West Side Story: The Hollywood Musical as Social Critique

West Side Story is often regarded as the first Hollywood musical with a social conscience, appropriating the plot of Shakespeare’s most uninspired tragedy to tell a story about ethnic divides in inner city New York. Hollywood musicals before West Side Story were concerned with sexual politics, although a few exceptions did exist before the Sharks and Jets went leaping through the mean streets. Most notably-and the reason why it stands as one of the most meaningful Hollywood musicals of all time-was Judy Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis. Ostensibly an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl romance, the underlying thematic drive of that musical is the ultimate proof that conservative propaganda need not result in stilted entertainment. Meet Me in St. Louis is structured in such a way that the typical sexual politics of Hollywood musicals fade away almost immediately as it sets about creating an archetypal mythology of how Midwestern American values triumph over sinister Eastern elitism. Meet Me in St. Louis is as much a political film as anything Hollywood has ever produced.

West Side Story uses the traditional conventions of the musical genre to set the stage for what appears to be an examination of sexual politics as well. The movie updates Romeo & Juliet to a then-contemporary milieu and, for the most part, has characters bursting into song despite the lack of a nearby orchestra or dance lessons having been undertaken by the characters. In other words, everything is set up to make the viewer think the movie he is about to watch will be like any number of other musicals he’s seen. Of course, most viewers know it will deal with subjects not normally seen in musicals such as race relations and gang violence, but ultimately it will treat those ideas no differently than it treated the idea of the opening of the west in Oklahoma!. But before it is over, something amazing will happen. West Side Story will successfully engage in absolute subversion of the musical genre by using its musical numbers not to symbolize the sexual act but to examine the sociopolitical inequities inherent in the American ideology.

West Side Story appropriates more than just the tragic romance at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. Just as events that set the that tragedy in motion are directly related to issues of class in Verona, so too do issues of class distinctions affect the tragic romance between Tony and Maria. The brilliant opening number establishes the social milieu immediately: us against them. And it doesn’t matter who the us or them is, you could replace Italians and Puerto Ricans with teens of Irish, Polish or Serbian ethnicity. What is important is that it is the gang that represents protection and identity. In the middle of the biggest city in the biggest melting pot in the world and still these kids search for loyalty from those of their own kind. In the world in which the members of the Jets and the Sharks move, snapping their fingers and leaping gracefully through the air, cultural loyalty is everything. As the opening number progresses and each of the members of the two gangs are introduced the impact of this loyalty becomes clear. It literally means protection; at certain points the Sharks outnumber the Jets, at others vice versa. Everything boils down to a numbers game and the ultimate result of not having enough numbers can be devastating. This opening sequence serves as a thematic foundation upon which the real issues of the movie will be built. Those issues have to do with how vital it is for the disaffected youths who make up the gangs to feel a sense of bonding and belonging, but it also points out how those very bonds can also become an obstacle to understanding by creating a sense of the impression of a looming threat.

In the movie, that looming threat is, ironically, personified as young love. Tony is a young man of Italian heritage who used to be the leader of the Jets, but has moved on and is attempting to mature. At a high school dance, a chance meeting leads to his falling in love with a pretty Puerto Rican girl. There is more at stake here than a despised former gang member dating the sister of a rival gang member; the relationship between Tony and Maria represents a threat to the comforts of the insular world that the rival gangs symbolize. Membership in a gang, after all, isn’t just about belonging, it’s just as much about not belonging. It’s about both letting people in and keeping people out and the gangs in West Side Story serve a purpose that is heightened by the fact that no parents are ever seen in the movie. Although we know in reality it happens all the time, thematically speaking a family can’t reject the membership of someone. The gang is metaphor for family because they choose to accept members and then offer the sense of familial duties. And just as there is a long history of families disapproving of marriage outside one’s cultural base, so is there disapproval of Maria and Tony’s love. The disapproval in this case results from the view that such a thing represents a threat to identity and security.

Although there are clearly differences between the Sharks and the Jets-or, more specifically, the Puerto Ricans and the Italians-it is their similarities that are far more fascinating. One of the primary similarities is that both sides agree on something: the police aren’t protectors, but a threat. The implicit detail at work here is that it doesn’t matter what member of a minority you belong to, the police are to be viewed as a force that doesn’t have your interest at heart. The fact that neither the Puerto Ricans nor the Italians look to the police to help them is pregnant with the suggestion that the WASP power structure uses polarization of minority groups to maintain a complex balance that both succeeds in protecting their base while also keeping the ethnic groups appropriately distracted by each other to pay much attention to the fact they are being exploited. Additionally, by pitting one against the other in a continuous state of civil war, the powers successfully keep those smaller groups from realizing that if they would ever give up competing with one another and instead engage in cooperation, they would create a viable threat to the system.

That the cultural alienation of the Puerto Ricans and Italians is not just accidental, but rather integral to the thematic concern of the film can be illustrated using two of the most infectious and crowd-pleasing musical numbers in the movie. The most obviously ideological song in West Side Story is the rousing rooftop showstopper sung in proper dialectical style by the Sharks and their girlfriends. “America” is presented as a musical dialogue in which the girls sing the praises of their adopted homeland, only to be answered with some unpleasant truths by the guys. What the girls sing about in this song is the idealized image of America that has been sold to them, whereas the guys present a far more factual portrait of what Latino immigrants could-and do-expect. Although the song ends in peals of laughter, what is left by its end is an America that probably shouldn’t be celebrated.

Later, we get a song that stands as a kind of flip side, sung from the perspective of the Italians. The members of the Jets pretend to address the song to one of the local cops in “Gee, Officer Krupke” but its complains go far beyond police treatment. Because the Italian immigrants are more settled than the Puerto Ricans and have assimilated to a certain extent, the complaints aren’t about doors being slammed in their faces or getting charged twice what others are charged. The Jets’ complaint about America is more subtle and cuts a little more deeply as they complain about how the lack of opportunities for advancement has resulted in cultural anomie expressed in the manner of generations living in the squalor of tenement life, with drunken fathers and junkie mothers who abuse their kids. These kids, in turn, have grown into juvenile delinquents acting out in a way that gets them tossed into jail while the rich kids who act the same way get treated to psychoanalysis to discover what’s causing their behavior.

The love that develops between Maria and Tony represents a threat to their cultural security, as well as class security. When Maria and Tony sing about discovering someplace somewhere where there exists a new way of living, they are essentially saying that things as they are aren’t good enough. And any time someone says that things as they are aren’t good enough, feathers get ruffled. No matter how bad things are, most people cling desperately to the status quo because the unknown is far more fearsome. The idea that somewhere may exist where a new way of living can make things better harkens back to Tony’s earlier song about sensing a great change could be on the way. Tony sings that things could be different, and that would be a miracle. Clearly, to convince these people that life as they know it isn’t the answer will take a miracle.

Besides distrust of the police, there is something else that binds the members of the Sharks and the Jets. Both experience a sense of alienation from America and part of that has to do with the fact that they are Catholics in a Protestant country. They worship the same religion, possibly even attend the same church, but don’t recognize the bond.

That it may take nothing less than a miracle for Tony and Maria to discover that the somewhere they sing about is made concrete when they conduct a symbolic wedding ceremony during the song “One Hand, One Heart.” As Tony’s dead body is ritualistically carried away by members of both gangs, the unspoken implication is that the somewhere where there exists a new kind of forgiving will require a sacrifice of Christ-like proportions.