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.

Forbidden Love: Maria as Pocahontas

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.

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?