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West Side Story

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Ella Stewart

on 5 December 2014

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Transcript of West Side Story

Jerome Robbins 1918 - 1998
Throughout Robbins' works a thread of similar
themes can be noticed. Many of his works present a strong sense of
community, for example, West Side Story is a focus a specific community,
dissecting the lives of two ethnically opposing communities within it, who show solid unity when faced with outsiders. This is shown through the continuous tension between the gangs and the war-like fight scenes. The gangs also chant their solidarity when cheering each other on at 'Dance at the Gym". This theme is also reflected in Fiddler on the Roof from the offset, when we are immediately presented with a village scene of a Jewish community linked by their arms, showing a strong scene of social importance.
Whilst a love story can also be observed in many of Robbins' pieces, they were not usually the traditional romance that could be seen in works up to this point. A theme of complications and obstacles that the lovers must face, such as, forbidden love and death is seen in many of his works. Strongly challenging expected love stories of the time when these themes were conventionally accepted in Shakespeare's plays and modern theater but never in a ballet, or dance performance.
Likewise, Robbins was also interested in contemporary realities and uncovering truths
of social attitudes and implicit subjects, presented through racism and
discrimination, violence, deaths, alienation, prejudice, and the naturalism
and relaxed performance of some of his works, opposing everything seen
prior. As a result of this the production took five years to get off the ground
as no one wanted to take the risk of presenting such an exposing
true representation of society. Robbins aimed to
revolutionize the significance behind
technical perfection.
Economically producers didn't want to invest money into the making of West Side Story because the themes and ideas presented were 'too risky' to create into modern American muscial theater, such as, the love story and hatred causing three deaths, an attempted rape and the unspoken truths of youth culture. Nothing had been seen like this prior to West Side Story, musical theater was cheerful and amusing, and love stories had happy endings. Robbins challenged every perception of performance and he wanted to impact the social and political views of audiences in the 1950s.
Other choreographers made dancers, whereas, Robbins made characters through movement. West Side Story revolutionized who was employed for musicals, all three skills, strong dance technique, ability to act and training in singing was now required to be able to perform. West Side Story received sixteen curtain calls on its premiere and was awarded ten Oscars.
Movement Quality
From training and performing with Sandor's Dance Centre Robbins acquired his own dance style, a fusion of solid ballet and modern inspired technique, cleverly merged with theatrical, humorous and meaningful performance. He aimed to break the stereotypes of the way highly classically trained ballerinas were presented on stage. Although Robbins enjoyed the look of casual people on stage he also had a determination for precision of technique and would work on a single number with his dancers for months to ensure perfection, meanwhile, striving for naturalism simultaneously. A known characteristic of Robbins work is movement derived from pedestrian walking and the evolution of dance from a simple, natural movement. Robbins was also a very versatile performer and had experience in many styles of dance and his musical theater works reflect his as he frequentyly combines different styles within them. Another characteristic of Robbin's work is the way
he created movement which was character specific to personality
of the characters in his musicals.
Choreographer Fact Card: Jerome Robbins 1918-1998 sheet
Biographical details

West Side Story's basic concept is a modern contemporary rendition
of Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet. Taking this tragic love story entwined with themes such as social reforms, rivalry and youth culture from ancient Italy in the mid-1590s to the streets of modern day Manhattan, and substitute the Montagues and Capulets for the Jets and Sharks, as we are given an insight into the similar rivalry between the two teenage gangs of different ethnicities.
The forbidden romance between, main characters, Tony and Maria leads us through a series of fateful events, focusing on social problems of the 1950s and uncovering bleak attitudes of the time. While containing controversial issues opposing traditional art forms, creating a ground breaking turning point in American Musical Theatre.
The contrasting themes and storyline was brought to life by a creative team of innovative, determined directors and artists, such as, Leonard Bernstein who created the music score, Stephan Sondheim with the lyrics, Oliver Smith, scenic design and the most renouned for his creative directing, idea concept and choreography was Jerome Robbins.
After opening in 1957 it ran 732 performances at New York's Winter Garden Theatre before touring, which included an even longer running London production, revivals and international productions.
The perfomance won 6 Tony awards including Best Musical of 1957. Robbins was awarded the Tony for his choreography
and Oliver Smith also for scenic design.
West Side Story
West Side Story follows the lives of two rival gangs struggling for control of the neighborhood. This is made evident from the very first scene (The Prologue), where a tense chase and fight breaks out and the police warn the gangs to stay away from each other. The Jets (Caucasian) plan ways to continue their dominance over The Sharks (Puerto Rican). Riff, the leader of the Jets, suggests a rumble and plans to make the challenge to Bernardo at the upcoming neighborhood dance, he also wants to convince former Jet and good friend Tony to meet them at the dance for team support and as a treat to the Sharks. Some of the Jets are unsure of Tony's loyalty by Riff is sure he is still one of them. Tony initially refuses but Riff manages to persuade him, added to Tony's optimistic instinct that something good is around the corner.
Maria has just arrived from Puerto Rica for her arranges marriage to Chino and in the bridal shop where her and Anita work she confesses to her friend that she does not love Chino.
At the dance a challenge dance is called, during this Tony and Maria, who are not taking part, notice each other across the room and begin to dance together oblivious to their surroundings, they fall in love and kiss. Bernardo pulls Maria away and sends her home. This leads Riff and Bernardo to arrange a meeting for a war council. Meanwhile, Tony finds Maria's home and serenades her outside her window, she comes out onto the balcony and they confess their love for each other. Whilst the two opposing scenes are taking place, Anita, Rosalia and the other Shark girls discuss the differences between territory of Puerto Rica and the USA. Anita defends America!
The Jets become anxious waiting for the Sharks at the meeting point. The Sharks arrive and the leaders, Riff and Bernardo decide the rumble to be a fair fight (fists only) much to the protest of the other members. Bernardo expects to be fighting Tony, however, will have to settle for fighting Diesel. Tony tells Doc (his boss) about Maria and he fears for them but Tony is sure nothing could go wrong.
The next day Maria learns about the rumble between the gangs from Anita and when Tony and her meet she asks him to stop it all together which he agrees to. When he arrives at the fight Bernardo provokes Tony and taunts him for his attempt at peace making. The pushing and tension escalates and Bernardo and Riff pull out their blades. Tony attempts to pull them apart but Bernardo fatally stabs Riff. In a fit of rage Tony kills Bernardo. Police sirens can be heard and everybody flees, except Tony who is frozen at the scene. At the last moment he runs, leaving the bodies of Riff and Bernardo.
Riff - Leader of the Jets
Tony - former joint-leader of the Jets and Riff's best friend, falls in love with Maria
Diesel/Ice - second-in-command of the Jets and becomes the leader after Riff's death

Bernardo - Leader of the sharks and Maria's brother
Chino - Maria's suitor and Bernardo's best friend who Kills Tony
Pepe - Second-in-command of the Sharks
Maria - Bernardo's sister, falls in love with Tony
Anita - Friend of Maria and girlfriend of Bernardo

Officer Krupe - an aggressive but inept cop
Detective Schrank - a racist police lieutenant

Historical and Cultural
During the 1950s and 60s, racism was
a prominent modern issue. Black people were unaccepted in America, stemming back to the slave trade and in the 50s is when a large movement began with the help of leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcom X, people fought for their rights in peaceful protest, freedom rides and sit ins. The first large scale protest was in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycotts against segregation after segregation in schools was made illegal in 1954, however, social attitudes were more difficult to change. This positive movement towards change may have
inspired ideas for West Side Story.
The struggle of everyday life for many African-Americans is similar to the discrimination and hostility many Puerto Rican and foreign immigrants faced which West Side Story uncovers in its performance. The deaths
and despair in the story are suggesting
what the future could hold if societies
attitudes continued.
Social and Political
Social attitudes of many white Americans were overly
patriotic and had been taught over generations superiority,
and it had been learnt to be unaccepting of immigration
or other ethnicities causing threat to their dominance. This was seen as moral to white Americans as most of the authorities were run by White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPS) who believed in their power over groups in minority. As America was also run by capitalism there was also a noticeable divide within classes due to economical differences within regions all over the USA and families were usually rich or poor. However, West Side Story is focuses on boys of middle-work class, and they are presented this way
by their vocabulary and costume. This may have been an attempt to allow audiences to consider a more economically balanced society. The role of
women in the 1950’s was constrictive in many ways. Society placed many expectations on women’s behaviour at home as well as in public. Women
were expected to fulfil certain roles, such as a caring mother, a
diligent home maker and an obedient wife. Maria contrasts
these expectations in West Side Story as she disobeys
her family by following her true love for Tony rather
than forcing her love for her chosen suitor Chino.
Economical and Technical
The major technical change within West Side Story was that when it
became a film in 1961 from its original stage production. Performance was enhanced as technology developed. Cameras were made with improved filming quality, lighting, sounds and design advanced as the American economy boomed during the 1920s. Mass production was invented and products could be made quicker and cheaper with better design. The film and music industry was also influenced by the ‘boom’, as a result of World War 2 people wanted enjoyment and entertainment. During the late 30’s and early 40’s, America was ready to rebuild and reconstruct the economy around them. In the 1950s birth rates quickly increased. This was because soldiers came home from war in Europe and wanted to start a family life. In 1947 a record was accounted that 3.8 million babies were born. This is equivalent to a baby born every 7 seconds. The late 40’s and all of the 50’s was marked as the Baby Boom.
There were some other positive effects of the Baby Boom as well. In order to keep up with all of the babies in the Baby Boom, more products had to be produced. Food, clothing and toy sales went up dramatically. The Baby Boom not only raised the population, but the economy as well. Negative effects caused overcrowding in education and over subscription in schools and home were cramped. The high population of immigrants added to this, in search for better lives in the USA.
Three main factors helped influence immigration, air travel, the great
depression and the end to World War 2. West Side Story exposes
social attitudes towards these movements.
Forbidden Love
In West Side Story, a main theme is the problematic
love story of, main characters, Tony and Maria as they
fall in love and feel destined to be together even through
the struggle that society will force on their forbidden love as they are born into rival gangs. Bernardo makes this disapproval clear as he forcefully pulls his sister away in a stunned fury from Tony at the neighborhood dance after they kiss and demands that she goes home immediately. This reinforces the prejudice towards true love which should be cherished rather than rejected. Again this idea has continued to be relevant and is still to today's society. Same-sex marriages have only
recently been legalized in the UK, however, are still
universally disapproved by many societies and
what was once more prominent when the hierarchy
of social class in families would determine
a suitor in marriage.
Youth Culture
The insight given into the youth culture of the 1950s is
unmasked throughout West Side Story. Gang rivalry being an outcome of
the social pressures on young people at the time and the burden of making the right decision for some characters proves difficult. This is presented in many situations from the play, such as, Tony and Maria choosing to be together, disobeying the restrains their society places on their shoulders and the spontaneous decision Bernardo and Riff make to escalate the ‘fist fight’ scene as they pull out their hand knives into a fight to the death.
The dramatic tension arises and builds form the offset as we experience the first bold presentation of youth rivalry in the opening scene (The Prologue) as we witness overly physical movement to suggest threats and aggression towards the opposing gang and street walls and roads are marked to signify each territory. Later in the performance, again conflict is expressed through caller and response at the dance which develops into brutal violence as the leading members are killed and there is an attempted rape of Anita.
The youth culture shown in West Side Story involves issues that are still relevant as gangs continue to exist in today’s society, causing
community violence and pressure on young people to conform
and gain reputation and status. This can be related to modern
day school settings and neighbourhood relations. Also in
towards peer pressure, in drugs, smoking and drinking,
violence, and law breaking which is something
many young people will be faced with.

Immigration and Racism
Between the 1950s and 60s the number of Puerto Rican emigrants
reached 470,000. Puerto Rica had also become territory of the USA,
meanwhile, their population grew as the economy fell. After the Puerto
Rican citizenship was passed in 1917 and due to America's thriving
superiority after World War 2 and the idea of "The American Dream"
was imagined to be possible many Puerto Rican's decided to migrate
there in search of jobs, eduction, opportunities and better lives. The
majority migrated to East Harlem after the first group settled there in the
early 19th century. This was known as the Bronx. Many thought of America as
'the land of the free', however, Puerto Ricans faced economic exploitation,
discrimination and racism from strongly patriotic and prejudice Americans.
This fulled gang crime. In West Side Story this harsh truth of society is
exposed through the art of performance as it deals with explicit
challenging subjects. The tension between the gangs, initially fueled
by their ethnic heritage, is presented strongly throughout
the production. Robbins used method acting to enthuse
this tension in the performers when acting, as the Jets and
Sharks were not aloud to interact off set. This reality is still
significant in today's society as racism continually
motivates violence and discrimination to
large groups of people in many different
communities world wide.
A linking theme to the close-nit society of gang culture is the
loyalty within them. The way the Jets and Sharks stand so unified against
each other and their strong shared beliefs on how the neighborhood should be dominated shows individual’s great honour to be in their gangs and how they rely on each member in a similar way to a family. This was common for young people who felt they had been neglected from society or from their own families to find a sense of community and solidarity in other groups of adolescents, for a feeling of purpose and pride. This is still common today.
In West Side Story, Maria’s loyalty is challenged as she falls in love with Tony who she knows will not be accepted by her family or the Sharks, however, she cannot help her devotion which suggests that love will always triumph over every restriction. Later in the performance Tony’s loyalty to his best friend Riff and to his lover Maria is tested after Riff is fatally stabbed by Bernardo and as he places his knife in Tony hands before he falls to the ground Tony feels compelled to stand by his loyalty to Riff and kills Bernardo, as the saying “once a Jet always a Jet” is presented. However, Tony has been forced to be disloyal to Maria by killing her brother. Loyalty is commonly associated within relationships, family, friends, lovers and anything that requires trust.
It still often causes difficulties within loving relationships,
such as, the balance of loyalty to your lover or your family
and the pressure over partner choice and marriage.
West Side Story (1957)
The movement quality throughout West Side Story is true to the primary
characteristics of Robbins' works. This is evident in the style of the choreography and movement used right from the start (The Prologue), such as walking evolving into dance techniques which involve high energy movements unfolding from steps, to elevated ball changes, drag runs, accented hops, barrel jumps, and split leaps, integrating simple actions such as clicks, presenting a simplistic but technical style. In West Side Story, like Robbins' other musicals, he aimed for the dancers to appear casual, relaxed and comfortable when performing
at the same time as having technical precision.
During the production the accompaniment is similar to that of other works choreographed by Robbins. It's features are orchestral and dramatic which also acts as a theatrical narrative, produced with specific instruments.
West Side Story is influenced by many different dance styles and reflects Robbins versatile ability in performing. For example, 'Dance at the Gym' was shaped with classical arm lines and ballet techniques can be recognized, such as, an assemble soutenu from running and attitude leg lines.
Through Robbins choreography the personality of the characters is presented, such as, the main boys of the Jets are given a trio at the beginning to show their importance, the males do energetic,
powerful movements to show aggression and masculinity, Maria's movements are very soft and elegant to present an innocents and harmony, whereas Anita's choreography is Spanish inspired, in the hips and sharp to show her strong heritage and her firey personality. This is also seen in Robbins earlier musicals and ballets, such as, Fancy Free (1944), where three sailors display their different personalities in the form of movement in order to win a woman's heart.
Robbins' aim for naturalism is also shown throughout the production in the acting,
pedestrian actions from the offset and semi-choreographed movement such as
the real fighting movement taken by Robbins and
made into innovative dance.
West End
U.S tour
Broadway return
Broadway revival
UK tour and West End revival
West End revival and UK tour
Broadway revival and U.S tour
UK tour
Story Line - Act 1
Unaware of the gangs events of the night before, Maria looks forward to seeing Tony. Later she dances on the rooftops happily after seeing Tony and believes that he went to stop the rumble. Chino then brings the news that Tony killed Bernardo. Maria runs to her bedroom, hoping that Chino is creating lies. Tony arrives to see Maria and she cries with rage at him, but still loves him. They plan to run away together and a dreamlike fantasy world appears around them as they imagine peace.
Some of the Jets are found by the police but manage to escape, they cheer themselves up by singing about the adults who don't understand them. One of the Jets arrives and tell them that they've been spying on the Sharks and Chino is searching for Tony with a gun. They split up to find Tony.
Anita arrives at Maria's apartment, as Tony leaves he tells her to meet him later that day so they can escape to the the country. Anita knows they had been together and launches into an angry rage about Tony. Maria declares her love for him and tries to convince Anita that her love is so strong and she realises that she loves Tony like she had loved Bernardo and admits to Maria that Chino is looking for him with a gun.
The police arrive to question Maria about her brother's death and Anita agrees to go to tell Tony to wait, however, when she arrives the other Jet members are already there and taunt Anita with racist comments which becomes and attempted rape. Anita is furious and in spite delivers the wrong message, that Chino has shot Maria dead. The Doc tells Tony who has been planning his life with Maria in the countryside and feels like he has nothing to live for.
Tony leave to find Chino and begs him to shoot him as well. Just as Tony sees Maria alive Chino shoots him. The Jets, Sharks and adults gather around Tony as Maria holds him in her arms. She holds the gun and screams at them that they all helped to kill him because of their hatred towards each other. She drops the gun and the Jets and Sharks help to carry Tony's body away. The feud is over.
Story Line - Act 2
Gluck Sandor noticed Robbins's varied talents. "He was eighteen or nineteen at the time. I needed a copy of Hamlet and borrowed his. Besides his notes, the margins were full of music he composed. He was always writing stories. He did wood carving and also drew. He had what you might call a photographic memory. Once he saw something, he could do it backwards."
West Side Story Research
Jerome Robbins was best known for his revolutionized method of directing, choreographing and producing. "A genius" is something he was commonly described as by the numerous dancers and co-directors he worked with during his prosperous career.
Born Jerome Rabinowitz on October 11th 1918 in New York City, as the second child of Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in New Jersey aspiring to follow in his sister's footsteps training in free-form 'interpretive' dance. He changed his surname to Robbins as he got older as he didn’t like that it showed off his immigrant heritage, he also thought of himself as an American. Robbins had his first taste of performing after a year at university (1936) when training in New York with Gluck Sandor who had studied with ballet's Mikhail Fokine, who also grew interest in Robbins and cast him, and modern dance's Mary Wigmman through his training.

Between 1936 and 1940 Robbins studied a variety of dance styles and was noticed for his versatility during his career. His training at Sandor's Dance Centre had been heavily influenced by ballet and modern dance technique. Along-side his training he was desperate to choreograph. During the summers he worked as a dancer and had his first experience of creating and teaching his own material at Camp Tamiment. In 1940 Robbins joined Ballet Theatre as a dancer and it was soon made evident that he was also a performer and he was often commended for his ability in humorous roles and for his acting.
Realising that he wanted to take his passion for choreographing further, during World War 2, and being experienced in the industry he knew he needed to create something innovative and aimed to design a new form in which technical dance was performed. This was presented in his first well known ballet about contemporary New York, Fancy Free (1944), to music by then unknown Leonard Bernstein. This was the turning point for revolutionising the traditional ballet technique, he collaborated theatre with dance creating a new original style. Robbins aimed to challenge traditional works that had been made up to that time, questioning themes and performance quality. He wanted human beings up on stage and he introduced ballerinas that didn’t conform to the visual expectations. It became an instant success. Followed by his second hit of 1944, On the Town, where he also worked with Bernstein.
Robbins continued choreographing alternating ballets and musicals, creating inventive movement quality and leading shows and in 1957, "he broke the mold with West Side Story, seamlessly integrating dance and stage action and tackling a difficult subject." (Choreographer Fact Card: Jerome Robbins 1918-1998). He formed his own company in 1958, Jerome Robbins' Ballet, who performed inconsistently until 1962. Robbins also directed plays and received many awards throughout his career. He was awarded 5 Tony awards, 5 Donaldsons, 2 Academy awards an Emmy and a Kenedy Centre Honor (1981) amongst others.
After Fiddler on the Roof, Robbins didn't return to musicals but continued to create ballets, his last in 1997. He died on July 29th 1998.
Robbins was never particularly interested in making money throughout his career; he simply wanted to create outstanding works for the world to see. This was exposed when he walked from the rehearsal of On the Town as he believed it had become more about the money than the performance. Robbins was known throughout his career for being difficult to work with. He strived for perfection and anything less was unacceptable. It was common for him to verbally abuse dancers and to demand log rehearsal times and to work slowly. A familiar method of his work was to choreograph several variations of a sequence an label them with letters, which dancers would have to remember while he constructed his work. He also had a reputation for being equally uncompromising with his collaborators and during West Side Story, despite his determination for precise work, he lead the production off schedule and over-budget. His obligation to work thoroughly may have steamed from his childhood with a distant father and a controlling mother, demanding high standards as a condition of her love.

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