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Did You Know West Side Story Was a Shakespeare Interpretation?

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

Continuing our discussion of Shakespearean interpretations in movies (see She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You, and many more), it’s time to acknowledge how ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is often underused. 


Despite being arguably one of Shakespeare’s most well-known stories, very few times has it been subtly adapted for film.


Of a small bunch, the most recognisable, and the one that comes closest to the original material, is the hit musical ‘West Side Story’. 



With many adaptations itself, the first ‘West Side Story’ was directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Released in 1961, it aimed to (and succeeded in) being a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s classic play ‘Romeo and Juliet.’


Set during the ‘50s in the Upper West Side of New York City, the plot revolves revolves around two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, representing a retold equivalent of the Montagues and Capulets.


The film has etched its place as a timeless musical, and in 2021, we got a Steven Spielberg’s remake. 


Retaining the essence of the original, the film reimagines the iconic tale of love and conflict against a more modern backdrop.


Although we are not going to discuss the differences between the movies today, it’s important to know this fact: the second movie is more racially oriented – which is crucial in a story about racial issues – and is more diverse casting-wise. The original adaptation had only one Latin-American actress among the main cast (Rita Moreno in her role Anita).


While I imagine you already know the plot of its Shakespearean influence, here’s a quick rundown.


‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragic play  set in Verona, Italy, and revolving around the passionate love between two young individuals from feuding families. Romeo Montague, aged around 16, falls in love with Juliet Capulet, who is just 13 years old.


The two of them secretly marry but face numerous challenges due to the ongoing feud between their families, the Montagues and Capulets, who are in a long lasting rivalry for unknown reasons.


A series of unfortunate events, misunderstandings, and the impulsive actions of the characters lead to a tragic conclusion. Both Romeo and Juliet – and even some of their peers – meet untimely deaths, bringing an end to their brief but intense love affair. The play explores themes of love, fate, and the destructive consequences of familial conflict.


In the spirit of Shakespearean drama, ‘West Side Story’ ingeniously transposes the age-old feud between the Montagues and Capulets into the gritty reality of two rival gangs. The Upper West Side becomes the battleground for these modern-day counterparts, with tensions escalating and allegiances forming in the concrete jungle.


It’s important to add, at the time the original movie was released there was indeed some conflict regarding both race and gangs in that part of New York City. The high growth of Portorican communities in the Upper West Side after WWII created some forms of animosities among Irish, Latino, and Italian communities. And this is exactly why the story works - it has so much real-life meaning behind it. 


The rivalry was real, the hate among these already oppressed communities existed, even the idea of gentrification that we, the audience, see more in the second film, was very much there.


People like to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as simply a love story, but it is undisputedly more than just this. It is the visualisation of what happens when children – let’s remember Juliet was only 13 – fight their parents’ battles.


As Tony and Maria navigate love amid the hostility between the Jets and the Sharks, their romance becomes a poignant commentary on societal divides and cultural clashes in ‘50s America.


As the plot unfolds, the inevitability of tragedy looms, mirroring the fate of Shakespeare’s ill-fated lovers. In ‘West Side Story,’ the romance plot between Tony and Maria takes a horrific turn, echoing the profound sorrow that permeates the conclusion of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’


The film skilfully weaves a narrative of despair and loss against the vibrant backdrop of a dystopian yet very real urban life.


The characters in ‘West Side Story’ serve as counterparts to Shakespeare’s iconic creations. Tony embodies the spirit of Romeo, very idealistic about his puppy love while Maria stands as a contemporary Juliet, caught between her family and her loved one. Riff and Bernardo mirror the fiery dynamics of Mercutio and Tybalt, respectively, too.


In a nod to Shakespeare’s timeless romance, ensuring not to overlook the iconic balcony scene, the fire escape of Maria’s tenement building becomes the symbolic setting for Tony and Maria’s impassioned declaration of love. 


Dance, mainly in the form of ballet, takes centre stage in both tales, transcending mere entertainment to become a powerful form of expression. 


The dance sequences serve as a medium for the characters to communicate, much like the traditional masquerade ball in Shakespeare’s play. The pulsating rhythm of the music becomes a reflection of the characters' emotions and the societal tensions that surround them.


While both ‘West Side Story’ films are not RomComs per se, it is a love story. And a tragic one at that. Much like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, it is drama infused broken with comedic moments from time to time.


The tale of love, conflict, and societal reflection resonates as a testament to the enduring power of storytelling, reminding audiences that, no matter the era, themes explored across Shakespeare’s work will forever hold a place in the collective heart of cinematic history.


Edited by Emily Duff

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