West Side Story: 60 years as a cultural barometer

This fall includes yesterday’s anniversary of the 1961 West Side Story movie, the 25th anniversary of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Romeo + Juliet, and the premiere in December of a film adaptation of West Side Story by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg. In this blog post, Carla Della Gatta writes about the original West Side Story movie—and how it became the de facto representation of US Latinx in musicals for decades.

Watching Rita Moreno dance on a New York rooftop, singing about living in “America,” it is easy to forget that one of the most prominent depictions of US Latinx on stage or film for many years was also the most recognized Shakespearean adaptation in the world. The West Side Story movie premiered six decades ago on October 18, 1961, a highly anticipated film after the success of the 1957 Broadway musical.

Shakespeare’s famous prologue, “Two households, both alike in dignity / (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),” and the opening fight between the Capulet and Montague men are transposed to Jerome Robbins’s choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s music. It is a master class in adaptation: from the linguistic to the kinetic and musical, from a vague Verona setting to filming on the streets of New York. West Side Story’s opening dance number does not divulge the ending that the “star-crossed lovers” will lose their lives, setting up a different type of storytelling from the outset and augmenting the consequences at the end.

Rita Moreno, West Side Story, 1961. Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo.

Arthur Laurents invented some words like “frabba jabba” for the musical and caused words that already existed, such as “cool,” to circulate more widely after the film and soundtrack engrained them as slang. The strength of the choreography and gesture (the now iconic Robbins’s trademark finger snaps and jumps) too became its own language, expanding the vocabularies of musical theater, youth culture, and Shakespeare. The film soundtrack allowed people all over the world to imagine the streets of Manhattan. The musical style and the ability to repurpose the music as opera, symphony, and ballet propelled West Side Story to the status it holds today.

The movie made several changes from the stage musical, most notably repositioning some of the dance numbers and making “America” a witty contest between the Shark men and women, rather than the all-female number it is on stage. In the theatrical musical, there is no opening orchestration. One was added to the beginning of the film, and it allows the viewer to hear strains from all of the songs before any characters appear onscreen, thereby offering the viewer a compilation of the music, from both Sharks and Jets, before physical bodies occupy any space or claim each gang’s stylistic moves.

West Side Story provided Romeo and Juliet a subtext for the familial grudge. But in so doing, it gave way to, and shaped, stereotypes of Puerto Ricans. The Prologue begins with the Jets occupying the physical and sonic space of the Upper West Side, only for the Sharks to disrupt that ownership, and eventually for the two gangs to begin to rumble. Through this staging technique, the Jets, who are white, own the stage and the Latino Sharks infringe on their space, a metaphor for demographic shifts in New York due to Puerto Rican migration to the mainland United States in the early and mid-20th century. Though the inequality between the gangs exists through various aspects of identity—skin color, ethnicity, length of time in New York, and potential range of income—Laurents’s characterization of the Sharks’ monolithic homogeneity cannot compete with the differentiation and individuality of the Jets.

West Side Story was not originally designed with Puerto Ricans in mind. An early idea for the musical was to create division between Jews and Catholics at Passover and Easter. Laurents and Robbins were later inspired by a news article about Chicano gangs in Los Angeles, but switched the gang to Puerto Rican to make more sense in the New York setting. With only four plays by Latinx playwrights to appear on Broadway in the whole of the 20th century, and few others that addressed Latinx culture in any significant or nuanced way, West Side Story became the de facto representation of Latinx until Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s musical In the Heights debuted on Broadway in 2008.

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, West Side Story, 1961. Pictorial Press Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo.

West Side Story is so prevalent that it has been an inspiration for filmic versions of its source material, Romeo and Juliet. In a reverse from Shakespeare’s play, in which Romeo kills Paris outside the Capulet tomb, Chino, the Paris figure, kills Tony. This makes Tony a victim of the violence of the streets, of the unassimilated Latino. “Chino” is a derogatory term with a variety of associations, and in the film he was portrayed by Filipino-Colombian actor José de Vega. As a consequence of the film’s success at imbuing ethnic and cultural division into the story, West Side Story prompted the Romeo-killing-Paris scene to remain absent even in many subsequent productions, films, and adaptations of Romeo and Juliet where race and ethnicity are not central issues.

West Side Story functions as a cultural barometer for American storytelling and depictions of ethnicity. In the film, to make the Sharks visibly Puerto Rican, all of the actors (save celebrity Natalie Wood as Maria) were required to wear brown makeup. Rita Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, had to darken her skin color to portray her own heritage. Worse yet, all of the Sharks had to wear the same shade of brown makeup, suggesting that Puerto Ricans all have the same skin color. It is noteworthy that George Chakiris played Riff in the West End production and later played Bernardo in the film. The only thing necessary to make a Jet into a Shark in 1961 was brownface.

Richard Beymer, George Chakiris, West Side Story, 1961. AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

Following the film’s strategy, in the 1980 Broadway revival directed by Robbins, Puerto Rican actress Jossie de Guzman, who played Maria, had to wear brown makeup. In the 21st century, ethnic markers such as casting and language became the norm. The 2009 revival, directed by Laurents, moved away from makeup as a signal of ethnicity to casting Latinx and Latin American actors. Laurents attempted to reverse the cultural stereotype of the Puerto Rican gang member by having the Sharks sing and speak in Spanish, though much of the Spanish was removed as the production developed and later traveled. The 2020 revival directed by Ivo van Hove (which ran for less than a month due to COVID-19) made the Sharks Latinx but the Jets multiracial. This December, a film adaptation by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg, will revitalize this long-standing conversation about authenticity, representation, and the layers of adaptation this story holds.

I don’t remember when I first saw West Side Story, and I also don’t remember a time when I did not know the music and the movie. Growing up as a dancer, I was thrilled that the Shark girls got a big dance number with choreography I could only aspire to executing, and my father the music lover played and replayed the José Carreras operatic version of the music from his study. My mother was Jewish and an English teacher who loved Shakespeare, and my father was Catholic and a Spanish teacher who loved musical theater. I thought West Side Story was made for families like ours. For those of us with immigrant grandparents who had come to the United States, West Side Story showed me that there’s a place for us.

Carla Della Gatta was also interviewed on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode How We Hear Shakespeare’s Plays, with Carla Della Gatta.

To learn more about the origins of the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story, check out our Shakespeare Unlimited episode Leonard Bernstein and West Side Story.