By Elise Darby
Pocahontas and West Side Story share a major similarity: both productions display a story of forbidden love. Just like Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, the love between Tony and Maria is disapproved of because of their different races. Both characters want the love they have never been allowed to experience, providing them with a unique taste of the culture they have been taught all their lives to despise. In both Pocahontas and West Side Story, the separation of communities creates unparalleled love stories when the two groups are at last united, speaking to the way groups, whose very existence seem to oppose each other, belong in harmony with one another.
From the beginning of West Side Story, the two different communities are separated, and their differences are highlighted. Throughout the production, it is always the Sharks versus the Jets; they do not mix. The Sharks and the Jets are divided by their ethnicity. The Puerto Rican members are all a part of the Sharks, while the Jets are a part of the white community. The ensembles never intertwine. In fact, the Jets and the Sharks despise each other. They are constantly arguing, picking on each other, and creating chaos. In front of the cops, however, they appear civilized to avoid getting in any sort of trouble with the law.
As an ensemble, their performances are divided between the two groups. In fact, their dancing is a way for the two groups to express their culture. When they dance, the movements are different within the two groups and the number is clearly divided amongst the Jets and the Sharks. For example, in West Side Story’s, “Dance at the Gym,” the Puerto Rican women move their hips, raise one hand into the air, and use the other hand to hold their skirt, which is a common dance move for their culture. On the other hand, the American Jets take big strides; they look stiff, awkward, and their dance moves do not look as swift as the Sharks. The American Jets’ dance moves would be easily described as “white.” As the Sharks take over the gym floor again, the room is filled with claps to the beat of the music. As two of the characters dance, they move elegantly with one another. The Jets, however, are more focused on flips, tricks, and sudden movements with their arms, while the Jets are twirling, moving elegantly around the room, and holding hands with one another. The Puerto Rican Sharks seem to have a more romantic, graceful movement to their dancing, which is similar to their culture that is full of romance and grace. On the contrary, the American Sharks dance sharply, and their dance moves display their “whiteness.” As the group dance ends, the division between the Sharks and the Jets quickly halts as Tony’s eyes align with Maria’s. The screen blurs out the rest of the dancers and the differences of race seem to disappear for a moment. As Maria and Tony begin to dance, they do not touch; they keep their distance at first. The background dancers have their arms together, making a bridge with their dance partner as Tony and Maria first touch, symbolizing the bridge Tony and Maria are making between the segregation of the Jets and the Sharks. As they slowly lean in for a kiss, Maria’s brother, Bernardo, quickly interrupts and stops Tony. He questions his sister, “Don’t you see he’s one of them?” and she replies by saying, “No, I saw only him.” Maria does not see Tony for his race; the color of his skin is not a factor for her. Bernardo persists and says, “There is only one thing he wants from a Puerto Rican girl” and Tony defends himself by claiming, “That’s a lie.” Bernardo takes his sister away from Tony and makes her leave the dance. He will not tolerate any of his Sharks mixing with the Jets—especially his little sister. Just as Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan, disapproves of the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith, Bernardo is against his sister’s interest in Tony. Chief Powhatan wants Pocahontas to marry someone of the same race: a native warrior. Likewise, Bernardo wants Maria to be focused on men from the Puerto Rican race, not an American Jet.
The Puerto Rican members of the Sharks are constantly being ridiculed by the Jets. The tension between the two groups seems to continue growing as the production continues on. Although there is a sense of belonging felt within the two groups, the women that are a part of the Sharks make it clear that they are enjoying living in Manhattan. In the song, “America,” the women sing that “life is alright in America.” However, the men quickly comment back that life is only good “if you’re white in America” or as “long as you stay on your own side.” Although the Sharks have a clique of their own and stick together, the community that they live in is very divided. Through this song, we are able see the discrimination the Puerto Rican’s face, simply because of their ethnicity and race. They are seen and treated as a minority; in the eyes of the Jets, they are second class citizens. The Jets are a group of “American” boys. They, too, have a sense of belonging within their clique. In fact, Riff reminds one of the Jets that they are “never alone” and that they are always “well protected” with the other Jets around. The loyalty that the Jets have with one another make them strong and give them power. However, the Jets and the Sharks never join together simply because of the color of their skin. Racism is the biggest reason for the divide between the Jets and the Sharks—it is why they do not get along. Both the Jets and the Sharks have one goal: to be considered better than one another.
Pocahontas’ relationship with John Smith was not supported since they were not both from the same ethnicity. In West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty,” Maria dances around the room with joy for her newfound love. Her friends, on the other hand, claim that “she isn’t in love, she’s merely insane.” The other girls do not think it is possible for this relationship to work with Tony because they look different. Later, after Maria’s friends leave the store they work at, Tony sneaks in to meet Maria. Their relationship is secretive and requires a lot of tiptoeing around—just like John Smith and Pocahontas. At the store, Tony and Maria pretend they are living in a world that it is socially acceptable for them to be together and in love. Using the mannequins, they act like they are meeting each other’s parents. Eventually, they even pretend they are getting married. In the world they live in now, this seems like a dream. Sadly, getting married to one another and meeting each other’s families seems like an impossible future for the couple. As they sing in unison, they sing that “even death won’t part [them] now.” The test of their love through death comes sooner than they had hope for, however.
Pocahontas’ father does not support of the relationship she has with John Smith, and neither do other members in the community. She is supposed to stay away from the Englishmen. Throughout West Side Story, Tony and Maria lose the sense of belonging they had felt within their separate groups. They want to be together, but no one else wants this relationship to last. Their communities do not support their love. No matter how much fighting and chaos occurs between their cliques, they do not separate. As the communities come together and begin to fight one another, people end up dead. Bernardo kills the leader of the Jets, Riff. In the midst of anger, Tony grabs the knife and stabs Maria’s brother to defend his fellow Jet. Chino runs to Maria to tell her Bernardo is dead, but instead of asking about her brother and other Sharks in the rumble, she is worried about Tony—not the people of her own race. Even after Tony killed Maria’s brother, all she wants is for Tony to hold her as she cries in his arms. After Tony leaves, Anita comes into Maria’s room and sees Tony running down the street. Anita angrily exclaims that Tony “is one of them.” The groups, which are divided based on their race and ethnicity, are referred to as “they” and “them,” never “we” or “us.” Anita begins to sing “A Boy Like That” and encourages Maria to “stick to her own kind.” Anita is trying to get Maria to dump the Jet and be loyal to her culture as a Puerto Rican Shark. After all, Tony killed her brother. The love that Maria has for Tony is being put to its biggest test. If she stays with Tony, she is betraying her culture, her family, and all of the other Puerto Rican Sharks. Yet, Maria’s love for Tony remains strong. Comparably, Powhatan is about to execute John Smith, but Pocahontas stops him. Like Maria, her love was being put to the test; she defends John Smith despite the negative feelings other members in her culture possess.
As Anita enters into Doc’s store, the Jets begin to throw her around, make racist remarks, and attempt to rape her. Due to her ethnicity and gender, the Jets see her as inferior. In return to their cruel behavior, Anita lies and says that Maria is dead. In response, Tony searches for Chino; he wishes to be dead too. In the midst of his search, he sees Maria alive, but he is shot. He dies in Maria’s arms. Throughout the film, Tony and Maria are committed to one another. Before dying, they talked about getting away from Manhattan. With the Jets in the Sharks around, they would never have been able to live peacefully with one another. Before dying, Tony and Maria talk about leaving together, running away. Their loyalty between one another is strong up until Tony’s last breath. Maria tells both the Sharks and the Jets that they all killed Riff, Bernardo, and Tony with their hate.
Despite its fairytale romance, West Side Story did not end with a “happily ever after” like the princess movies. Everyone did not remain healthy and alive. Their love could not continue on. But, despite Tony and Maria never getting their perfect ending together, the two’s union makes sweeping cultural statements about how group hatred will only separate communities with the potential for love, acceptance, and shared growth. Despite its tragic ending, the musical suggests the necessity for bridging social, racial, and cultural gaps in society, creating a nationwide love story.