Thursday, September 5, 2013

Shakespeare Adaptations: West Side Story

West Side Story has long been a favorite classic among movie-watchers. Drawing parallels from its predecessor, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the movie focuses on the feud between two gangs- the Sharks and the Jets  as opposed to the Capulets and Montagues respectively, and the gradual yet deep relationship that grows between two individuals connected to them. The story is set against the backdrop of the Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City during the 1950s. The Jets are a gang composed of working class-Polish residents and the Sharks are Puerto-Rican gang who fights with them over their turf. The fact that these are two ethnically different groups set during this time period adds a racial charge to the conflict.

The protagonist, Tony (former co-leader of the Jets with Riff, the current one)  manages to fall in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo, played by Natalie Wood. While he tries to navigate a forbidden relationship with her, he must also survive the growing tensions between the two gangs as they move closer to an inevitable but still shocking end.

Whether it is listening to Tony’s most beloved song “Maria” or watching the mambo and swing dancing typical to this time to rooting for one gang against the other during a showdown, West Side Story will show you exactly why it deserves to be called a classic in American cinema and lives up to the title of a worthy adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays.


  1. Why do you think this show's creators felt the need to adapt a Shakespeare tragedy rather than write their own story about, e.g., teen love and gang violence? What did the Shakespearean intertext give them?
    (Here's the original NYT review from 1957, when the musical first came out:

  2. I feel like the Shakespearean intertext gave the musical a framework to work with, inlaid with hints towards to human condition, which the show's creators were trying to place underneath the plot and surface layer of street life in the 1950s. Shakespearean works are brilliant in the fact that for the most part (at least in Western thought) they can be universal in their themes, characters, and conflicts AND they convey a type of subtlety that isn't overlooked but is not obviously present on the surface of the play (which is what the intertext is supposed to do), that would seduce the audience into thinking more critically about the musical. I'd like to believe by introducing Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as the intertext, the creators were manipulating the universality of the play in order to draw in a more appreciative audience and to instill a sort of humanism amongst the world of gang violence and street life, which wouldn't have been the same had they written their own story about it.

    I hope that answers your question...