Did Real Community Exist on the Upper West Side?

By: Morgan Baxendale 

Back in the late 1950s, the world and its view of culture was in a whole different place than it is today. The 1950s was a decade that was marked by post-World War II, immigration laws, but, more importantly, racial and ethnic tension. An Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City was the home of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, which were two teenage gangs and of completely different ethnic backgrounds. In Jerome Robbins’ 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, the main idea was centered around which group was going to have control over the neighborhood. The Jets, which consisted of the local white kids, were not in favor of the immigrants that were moving into their territory. Many of the Puerto Rican immigrants belonged to the other main gang, the Sharks. Both groups of people dealt with hardship and tension in the musical, but none greater than the Latinos. Through all of the misunderstandings, fights, and hatefulness between the two groups, each gang was able to bond and get closer in some way. Throughout the entire musical, the Puerto Rican community during this time had to deal with racism, discrimination, perceived differences in ethnic identities, and hurtful comments, but the way the musical plays out emphasizes the status quo on a more intense and realistic level. 

The Jets was started by a young man by the name of Tony. His vision for this group was to bond with a group of guys that were similar to each other and have a good time. However, Tony’s best friend, Riff took over the gang because Tony didn’t want to be involved with all of the mischief that was going on between the Jets and the Sharks. Throughout the first few scenes in the musical, the Jets bonded and danced over trying to figure out how they were going to gain control over the territory and the Sharks. You could see how comfortable they were in their environment and how much confidence they had in one another. Even from the very first song, you got a taste of what it was like to be a part of their group. The “Jet Song” emphasized the superiority and arrogance they thought they had, “When you’re a Jet you’re the top cat in town, you’re a gold-medal kid with the heavyweight crown.” They didn’t care what it took, they were going to gain complete control of the territory somehow, someway. It’s when Riff confides in Tony about a potential dance between the two groups; that changes the entire course of the musical.

Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, has only one aspiration in his mind, carve out the territory as a sense of identity for himself and his other Latino friends. This group didn’t come to America with a lot, and the Jets and other white folks in this area make them well aware of that. This group was dealing with strong stereotypes as well. The Puerto Rican men were seen as poor, violent, and uneducated. The women were seen as loud, obnoxious, and feisty. All of these stereotypes were exaggerated and emphasized when they were in the presence of the Jets. It is clear that the two gangs are fighting and struggling for a given territory, but are also carrying out socioeconomic and racial confrontation. The Jets feel as though they should rule and be number one in the community, because of their all-white identity and the background in which all of them reside. When the musical gets to the middle of Act 1, is when both groups decide to attend the neighborhood dance and that their real battles between each other become much more interesting. 

All of the dancing numbers in The West Side Story tell a story and have a distinct tone to them. This musical has some of the most unique and elaborate dance moves that I have ever seen, and also emphasizes the relationships between the different characters and the gangs they were in. The “Dance at the Gym” number showed how competitive the two gangs were being towards each other. The toughness and tension that occurs on a daily basis on the outside of these gym walls, is happening within the dance. Even when they were told by an authority figure at the dance to switch partners, both gangs didn’t follow that and stayed with their own kind. No matter what anyone of them did throughout the number, they were going to make sure they were better than the other. 

There were many aspects to the “Dance at the Gym” number that grabbed my attention, but the choreography, attire, and the ethnic identity that was expressed from each gang really stood out to me. This number emphasized the perceived differences and stereotypes in the ethnic identities portrayed by the Jets and the Sharks. This scene focused on a dance-off between the Jets and the Sharks that created moments of pure tension and competition, but also allowed a significant moment of joy for one member of each gang, Tony and Maria. You could distinctly see the difference in the choreography and dance between the two gangs. The Sharks danced more in rhythm, style, and confidence, they were the ones who definitely owned the dance floor. They all looked to be in their natural element and dancing in great connection with one another. The Jets looked to dance more mechanically, with not as much freedom and focusing on themselves, not the entire group as a whole. Puerto Ricans are known to have more soul to their dancing and, in general, are known as good dancers. The Jets, I believe, were fully aware of these notions and seemed as though they were trying their best to maximize their moves to keep up with them. All of these decisions that Jerome Robbins made about the choreography related to the perceived ethnic identity that was present between the two gangs. “Not all stage movement is choreography, but all stage movement has purpose.” There was also a fine line between how both groups dressed. They were defined by the colors they wore, which directly relates to cultural codes. Most of the Latino women wore warmer colors like red and purple, while the American women wore cooler colors like yellow and orange.  Both gangs are unified during this number, but it was emphasized more in regards to the Sharks than that of the Jets. 

Because of the events that took place at the dance, Tony from the Jets, and Maria on the side of the Sharks were able to meet. This interaction sparked passion, connection, and ultimately a strong love between them. Their love was igniting many conflicts between the two gangs, but Tony and Maria didn’t care, they wanted to be together no matter what. In this setting, their culture was encouraged not to mix with another culture, especially American culture. They were both criticized by everyone around them, and ultimately both groups paid a large price. Maria’s brother, the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo was killed along with her lover, Tony, as a result from the constant hatred and disagreement between the groups and this particular love conflict. No matter what any of the Sharks or any other Puetro Ricans did at this time, they were never going to escape the hardships they were facing. All immigrants at this time experienced some type of hardship and criticism, and they knew this was out of their control. The American culture was definitely a “privilege” and the white Americans that were part of the musical, always seemed like they had the upper hand over the other communities of people. You could see that the Jets bonded and felt together as a group because of this very “privilege” they felt that they deserved.

With the events that occurred at the dance, Tony and Maria’s love conflict, and the reoccurring hatred between the gangs; all of it accumulated to resulting in a final showdown at the end of the musical. Bernardo from the Sharks and Tony from the Jets ended up paying a heavy price because of hatred and disrespect that was ever present between the gangs. When Chino, another member from the Sharks, shoots Tony, Maria makes a bold statement that I believe puts the entire musical into perspective. Maria tells everyone that was standing around Tony that “all of them killed Tony and the others because of their hate for each other, and, now I feel that I can kill too because now I have hate!” It was amazing to see how two groups of teens could have so much resentment and disgust for one another that they would even kill someone for it. After this moment in the musical, all of the members from the Jets and Sharks realize that all of the fighting and hatred had to come to a close.

The West Side Story showed how such a small difference can make a big impact. When you look at the whole picture, the two groups didn’t have many differences, but the ones they did have were magnified and caused many problems. Both groups did bond and come together as a group, but not all for the right reasons, and at the very end of the musical, that was clearly exposed. Once Tony was gunned down, every member of both gangs gathered around Tony, portraying that the battle was now official over between them. It’s unfortunate that it took for two of their own to be killed for them to realize how they were acting was wrong and the reasons for their actions were unacceptable. I believe both groups know what to do and how to act moving forward with these issues in the back of their mind, but will never forget what both experienced and lived through. The Sharks and Latinos in general, know in this setting that they will never escape adversity and stereotypes in this culture, but have bonded in a way that is unbreakable, powerful, and beautiful to see. 

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