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Study Notes for
West Side Story. Dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Perf. Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, and Rita Moreno. Music Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics Stephen Sondheim. Chor. Jerome Robbins. United Artists, Inc., 1961.

Originally set on the stage, West Side Story is a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – but in this version, the rivalry is between two street gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City n the late 1950s, rather than two feuding noble families in Verona, Italy, around 1600.

When the production was originally conceived, the rivalry was going to be between a Jewish girl and Catholic boy, but the changing ethnic scene in New York, after the Puerto Rican immigration booms of 1940-1950, stimulated a plot change. So, the rivalry here is between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Jets, consisting of second-generation white European immigrants, including Irish (Micks), Italians (Wops), and Poles (Pollacks).

Dramatis Personae
Sharks (the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet)

  • Bernardo (leader, played by George Chakaris)

  • Chino (Maria’s boy friend, played by Jose de Vega)

  • Maria (Bernardo’s sister, played by Natalie Wood = Juliet)

  • Anita (Maria’s friend and Bernardo’s girlfriend, played by Rita Moreno = the nurse in Romeo and Juliet)

Jets (the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet)

  • Riff (leader, played by Russ Tamblyn = Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet)
  • Tony (former Jets leader, played by Richard Beymer = Romeo)

  • Baby John (youngest member of Jets, played by Eliot Feld)

The much-praised, box-office blockbuster for United Artists received eleven Academy Award nominations and won all but one - Best Adapted Screenplay. Its achievement as a ten Oscar winner has only been surpassed by two films (each with eleven Oscars): Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997).

During the opening prologue, a breathtaking aerial shot of Manhattan from a bird's eye view captures the city with its bridge traffic and highway ramps, its waterfront docks, parks and skyscrapers. The camera passes over recognizable landmarks as it moves steadily to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and then speedily zooms down and plunges into a concrete playground. A gang of “cool” white youths are posed together in one corner of a basketball court, clicking their fingers to the syncopated rhythm of the musical score. The aggressive gang members leave the fenced-in playground and cross the tenement street. In the famous, dazzling opening sequence, they gradually break into a highly-stylized dance and then burst into a daring, high-stepping sequence - an exhilarating, inventive, visual ballet of pirouettes, vigorous athletic moves, and running jumps that symbolizes their dominance and energy - they are readying themselves for a gang brawl.

The gangs both are vying for control of the streets, alternating between dominance and submission. Two of the members provoke each other, and after an extended confrontation, a full-scale brawl breaks out when the Jets come to rescue Baby John, the youngest member of their gang, from an assault by the Sharks. The conflict is broken up by the arrival of a precinct patrol car, carrying uniformed Officer Krupke (William Bramley) and bigoted, plainclothes policeman Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) who have stopped similar fights between the “punks” many times before.

Riff speaks to his gang members and arouses their immature gang mentality. He directs his hatred toward the Puerto Ricans and their turf-encroachment. Convinced of the Jets' own strength and invincibility, he is adamant about checking the Sharks' expansion and influence in the neighborhood while still avoiding a life-threatening rumble with blades or zip guns. They decide to enlist the help of ex-leader, Tony (who is Polish and now responsibly employed at Doc’s the neighborhood candy and drug store).

At a dance at which the MC is “Glad Hand” (played by John Astin, of TV’s Addams Family), the Jet Tony falls for Shark Bernardo’s sister, Maria. There is a confrontation. Maria must abide by her familial obligations. Bernardo orders Chino to take Maria home. Riff uses the incident as an opportunity to call a ‘war-council’ with the rival gang leader. Bernardo accepts the proposal to meet at midnight at Doc's candy-store.

Song Excerpts

The Jet Song”
(Sung by Riff and others)

When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way

From your first cigarette to your last dyin' day!
When you're a Jet, let 'em do what they can
You've got brothers around, you're a family man!
You're never alone, you're never disconnected, you're home with your own
When company's expected, you're well-protected!
Then you are set with a capital J
Which you'll never forget till they cart you away
When you're a Jet you stay a Jet


In contrast to other second-generation immigrants, Puerto Ricans’ entry into America was met with disillusionment, prejudice and lies: "When I think of how I thought it would be for us here, we came like children, believing, trusting." The rewards of being an American are materialistic: driving a fancy Cadillac, "air-conditioned," "built-in bar," "telephone" "and television," "compartment of Cola." With the entire Puerto Rican cast on the rooftop, hot-blooded Anita sings and dances, with biting wit and humor, about her love for her new homeland in the rousing, lively and aggressive “America.” The land of the free is both a land of opportunity and enmity for new immigrants:

Puerto Rico,
You lovely island . . .
Island of tropical breezes.
Always the pineapples growing,
Always the coffee blossoms blowing . . .

Puerto Rico . . .
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.

Always the hurricanes blowing,

Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev'rything free in America
For a small fee in America!

ROSALIA I like the city of San Juan.
ANITA I know a boat you can get on.

ROSALIA Hundreds of flowers in full bloom.
ANITA Hundreds of people in each room!

Automobile in America,
Chromium steel in America,
Wire-spoke wheel in America,
Very big deal in America!

ROSALIA I'll drive a Buick through San Juan.
ANITA If there's a road you can drive on.

ROSALIA I'll give my cousins a free ride.
ANITA How you get all of them inside?

Immigrant goes to America,
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America!

ROSALIA I'll bring a T.V. to San Juan.
ANITA If there a current to turn on!

ROSALIA I'll give them new washing machine.
ANITA What have they got there to keep clean?

I like the shores of America!
Comfort is yours in America!
Knobs on the doors in America,
Wall-to-wall floors in America!

ROSALIA When I will go back to San Juan.
ANITA When you will shut up and get gone?

ROSALIA Everyone there will give big cheer!
ANITA Everyone there will have moved here!

“Gee, Officer Krupke”

"Gee, Officer Krupke" mocks the police and blames multiple sources for the causes of juvenile delinquency among youth: poor parenting and role modeling, abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, and the propagation of unwanted children. The poor victim is shunted from one social institution to another: the police department, a judge in the court system, a therapist and headshrinker, and a social worker. The "punk" is labeled as "no good," "psychologically disturbed," "depraved," and "sociologically sick."

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It's just our bringin' up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

ACTION:_There_is_good!_ALL:_There_is_good,_there_is_good,_There_is_untapped_good!_Like_inside,_the_worst_of_us_is_good!__SNOWBOY'>ACTION AND JETS
Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset;
We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get.
We ain't no delinquents,
We're misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!

ACTION: There is good!
ALL: There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!

SNOWBOY: That's a touchin' good story.
ACTION: Lemme tell it to the world!
SNOWBOY: Just tell it to the judge.


Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
My parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.
They didn't wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin' lizards! That's why I'm so bad!

DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you're really a square;
This boy don't need a judge, he needs an analyst's care!
It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He's psychologic'ly disturbed!

ACTION: I'm disturbed!
ALL:We're disturbed, we're disturbed,
We're the most disturbed,
Like we're psychologic'ly disturbed.

DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion on this court, this child is depraved on account he ain't had a normal home.

ACTION: Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived.
DIESEL: So take him to a headshrinker.

My father is a bastard,
My ma's an S.O.B.
My grandpa's always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea.
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress.
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!

A-RAB: (As Psychiatrist) Yes!
Officer Krupke, you're really a slob.
This boy don't need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society's played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic'ly he's sick!

ACTION: I am sick!
ALL: We are sick, we are sick,
We are sick, sick, sick,
Like we're sociologically sick!

A-RAB: In my opinion, this child don't need to have his head shrunk at all. Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease!
ACTION: Hey, I got a social disease!

A-RAB: So take him to a social worker!

Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck.
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a schumck.
It's not I'm anti-social,
I'm only anti-work.
Gloryosky! That's why I'm a jerk!

BABY JOHN: (As Female Social Worker) Eek!
Officer Krupke, you've done it again.
This boy don't need a job, he needs a year in the pen.
It ain't just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he's no good!

ACTION: I'm no good!
ALL: We're no good, we're no good!
We're no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good!

DIESEL (As Judge):The trouble is he's crazy.

A-RAB (As Psychiatrist): The trouble is he drinks.
BABY JOHN (As Female Social Worker)
The trouble is he's lazy.
DIESEL The trouble is he stinks.
A-RAB The trouble is he's growing.

BABY JOHN The trouble is he's grown.
ALL Krupke, we got troubles of our own!

Gee, Officer Krupke,

We're down on our knees,
'Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease.
Gee, Officer Krupke,
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke,
Krup you!

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