in Tony,who has made a sincere effort to forsake the gang life by becoming gainfullyemployed at Doc’s candy store. This is where another parallel occurs: just asBenvolio talks Romeo into attending the ball at the Capulets, Riff talks Tonyinto attending the dance at the gym. Prior to the dance, a sweet-facedseventeen-year-old gal, fresh up from Puerto Rico, prepares for her first bigsocial event in America. Here, even the exact act and scene (I/iii) are the sameas in Romeo and Juliet, where Lady Capulet and the Nurse speak to Juliet of herpossible impending marriage to Paris. The dance, where Tony and Maria firstmeet, is comparable to the Capulets’ ball, where Romeo and Juliet firstencounter one another.
At the Capulets’ ball, it seems to be Romeo who fallsin love at first sight, since he spots her before she eyes him: “What ladyis that, which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?” (I. v. 44-5). Afterexchanging a few words, Juliet becomes smitten with the loquacious youth, yetshe doesn’t reveal this until the balcony scene.
Tony and Maria, on the otherhand, notice each other at the very same moment, falling head over heals inlove. Shortly thereafter, Bernardo “is upon them in an icy rage” (Laurents31), telling Tony to “Go home, American”. Bernardo then reveals thatMaria is his sister. “Couldn’t you see he’s one of them?” Bernardoasks Maria (Laurents 32). “No; I saw only him,” she replies.
Juliet’sexclamation at such a revelation was much more poetic: My only love sprung frommy only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth oflove it is to me, That I must love a loathed enemy. (I. v. 140-3) Bernardo ordersMaria to go home, after which he approaches Tony, who is still intoxicated bythe lingering image of his new-found love (Laurents 35).
Riff sidelinesBernardo, mentioning the possibility of a rumble. They agree to meet at Doc’scandy store at midnight for a “war council”. Act Two, Scene Two, of Romeoand Juliet, better known as the balcony scene, is reflected in West Side Storyin Act One, Scene Five, or the fire escape scene. Romeo refers to Juliet as”the sun” (II. ii. 3), calling for her to “rise .
. . and kill theenvious moon” (II. ii. 4). During the fire escape scene, Tony and Maria singthe song “Tonight”: Tonight, tonight, The world is full of light, Withsuns and moons all over the place.
Tonight, tonight, The world is wild andbright, Going mad, shooting sparks into space. (Laurents 42) This momentexemplifies the Shakespearean impact perhaps better than any other in West SideStory, since even the Bard’s imagery is swiped for use in song. Not to mention,before parting, both parties agree to meet the following day: Romeo and Juliet”at the hour of nine” (II. ii.
169) and Tony and Maria “atsundown” (Laurents 44). In scene seven of Act One, Tony meets Maria at thebridal shop. Anita catches them together. “You will not tell?” Mariainquires.
“Tell what?” Anita replies. “How can I hear what goeson twelve feet over my head?” (Laurents 76); Anita is supportive of theirlove, as is Juliet’s nurse, who acts as an intermediary between the younglovers. Following Anita’s departure, Tony and Maria go through a mock weddingceremony, mirroring the real one Romeo and Juliet prepare to undertake, aided byFriar Laurence. Both these instances occur before true tragedy strikes. Thebeginning of act three in Romeo and Juliet features the death of Mercutio by thehand of Tybalt, who, in turn, is slain by Romeo.
Likewise, the rumble under thehighway in West Side Story culminates with the deaths of Riff and Bernardo (Laurents94). In both instances, the young romantic lead tries to talk the others out ofharming one another. Tony, at the entreaty of Maria, tries to stop the violentproceedings, only to be taunted by Bernardo. “It doesn’t take guts if youhave a battle. But we haven’t got one, ‘Nardo,” Tony smiles (Laurents 91). The taunting escalates, despite Tony’s valiant efforts, and Riff soon hauls offagainst Bernardo, just as Mercutio had drawn against Tybalt.
Both episodesresult in deaths: Mercutio and Tybalt; Riff and Bernardo. Following the rumble,the similarities between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet dwindle. Onesimilarity would be the Nurse’s grief for Tybalt (III. ii.
61-63) paralleling thatof Anita’s for Bernardo (Laurents 127), but most interesting of all would be themanner in which Romeo and Tony learn of the deaths of Juliet and Maria,respectively. In Romeo and Juliet, Balthasar delivers the news to Romeoregarding the death of Juliet: “Her body sleeps in Capel’s monument, andher immortal part with angels lives” (V. i. 18-19). Romeo then approaches theApothecary: “. .
. let me have a dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear aswill disperse itself through all the veins that the life-weary taker may falldead . . . ” (V.
i. 59-62). Doc, likewise, is the provider of poison to Tony,for it is he who delivers the news (falsified by Anita) of Maria’s death, alongwith the money Tony and Maria were going to use to flee the city (Laurents 138). “That was no customer upstairs, just now,” Doc tells him. “Thatwas Anita. (Pause) Maria is dead.
Chino found out about you and her and shother”. “Come, cordial and not poison, go with me to Juliet’s grave; forthere must I use thee,” speaks Romeo (V. i. 85-6). Tony pursues the samemeans to an end, only he expresses it in layman’s terms: “Chino? Chino?Come and get me, too, Chino” (Laurents 139).
While roaming the streets,searching for Chino, Tony spots Maria, alive and well. Just as they are about toembrace, a shot rings out, and Tony falls via Chino’s violent hand, Mariacatching him as he stumbles (Laurents 141). However, whereas Juliet, upondiscovering Romeo’s death, ends her life by falling upon Romeo’s dagger(V. iii. 169). An anguished Maria doesn’t end hers, although she speaks of it withChino’s gun in hand, she asks, “How many can I kill, Chino? How many andstill have one bullet left for me?” (Laurents 143).
Whereas Romeo andJuliet’s love was one intended to last an eternity, attaining a spiritual realmwith their deaths, that of Tony and Maria was restricted to the material world,ending “with Tony’s death and . . . forever lost” (Poelstra).
Even so,the relationships in both plays reflect the “intolerance, misunderstanding,and mistrust that seem to be ever-present in human society”. Perhaps thismakes the themes of love and fear, that abound in both plays, all the morerelevant to our modern, commercialized, technological and, to some extent, stillsegregated society, and, therefore, a more accessible vehicle for today’saudience (Poelstra). West Side Story allows the basic elements of a story fourcenturies old to be retold in a fairly modern-day setting (after all, streetgangs are more prominent now than ever before). A retelling that has garneredits own wide audience appeal over the past four decades, showing that certaintales can stand the test of time more than once, provided the content andcontext effectively reflects the world within which it occurs. BibliographyWorks Cited Laurents, Arthur.
West Side Story. (A musical, based on a conceptionof Jerome Robbins; music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. ) NY:Random House, 1966. Poelstra, James.
“Romeo and Juliet vs. West SideStory. ” (17 July 97). Shakespeare, William.
Romeo and Juliet. The CompleteWorks of William Shakespeare, Volume I. Ed. W. G.
Clark and W. Aldis Wright. NY:Nelson Doubleday, Inc. , 247-277.