West Side Story Essay Prompts

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1

West Side Story is a largely youth driven musical, so what insights do the few adults seen in the film give the viewer?

West Side Story introduces the viewer to two very different, but impactful types of adults. Doc, the local drugstore owner, and Lieutenant Schrank along with his partner Officer Krupke, want the Sharks and Jets to stop fighting, though their motivations are different. Doc, who’s drugstore acts as a safe haven for the Jets and a venue for their war council with this Sharks, is genuinely concerned for the well being of the teens but is powerless to stop the violence. Doc may be frustrated and frightened by the fighting, but, at the same time, he is not naïve. When Tony first tells Doc about Maria, Doc asks Tony, “aren’t things tough enough already?”

Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke, on the other hand, represent oppressive authority and the failings of the law. Unlike Doc, Lieutenant Schrank is not morally opposed to the Jets and Sharks fighting and killing, but he does care about how it might affect his career. After breaking up the first physical encounter between the Jets and the Sharks during the prologue of the film, Schrank tells both gangs, “You wanna kill each other, kill each other! But you ain't gonna do it on my beat.” He goes on to tell the Jets, “If I don't get a little law and order around here, I get busted down to a traffic corner. And your friend don't like traffic corners. So that means you're gonna start making nice with the PRs from now on.” From this encounter it is clear that Schrank is more concerned with his own selfish rationality than truly ending the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks.

2

What is the role of youth and generational gaps in this musical?

The Jets and Sharks both feel marginalized by the adults in their lives, and are only empowered by “owning” their streets. The Sharks and the Jets are repeatedly referred to as hoodlums by all of the adult figures in the film and are generally discounted as being no good. This theme is addressed in the comedic, yet powerful song “Gee Officer Krupke,” in which the Jets poke fun at the system that created then criminalized their gang. In this song, the Jets are comically passed from an officer, to a judge, to a shrink, to a social worker who finally decides the only thing the boy needs is “a year in the pen.” This song highlights the gap between the kids and the authority figures in their lives. The disparity between the teens and adults is exemplified in this interaction between Doc and Action:

Doc: Why, when I was your age...

Action: When you was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age... You was never my age, none of ya! And the sooner you creeps get hip to that, the sooner you'll dig us!

Doc: I'll dig you an early grave, that's what I'll dig.

3

What is the role of loyalty in West Side Story?

There are multiple layers of loyalty at work within West Side Story; loyalty to your race, loyalty to your friends, and loyalty to yourself. Both Tony and Maria experience internal and external conflict when they sacrifice being loyal to their races and instead are loyal to themselves and their feelings. Loyalty is fluid in this movie. Tony is loyal to himself rather than his race when falls in love with Maria, but later on kills Bernardo because of his loyalty to his best friend Riff.

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The play West Side Story, by Arthur Laurent's, is based upon the play Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Despite a few differences, both works, in essence, have the same plot. The source of violence in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story is the ever-present hatred between families and between gangs, although, because of the star-cross lovers motif in Romeo and Juliet, the hatred plays a larger role in producing the ending of West Side Story than it does the ending of Romeo and Juliet. The tension and hatred between gangs in West Side Story has a drastic affect on Maria and Tony's relationship as well as on the outcome of the play. Because of the hatred between their respective gangs, Tony and Maria are not able to meet or even talk in public - they must do it secretly. Also, Bernardo and Riff are strong focuses of hate.

They cannot see past their blind hatred for each other. Because of this, both of them, as well as Tony, are killed in the rumble. Anita's hatred for the Jets is fueled by their treatment of her at Docs candy store. This influences her to tell them that Maria is dead, thus affecting the ending of the play. Chino is another source of hatred. When Tony kills Bernardo, Chino is driven by the need for revenge and he kills Tony.

In order to fully understand the plot of West Side Story, one must have an understanding of the nature of gangs in the 1950 s and know the reasons for their actions. Between 1941 and 1956, more than 500, 000 Puerto Ricans moved to major cities in the U. S. such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cleveland.

The majority of them lived in poor areas of their city. Puerto Rican gangs formed so that they could protect themselves from prejudiced Americans. Many people took advantage of the immigrants poor social status. For example, Bernardo says, And Chino makes half what the Polack makes - the Polack is American! (Laurent's 165) Youth agencies and youth boards concluded that most gangs formed because of the poverty, disease, and racism present in the ghetto. Gangs, which were usually made up of teenagers, fought over girls, territory (otherwise known as turf), and racial matters.

Italian, Jewish, and Irish gangs were worried that the Puerto Ricans were taking over their turf. Turf could range anywhere from one block to many blocks. It was guarded so strongly that one gang member entering another gangs territory could cause a full scale fight. It was loyalty to each other, duty, and a sense of belonging that gave gang members a feeling of pride, almost as though they were somebody. Gangsters were often emotionally separated from their families. Because of this, many youths needed to feel love, which they recieved from their fellow gang members.

As Riff says, When youre a Jet, Youre a Jet all the way From your first cigarette To your last did day. When youre a Jet, If the spit hits the fan, Youve got brothers around, Youre a family man! Youre never alone, Youre never disconnected! (Sondheim 143) This illustrates his devotion to his gang and the gang members devotion to each other. They continually supported each other during fights (also known as rumbles). Rumbles could start over as an improper glance from a member of a rival gang.

Gang members were often seriously injured or killed during their rumbles. If a member of one gang killed a member of a rival gang, a member of the rival gang would avenge his friends death by killing the member of the first gang. Revenge was necessary because of the inflexible code of loyalty to ones gang. Although there is hatred present in West Side Story, there is also much hatred in Romeo and Juliet.

Some people would argue that it is the hatred between families, not fate, that causes Juliet and Romeo to take their own lives. For example, the duels between Tybalt and Mercutio, and then Tybalt and Romeo start because of the family feud. The result of the duels is Romeos banishment, which in turn results in both of the lovers deaths. Also, Friar Laurence goes against his morals to help Romeo and Juliet. He does this because he wants to resolve the hatred between families. He says, ...

In one respect Ill thy assistant be; /For this alliance may so happy prove, /To turn your households rancor to pure love (II. iv. 90 - 93). This proves that if it werent for the families fighting, the Friar would never have helped Romeo and Juliet. Fate affects Romeo and Juliets relationship as well as the ending of the play in many ways. For example, Friar Laurence sends a letter to Romeo that explains his plan through Friar John. However, Friar John is quarantined for no reason because of the plague, and the letter isnt delivered.

Because of this, Romeo eventually kills himself. Also, Lord Capulets illiterate servant runs into Romeo and asks Romeo to read a list of names to him. Coincidentally, Rosalines name is on the list, and Romeo decides to go to the party - the party where he meets Juliet. Fates role is reaffirmed throughout the play as the lovers sense its interference. Romeo foreshadows his own death many times throughout the play. Romeo has a dream in which Juliet finds him dead and kisses him back to life.

This foretells his own death as well as the fact that Juliet will find him dead. Also, before Romeo goes to Lord Capulets party, he says that if he goes, it will be the cause of his death. Ironically, it is. The hatred present in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story allows for similar plot action in both works.

An example of this is Tybalt killing Mercutio and then Romeo killing Tybalt. This is the parallel to Bernardo killing Riff and Tony then killing Bernardo. Also, Doc and Friar Laurence try to prevent the feuding between gangs and families by talking to Tony and Romeo, respectively. Bystanders... see the lovebirds as a sign of possible peace, hoping their love will reunite their respective groups (Poelstra 1) Doc attempts to get his point across to Tony by pleading, Why do you live like theres a war on? Why do you kill? (Laurent's II.

v. 12 - 13) Another example of a similarity is the fact that both couples have to meet in secret because the hatred between families and between gangs. In the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, two Capulets and Montague's get into a fight. The parallel to this would be that in West Side Story, the Sharks and the Jets get into a fight also. Because of the constant fighting, both the gangs as well as the families are threatened by the peacekeeping force in their city.

Lieutenant Shrank talks to the gangs while Prince Escalus lectures the families. Some of the differences between the plots are caused by the theme of hatred also. Romeo kills Paris, and when the murder happens, Romeo isnt aware that his victim is Paris. Conversely, Chino kills Tony out of hate.

Chino is aware of Tony and Maria's relationship, whereas Paris has no idea that Juliet and Romeo are married. Romeo and Juliet, when they marry, must marry secretly because of the feud. However, Maria and Tony do not marry, although they do perform a mock wedding. Another example of a difference is that Anita purposely tells the Jets that Maria is dead because of her hatred for them. But when Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead, he does it without knowing that it isnt true. The last major difference between the two works is the death of the heroine.

Juliet kills herself because she knows that her Romeo is dead and she cannot live without him. However, Maria is left alive at the end of West Side Story. It is almost as though she does not die so that she can accuse society of its prejudicial attitude against the Puerto Ricans and reveal everyones role in her and Tony's love story. As it is with any work that is based on something else, it is the differences as well as the similarities that make both the original and the inspired appealing. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story continue to portray the common themes of hatred and violence. However, because Juliet and Romeos relationship is so altered by fate, they are less affected by the violence in their society than Tony and Maria are.


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