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Summary Article: What is West Side Story?
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide


Following the development of opera, operetta, and the musical play (or musical, as we now know it), American composers such as Jerome Kern (1885–1945) and Oscar Hammerstein (1846–1919) became very popular. In 1927, they co-wrote what is commonly regarded as the first musical, Showboat. Later, in 1957, Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) wrote West Side Story, which would become one of the most famous musicals of all time.

Full answer

The story in brief With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is a modern-day interpretation of William Shakespeare's classic play Romeo and Juliet. Set in 1950s New York, the story centres around two rival gangs: the Sharks, immigrants from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, local New Yorkers. Tony, a young man whose best friend, Riff, is the leader of the Jets, meets Maria, sister of Bernardo, the rival gang leader. They fall in love and meet in secret.

Later, during a Shark–Jet gang fight, Tony steps in to stop the violence. Bernardo kills Riff and, in anger, Tony retaliates, killing Bernardo, the brother of his beloved Maria. Maria is devastated by the death of her brother, but continues to love Tony and they plan to run away.

Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, is angered by the death, and after she is taunted and bullied by Jet gang members, she lies and tells them that Maria has been murdered by Chino, the man she should have married, who is now intent on seeking revenge for his friend Bernardo's death.

Tony, believing Maria to be dead, wanders around the streets hopelessly, willing Chino to come and take him out of his misery by killing him. However, he suddenly sees Maria, and realizing they can be together, they happily run to meet. Chino appears out of the shadows and shoots Tony dead, leaving Maria stunned and filled with grief. Seeing what they have done, the gangs call a truce and agree to stop fighting.

The songs in brief There are many songs that tell West Side Story. Some are lively, chorus numbers, sung by many cast members, such as ‘Jet Song’ and ‘America’. Both Tony and Maria have several solos, such as ‘Maria’ and ‘I Feel Pretty’, and several duets such as ‘Tonight’ and ‘Somewhere’. The song styles of the musical reflect the mood of the story. ‘America’ uses a lively, Puerto Rican rhythm, capturing a party mood, while ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Maria’ are more ballad like and romantic.

PerformancesWest Side Story was not received well when it first opened on Broadway in 1957. Perhaps this was due to its adventurous nature and its modern interpretation of a classic story. However, in its initial phase, it ran for 732 performances, and in 1961 was made into a film starring Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn. Today, West Side Story is considered to be a classic, and is an inspiration to many modern-day musical composers.

In short

West Side Story:

  • is a musical composed by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

  • is a modern interpretation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in 1950s New York

  • tells of the tragic love between two members of rival gangs

  • features a series of songs, many of which are now very well known.



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