West Side Story: The Tale of Two Ensembles

by Ilana Cohen

Although each individual has their own story and identity, one can gain a better understanding of one’s identity by seeing them in their community. A person’s community influences how one performs culture, race, religion, gender, and sexuality; thus, to fully understand one’s cultural identity, their community and how they interact with members of their community must be analyzed. In a musical theatre context, the ensemble is the community. Ensembles provide the audience a deeper grasp into the lives of principal characters by showing how the people in the principal’s life act towards them and towards each other, informing the character’s behaviors and beliefs. The film adaptation of the musical West Side Story demonstrates how important ensemble can be in understanding principal characters’ cultural identities. The distinct performances of the two ensembles in West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks and their respective ladies, both separately and interacting, gives the audience insight into how these starkly different groups perform gender, sexuality, and race, and how each groups’ identity performances are received by one another and greater American society.

American audiences get to observe the immigrant experience from the perspectives of various Puerto Rican immigrants through the performances of the Sharks and their female counterparts. The production number “America” gives insight into the Puerto Rican cultural identity held by the Sharks and their ladies through their energetic and expressive choreography. The dance movements are sharp and quick with many kicks and turns. The footwork is intricate and is combined with arm and hip movements to give them a Latin flavor. Though the movements incorporate identifiably Latin style in the choreography, it is the energy and the expression in the way the movements are performed that truly form the Puerto Rican identity. The performers are full of happiness and spirit as their movements embody a celebration of life. With the joy they exude through their movements in combination with the lyrics celebrating their new lives in America, the ladies show their unique perspective as Puerto Rican immigrants, and their shared joy unites them and adds to their ethnic identity. While most of the number was the men and women dancing alternating back and forth, highlighting conflicting views because the women were taking to life in America better than the men, by the end of the number, they were all dancing simultaneously showing that they are united in their ethnic identity and share a passion and love for life shown through their energetic, up-beat dancing. 

Not only is the choreography of this number significant for understanding the Sharks Latinx identity, but also the lyrics show differing outlooks on their identity as immigrants is important. The song starts with Anita, backed by the ladies, and Bernardo, backed by the Sharks, arguing back and forth about how they feel about America. Anita and the women sing about the opportunities and benefits of moving to America, while Bernardo and the Sharks focus on how they are marginalized in America and were better off in Puerto Rico. The differing viewpoints of the Puerto Rican men and women on immigrating to America is significant because it shows that there is not a single opinion of a cultural group. Instead, the lyrics show that within any cultural group, individuals can still have their own opinions and perspectives. This idea is important because it humanizes each member of the ensemble, making them be seen as individuals within a group rather than a nondescript, androgynous group. Jerome Robbins cared about this concept and intentionally choreographed his dancers not completely in unison or with the same moves as to make them look like a community of distinct individuals rather than a mass of the same character. In his interview, Nikko Kimzin, who played a Shark in a production of West Side Story, talks about how the director purposefully had each ensemble member have a name, know their rank in their gang, what part of the city they are from, and who their girlfriend is, so each ensemble member would be able to create a unique character with a background that could inform their interactions with one another.

The Jets offer audiences observation of a group that is usually overlooked by society: the teenage children of the previous generation of immigrants that came to America. Their parents came from Europe seeking a better life and were treated as outsiders when they came to America.  The majority of these immigrants struggled greatly when they arrived in America, having to live in small, crowded apartments and work long hours at factory jobs. However, not many people think about the struggles of the next generation, being raised in these impoverished neighborhoods with their parents not around because they are constantly working. In the musical number “Gee Officer Krupke!,” the audience sees the struggles and marginalization of the Jets by American society. The Jets are seen as punks and delinquents to the rest of society, especially Officer Krupke, which makes sense as they are shown only as combative and rowdy previously in the show. This number is the first time that the audience members are supposed to sympathize with the Jets, as they blame their depravity on their harsh home life and adolescence. While the Jets previously only portrayed themselves as hypermasculine and mature, during this number, the Jets infantilize themselves– dancing around, making silly faces, and using funny voices to act out various scenarios– to elicit sensitivity from the audience by making the audience see them as children still. The number ends with the Jets in unison saying “Gee, Officer Krupke, krup you,” which represents the Jets attitude toward greater society. Society has cast them off as delinquents despite all of the mitigating factors that made them so misbehaved, so the Jets decided to cast off society and just stick to one another. 

By understanding the background of the Jets and how they are treated in society, it is easier to understand why they cling to their identity as Jets. Outcast from the rest of society, the Jets found community within each other, bonded by their shared upbringing and resulting marginalization. The strength of their Jet community is shown through the Jet Song, in which the members of the Jets sing about their pride for being a Jet. The Jets walk tall and fast down the street in a large clump, showing the strength of their community, and they climb onto elevated surfaces like see-saws and park benches to show their pride and their clout. However, to fully understand the Jets identity, the audience must examine how the Jets interact with their rival gang, the Sharks.

Production numbers in which the two ensembles interact allow the audience to understand what relations were like between these cultural groups. The relationships between the different ensembles in West Side Story can be seen most clearly in the number “Dance at the Gym.” Both groups begin walking in circles, girls on the inside and boys on the outside, to find their partners for the dance. As they walk in a circle, the hostility between the groups is visible through the dirty looks exchanged, and when the music ends and they are to partner with the person in front of them, the looks of disgust when the Jet girl sees she is to dance with Bernardo followed by the Sharks going to the Shark girls and the Jets doing the same without a word said, shows how obvious their feud was that though it was unspoken, the Sharks and Jets knew they could not dance with one another. Once the partners are all sorted out, both groups begin the Mambo, doing the same dance all together in the gym, with only the reds and purples of the Sharks costumes allowing the audience to distinguish them from the Jets, dressed in blues and yellows. The contrasts between the groups can be seen early on in the number, as the Sharks begin to incorporate hip and arm movements that show them as distinctly Latinx. In contrast, the Jets incorporate popular American dance moves like the Twist and head bobbing into their dance, showing them as culturally white, especially when compared to the Sharks.  Additionally, the Sharks and their ladies have their hands all over one another while they dance while the Jets and their ladies do not really touch each other. These stark contrasts in dance show how the Sharks and Jets express their sexuality and ethnicity differently, giving the audience some idea why the Sharks and the Jets do not get along.

Though the film is revered and is most people’s only familiarity with West Side Story, the film adaptation of the musical gets rid of the emphasis on ensemble and takes away the viewer’s ability to choose who they watch. The film imposes the director’s own artistic interpretation of the piece on film as it is his choice what the audience is shown and what is highlighted. Thus, the film version of West Side Story does not show the full impact an ensemble can have on the audience’s understanding of the cultural identities of characters in a musical. Without a film director choosing to focus the camera in on the ensemble, it is important for the audience to choose times to focus on the ensemble in a stage production, observing how they perform the choreography, how they act toward one another, and how they act towards outside characters. It is through these community interactions and performances of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity that the audience can understand the cultural identities of the principal characters.

Jets Side Story

By Margie Johnson

Set in the 1950’s, West Side Story features the rivalry between two gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City. Although they face a common enemy, the police, the hostility between the two groups is palpable. Both groups consist of all male teenagers but differ in ethnicity. These groups, with the exception of a few minor characters, ultimately form the ensemble of the production. The Jets, led by their leader Riff, feature an all white gang who have grown up in the Upper West Side for their entire lives. In contrast, the Sharks, led by their leader Bernardo, are Puerto Rican and recent immigrants to the country. Throughout the story, the Jets attempt to dominate their neighborhood through the power granted by their whiteness and their status as the established ethnic group. The Sharks, however, utilize the strength of their community bounded by their culture and immigrant status to push back against this hostile environment, illustrating that when faced with the overpowering forces of assimilation, one must cling to their culture to survive.

The Jets utilize their white privilege to intimidate and assert their authority. In the very first scene, the camera pans to the Jets leaning together against a chain fence. The members are silent and snap in unison, creating a singular crack amidst the introductory music. Every step taken falls in a pattern amongst the other members, signifying the connection they feel to the ground they walk on. When striding across the court, the group collectively walks into an ongoing basketball game. The Jets stare silently in unison, creating a sense of hostility towards the harmless teenagers. As a result, the teenagers flee from the scene, leaving the ball to the Jets as they immediately begin a basketball game of their own. Now that the Jets have won the smaller battle and taken over the basketball court, they have nothing to  prove and can move more freely and individually. Thus, as the brilliant choreography and staging brings to life, every movement made by the gang is calculated and used as a performance to showcase their power and superiority, as shown in the lyrics sung by the ensemble in the high energy dance and song, “here come the Jets little world step aside.” By compiling the members into a singular unit, the Jets are able to concentrate the power into an overwhelming force.  This force follows every move made by their leader, Riff. When walking down the street away from the court, the group begins their usual pace of snapping and walking in unison. As the music quickens, however, Riff introduces new moves into the flow of movement. Immediately after doing so, a few members of the group copy his exact move, followed by the rest of the members following suit. They do so in front of audiences of smaller children along the sidewalk, again emphasizing that these movements signify a physical show of power. The movement made by the Jets’ leader ripple through the crew of gang members who will do anything to serve him as he attempts to rule his part of the city. The sea of movement with waves of one particular course through the ensemble prevents any outliers or outsiders from joining the group, particularly if they do not fit the white male mold. For example, teenager Susan Oakes desperately wishes to be a Jet. Although she is allowed to follow the group around the city, she is never able to participate and is repeatedly told to go home. When pleading to the gang to accept her after fighting alongside them in the first encounter with the Sharks, one member retorts to the group, “how else is she gonna get a guy to touch her?” Susan’s whiteness grants her the limited authority to follow the group along and listen to their meetings, but she is precluded by her gender from being fully accepted as a Jet. Thus, it is the strict homogeneity of race and gender of the Jets that allow them to carry a sense of superiority over the population of the Upper West Side and reinforce a dominant hegemony. 

In complete contrast, the Sharks, led by Bernando, express their dominance through the vibrance of their cultural traditions. One tradition, for example, is the fluidity of their dancing. During a dance event held for both the Sharks and the Jets, both gangs are ordered to dance with the opposite gender of the other gang. Male Sharks are expected to dance with female Jets just as male Jets are expected to dance with female Sharks. Although ordered to do so, once the music begins, the gangs immediately divide and the respective gang members pull away their original partner. When it is the Sharks’ time to dance, the female and male dancers flow in one unit, with each kick, jump, or twirl intertwining with their partner’s. Just as they stand together as a gang, they move together in dance; emphasizing their refusal to let go of their LatinX culture. In contrast, the Jets move with great exuberance and American self confidence, but with flailed arms and legs. Instead of moving as one unit as seen with the Sharks, the females and males each take turns showing off their moves. For example, after a long dance period of the Sharks, the Jets barge right through the middle, breaking apart the group of Sharks in the process. As they do so, the male Shark completes a flip while his female partner twirls beside him, suggesting that their dance is for the attention of the audience rather than their attraction. Further, when nobody is watching other than the audience of their own gang, the Sharks break out into another dance number with both the males and females. The females, specifically Anita, take over a large portion of the song, with female members chiming in with their own unique lines and dance moves. A dance scene similar to this one featuring the Jets, however, is never shown throughout the entire production. Instead, the majority of the dancing with the Jets is seen with just the male members of the gang for the benefit of their rival gang, further emphasizing the Jet’s need to prove their validity. Just as the Sharks have arrived together in America, they will stay together in America, surpassing the need for fear and intimidation to unify. Even their name implies lurking danger and threat while the Jets’ name implies surging of power.

Once settled into America, the female members of the Sharks desperately desire to adopt an American lifestyle. Despite their attempts, however, they will never be accepted by the Jets or by the surrounding community due to their lack of “American” style, clothing, language (without accent), and skin color. After the first scuffle with the Jets at the beginning of the film, a police officer tells Bernardo to “get [his] friends out of here.” In one swift sentence, a sense of hostility has been established between the officer and the Sharks. They, Bernardo’s “friends” who look and speak like him, are not welcomed “here”, in America.  During a song titled, “America,” Anita and the other female members describe the luxuries they now possess after moving to Manhattan. From skyscrapers to Cadillacs and washing machines, the women rave about their passion for their newfound home and do so in cheerful song and dance. They are reminded in a call and response type dance number, however, by the male members about the limitations to their luxuries as immigrants. After every response by the males, the group breaks into shouts and cheer. In one line, Bernando states, “life is all right in America if you’re all white in America.” Instead of being feared and respected by the community just as the Jets are, Anita notes that they are reduced to “foreigners.” She does so shaking her head and hands in disgust, erupting a response from the gang to shout, “Lice! Cockroaches!” While the ensemble carries out the tune in a joking and playful manner, all of the members acknowledge that they will never fully obtain the American dream that they crave. They must, then, rely on their tightly bound Latino community for survival in their new and unwelcoming environment. 

West Side Story highlights the animosity between the established group (Jets) and the newcomers (Sharks) in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements and clashes. Although full of vibrance and passion, the Sharks will never fully be accepted into the Upper West Side by the Jets or by the surrounding community. As a result, they must rely on their gang, bound together by their culture, in order to face the challenges associated with their immigrant status. In contrast, the Jets are able to strike fear and intimidation into their community due to the privilege and power granted by their whiteness, and do so through performative and unified dance. It is not until the grave instances of life or death as seen in the final moments of the production with Tony’s passing, that the gangs are able to see past their racist and nationalistic cultural differences. This calls into question, then, when can the strength of a community surpass the limitations of racist ideals? Can two cultures, rooted in hatred for cultural differences, truly be unified or even allowed to coexist?