What it might mean to be an American

JW: Hello, my name is Jonah Williams, and I hate musicals. I like theatre, but my appreciation for musicals has always been limited for a number of reasons, but mostly due to their extravagance. However, through my stint in this class, I have begun to acknowledge the value within all forms of art including musicals, being that the beauty is in the relevance. So upon watching West Side Story, (seemingly the most music-y, musically, musical ever) I quickly overcame my contempt for the unrealistic and unnecessary dance sequences, and then got to see myself within each character. I have never quite liked the idea of there being people who control me, and this is where I garnered a love for the Jet’s. I also never quite liked the idea of people being territorial over land that was not actually their property, so this struck a chord with me in relation to the Shark’s. The identity of each character was something that deeply resonated with me as very few of them really had an established place in this world.

WM: Hi, I’m Will Murray and I’m also taking THTR 3333 here at Vanderbilt with Jonah. I’ll be answering some of Jonah’s questions and later I’ll be asking a few of my own. Before this class, I also wasn’t very familiar or inclined to engage with musical theatre, to put it in different terms. For some background, my parents love going to plays—musicals included. I’ve tagged along a few times, and the plays I’ve gone to I’ve really enjoyed. Like most people, I like a good story—one that’s entertaining, insightful, and emotionally compelling. In the past these stories have come from books, TV shows, movies. More recently, just TV shows and movies. However, I always ask myself the same question after I read a good book or see a really interesting play: why don’t I do this more often? Now after becoming more familiar with the musical through this class, I have come to appreciate this unique mode of storytelling after watching classics like Oklahoma!, Newsies, and (what we’re talking about in this essay) West Side Story

WM: For me, the great thing about musicals is that while they’re entertaining, they always have something to say about the time in which they were produced. While they might seem light and fun because of all the singing and dancing, there are often very serious and sometimes controversial themes at play. West Side Story is no different. Set in New York’s Upper West Side during the 1950’s, West Side Story (produced in 1957) draws upon tensions of race and immigration of the time (which obviously still exist today), as well as more fundamental themes such as love and conflict derived from a sense of ownership. Oh and also Romeo and Juliet. 

JW: Okay so obviously, the two groups do not like each other, but it does not really seem like their conflict is due to race, instead they are simply competing gangs fighting for turf. Similar to any group of teenagers, the kids feel defined by their status, and in this case the land in which they set foot on is their form of status. Much like you said they create conflict over their sense of ownership. Unfortunately, the law enforcement in this film favors the white kids. But it isn’t about that for the kids! So what do you think Jerome Robbins was even trying to say with this distinction? Do old people suck or something?

WM: This is a really good question and I don’t know if I can fully answer it, but i’ll give it a shot. I think there’s a defined relationship between the two. On one hand, the conflict between these two groups is motivated by many things: ambition, status, love, etc. This is the surface level, and beneath that lies notions of superiority/inferiority based on race, which we see reinforced by law enforcement. A really important part of this play is that this conflict is deeper than either the Sharks or Jets (probably) realize. While their and planned physical altercations with one another might not be outwardly motivated by race, their conflict is both reinforced by and actively reinforces a system in which status and treatment is derived from race. Maybe old people do suck, but that’s another question. 

JW: The only bridge between the two groups seems to be through the love between Riff and Maria. Ahh, what a beautiful concept. Riff, after being pushed to by Maria, does what he can in order to forge a companionship between the two, but the only time in which the two groups unite is over a funeral procession for him. So, Will, I guess I just want to hear your opinion on why you think the writer chose to do this? Can there be no cultural intersection that ends in blood?

WM: I’m glad you asked this Jonah. Very important point!. I think it would be a bit of a stretch to say that all intersections of culture and ethnicity lead to bloodshed, but on the other hand it’s foolish to assume that they don’t often lead to conflict. Bloodshed and murder and are the most extreme examples / manifestations of conflict, especially when love and lust are involved. To your first point, I think it was a really important and deliberate decision for both groups to unite at the funeral procession. It’s a point in which both groups are forced to face their shared losses, causing them to come to terms with each other’s humanity and realize that their hardships as newly-minted (or soon-to-be) Americans are very similar. 

WM: For my question, one of the themes I noticed (and I think we all notice) in West Side Story is the conflict between a group of immigrants and a group of “Americans”. However, it’s not this simple. We learn that the Jets are only 2nd/3rd generation Americans. People of the Jets’ heritage (“Polacks”) went through the same thing a few generations ago that the Sharks, and more generally Puerto Rican immigrants, are going through during the time of the play. So with this comes a somewhat murky definition of what it means to be “American” and who gets to be the arbiter of that. I was wondering what you make of this somewhat nebulous idea of American identity and if this plays a role in why the Jets feel no obligation to help out the sharks?

JW: Well unfortunately my man, I feel like it genuinely comes down to pigmentation. The simple notion of someone being anything other than caucasian was startling and threatening to the generation in which this occurred. But pigmentation is too simple of an explanation. I think that the division is also amplified by differences in culture and language. The Shark’s came from a culture of poverty and different values, while although the Polacks have only been around for one generation, they came from Europe and look white which is enough to fully establish them as a part of the American culture. I mean I really wish they would help out the Shark’s but they would not only be looked down upon by the whole of American society, but also would be forfeiting their entitlement to the block, which although a trivial matter, seems to be very important to them.

WM: While much of the musical deals with conflicting male gang members, there are several important female characters with varying degrees of influence over their male counterparts. A lot of West Side Story’s attitudes are revealed by how female characters are portrayed or treated by the gangs. The musical’s descent into chaos revolving mainly around both gangs’ relationship to Maria and both gangs treat their respective female counterparts very differently. What do you take away from these (differing) representations?

JW: This is a phenomenal question. The white females in the film are fairly underdeveloped, but maybe that isn’t too bad because both Anita and Maria experience some pretty traumatizing events. And no, I’m not forgetting about Graziella and her loss of Tony, but she was much more of a side character which in and of itself adds to the idea that the white women are fairly unimportant in this musical. Both the women and the relationships of the Shark’s seems more developed, maybe calling upon the differing values of the two cultures, The lack of compassion and downright terror enforced upon Anita shown by the Jet’s is honestly horrifying and it seems to show the lack of value of women in the American culture. Chino’s killing of Tony could be justified from a standpoint of vengeance, but the Jet’s harassment of Anita is completely unwarranted. I feel as though Arthur Laurents uses this to show how the Puerto Rican culture places a higher value on respect and humanity which are values I hold dear to my heart. I mean often the white male gets what he wants, but Riff did not and although this could be a product of many themes, it would serve me happily to think Laurents didn’t want the white man to win this time.

WM: That was a phenomenal answer. I’ve had a lot of fun talking about West Side Story in particular with you. Good talk.  

JW: Yeah man that was killer.