West Side Story
West Side Story is a contemporary musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that focuses on an Upper West Side turf war between groups of Puerto-Rican emigrants called the Jets, and Polish-Americans called the Sharks. However, the play had a much different focus at its inception. The original drafts centered on religious intolerance between two families in the lower east side, leading it to be called East Side Story. The many versions of this story were written by Arthur Laurents, who also directed the play I Can Get It for You Wholesale, which helped launch the young Barbara Streisand’s career. The music for West Side Story was written by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who initially rejected offers to work on the project. Jerome Robbins was the choreographer, director, and creator of the show and he wanted the animosity between the gangs to be real on stage so he did not allow them to interact during rehearsals.
This team that created West Side Story visualized the outcome to be quite a bit different. Robbins initially envisioned a story was based more on the religious conflict between an Irish-American Catholic family and a Jewish family. The story would have taken place in the lower east side during the Easter and Passover holidays. The ‘Jets’ in the story would have been the Catholic family, while the ‘Sharks,’ who were called ‘Emeralds’ in this version, would have been the Jewish family. The female protagonist in the earlier version had survived the holocaust and had come to America from Israel. Along with these major plot differences, composer Bernstein planned for the music to be operatic in nature.
Had East Side Story never been turned into West Side Story, only the major plot points would have remained the same. The music would have no Chicano flair, which would pose a very bland musical, since there is not much joy to put into the music. There would also be a very heavy background of anti-Semitism from the holocaust, which would also drag the mood of the play further into the realms of depressing. The nuances of the individual characters would be drastically different because of the change in their ethnic backgrounds. The feud between the families would have been much more personal as the argument is not between gangs of many people, but between families who stick together with their own.