JULY / AUG 2016: BY CAROL STARKEY
Leonard Berstein took Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and made it applicable to more modern audiences. While no one would say Romeo and Juliet is irrelevant, Bernsteins’s story takes on a life of its own. With numerous musical numbers and strong actors, West Side Story is a musical not soon forgotten.
Natalie Wood plays a young Puerto Rican girl, Maria. Though many have criticized Wood’s performance, I found her refreshing. She brought an innocence and sweetness to Maria’s character. Besides Wood, George Chakiris as Bernardo and Rita Moreno as Anita really shine in this production. Bernardo is a young man, sure of himself and full of hatred for the Jets, his rival gang. He watches over Maria, his sister. He and Anita take her to her first dance where she meets and falls in love with Tony, the leader of the Jets. Despite the hatred between the two gangs, Maria and Tony meet constantly and even discuss marriage. Anita finds out about the two of them, keeping their secret when she sees how much they love each other.
I’ve heard this is a musical best seen on the big screen and can see why. The colors are vivid and the dances larger than life, from the Jets snapping their fingers during the initial song to the brief surmise of “Somewhere” when Tony dies. The dancing is captivating. From the dance in the gym to “America,” this movie has life and spunk, and you can’t help humming some of the songs afterward!
Tensions run high from the very beginning, culminating in the murder of Bernardo, the attack on Anita, and finally, Tony’s downfall. The action moves quickly, and Maria breaks down. She takes the gun used to shoot Tony, waving it around at both gangs, threatening to kill everyone now that she knows what hate is.
This is the most important change to this story. Juliet truly believed she couldn’t live without Romeo. She killed herself because she didn’t think she was a whole person without him. But Maria lays down the gun and gives in to her grief, falling on top of Tony’s body. She doesn’t die, and she didn’t give up. Instead, she forgives.
To me, when Maria forgives both groups for their senseless fighting is the strongest moment in the whole movie. The Jets and Sharks were rivals for a long time and neither group seemed likely to leave the other alone. Bernardo and the other Sharks came to America with dreams that quickly gave way to bitterness. Maria saw her dreams dashed yet she still forgave. She chose to love even though hate was so easy. She picked up that gun, ready to shoot as many as she could, leaving one bullet for herself. Instead, she looked around at the crowd of angry and hurting young people and let love win.
She’d done the same thing for Tony. He killed her brother, and though she hated him at first, she forgave him. In Romeo and Juliet, the families put their feud behind them because of the deaths of the young lovers; in West Side Story, the gangs put their fighting behind them because of one girl’s love. To me, that’s a much stronger ending.
It’s not easy to love in the midst of hate, yet Maria did it. In the scary world we live in, we could all learn a lesson from her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carol Starkley lives in New England with her husband, three daughters, and numerous pets. She likes to read, write, bake, and dabble with the clarinet. She also infrequently blogs.