A Musical Tragedy

By: Cassandra Baggaley

article       On August 20th, 1957 a new play opened on the Winter Garden , New York stage.   The play was written to be a modern day Romeo and Juliet, and followed two gangs as they battled for territory.  They fought and some of them died.   The play, which by now you’ve probably figured out is West Side Story, didn’t leave any of the details out.    West Side Story portrayed gang violence for what it really was.

West Side Story didn’t leave any gruesome details out.  According to Brooks Atkinson, reviewer for the New York Times in 1957, “Gang warfare is the material that opened at the Winter Garden last evening, and very little of the hideousness has been left out.”  The gangs get into scrapes several times throughout the play.  First in the beginning when we meet both groups.  In the dance when the Sharks are challenged to a fight.  The “rumble” where it’s supposed to be one against one, but ends up a bloody mess.  Bernardo and Riff both end up dead.  Riff is stabbed by Bernardo, and Bernardo is stabbed by Tony.  Then there’s the final scene, when Tony is shot by Chino and Maria in her grief threatens to kill everyone involved, including herself.  They even used 1950’s gang language. They use slang all over the place.  Several times the Jets refer to the Sharks as “PR’s” or “Puerto Ricans”, and the Sharks call the Jets “Americans” among other things.  West Side Story didn’t leave anything out.

West Side Story was taken from pieces of reality and it gave the whole thing a frighteningly real feel.  In fact, they were intending for it to feel real.  Around the time West Side Story was being written gang fights were repeatedly reported.  The gang members?  Chico-Americans.  This actually influenced what the two gangs were going to be. But the idea came from real life.  In Bernstein’s West Side Travel Log it’s written, “I can’t believe it — forty kids are actually doing it up there on the stage! Forty kids singing five-part counterpoint who never sang before — and sounding like heaven. I guess we were right not to cast “singers”: anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and then the “kid” quality would be gone. A perfect example of a disadvantage turned into a virtue.” They cast kids, so that it would be more realistic.  The whole thing was so realistic that “Not even a whisper about a happy ending has been heard. A rare thing on Broadway.” (Bernstein, August 20th)  To some people it was too realistic.  A letter from a Ms. Martha Gellhorn says, “How can it be called a “musical comedy”? It is a musical tragedy, and were it not for the most beautiful music, and the dancing which is like flying, people would not be able to bear to look and see and understand.”  She goes on to say, “What now baffles me is that all the reviews, and everyone who has seen the show, has not talked of this and this only: the mirror held up to nature, and what nature. I do not feel anything to be exaggerated or falsified; we accept that art renders beautiful, and refines the shapeless raw material of life. The music and the dancing, the plan, the allegory of the story do that; but nature is there, in strength; and surely this musical tragedy is a warning…”  Many people felt the same way about this story of death and gang warfare.

Yet, the play was still a success, and in 1961 it was made into the movie we all know and enjoy today.  It won Best Picture that same year, and a total of 10 Oscars.  However to become the great success it was, the movie had to make some serious changes from the play. According to Atkinson, “In its early scenes of gang skirmishes, “West Side Story” is facile and a. little forbidding-the shrill’ music and the taut dancing movement being harsh and sinister.”  But in the movie the dancing and music is less foreboding.  Scenes were moved around as well.  “I feel pretty” was moved into the Bridal Shop right after the Rumble.  So that the audience could recover from the dramatic deaths that had just occurred.  On the stage there’s an intermission but there isn’t on the video.  “Gee, Officer Krupke” traded places with “Cool”.  New lyrics were written for “America”.  All of this to make the movie, less disturbing.  Or as Ms. Gellhorn put it, “A sociological document turned into art, they made me cry like a sieve, from heart-broken pity.”

West Side Story is made of real elements of life; with all its gory and disturbing details.  It was performed as realistically is it could be.  By children who weren’t professional singers, and with gang slang.  The result was a totally realistic play that looked gang violence straight in the face.  It was so forward that the reaction from the public was a mixture of pleasure and horror.  They changed the movie to make it friendlier, and less forward.  To make it a family friendly movie.  Because on the stage, it showed gang violence for what it really, truly was.

Works Cited


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s