The Racism in West Side Story

gang fight West Side Story gang fight

“West Side Story” is undoubtedly one of the most famous American musicals. It premiered in September of 1957 in New York and was made into a movie in the 1960s. The musical is based off of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and this is one of the better known facts about the musical. What many people do not consider however is the racism present throughout the play, and how people received the play as racist. Since it was brought to the world in the 1950s, the musical is seen as somewhat harmless in comparison to musicals from more recent years. However, reviews from the time near the premiere tell a different story. The musical “West Side Story,” especially many of the scenes with the character Anita, was taken as very racist comments. 

The musical is set in New York City and takes place between two teenage street gangs. The musical was created by Jerome Robbins and was originally going to be set between a Jewish boy and an Irish Catholic girl. However, with the gang violence and the immigration during that time period, Jerome Robbins had new inspiration (3). This was the inspiration for the two gangs known as the Jets and Sharks. Throughout the musical the Puerto Ricans are treated by far worse than the white gang. When the gangs get into a fight near the very beginning of the musical, the Puerto Ricans sustain a great amount of abuse from the law enforcement officers. No one wants them there and they act as if the Puerto Ricans have less of a right to be there. If there had been no racism and no issues with this new immigration group, then the groups would have not been taught differently one from the other. The Jet gang member Action says “Them PRs’re the reason my old man’s gone bust” (1). When the scenes cut to the Puerto Rican hangouts, they also talk a lot about how they are seen as vermin and annoyances.

The Americans are not the only ones who show great stereotypical thinking. Puerto Ricans have a great deal of stereotypical thinking toward America. A prime example of this is when the sharks meet up after the dance. They all say their dreams that America will provide and whether or not they will return to Puerto Rico. The character Anita, the main shark girlfriend, is the primary voice of saying that Puerto Rico is the “island of tropic diseases” (1). Anita is also the person to turn and voice racism after praising America. After Bernardo is murdered, she is vehement that Maria must stay with her own kind (2). There is racism on both sides to a great extent and this is the reason behind the gang violence that was so objectionable.
When “West Side Story” premiered it was not met well by critics. One of the major issues they found with the musical was the ‘over dramatization’ of the hardships in immigrant life (3). They believed that the Puerto Ricans were being put down too much in comparison to the Americans. Whether the musical was indeed produced this way or whether the musical was accurate and it was the critics who had the skewed views, it cannot be known. Regardless, the musical was replaced relatively quickly considering its present success. The government believed that it would give European countries an incorrect view of American life (3).
The 1950s was a stressful time in America. Between McCarthyism, Civil Rights, and moments such as the desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, people in America did not stray from ‘their own kind’ (2). “West Side Story” took a classic story, and made it relatable for that time. It is quite representative of America and how groups of people felt about each other. The musical then went on to assert that the differences were not reasons for groups of people to always be apart. Because we have since changed, “West Side Story” and the racist feelings that came with it are part of the country’s history and should be thought about, not pushed away.
Sources
1. Laurents, Arthur. “West Side Story.” http://www.aellea.com/script. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <http://www.aellea.com/script/westside.txt&gt;.
2. Oja, Carol J. West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the US during the Late 1950s. Digital image. Music.fas.harvard.edu. Harvard University, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2013. <http://www.music.fas.harvard.edu/faculty/WSS&MM2009.pdf&gt;.
3. Sova, Dawn B. “West Side Story.” Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas. New York: Facts on File, 2004. 314-17. Print.

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