West Side Story (1961 film)

West Side Story (1961 film) Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the tension in the film between the youth world and the adult world?

    Adults barely feature in the plot of the film, and it often feels as though the two gangs are inhabiting an empty city where they run the entire social order. When adults do show up, they scold the young people for being so negligent and reckless. Lieutenant Schrank is always telling the Sharks and the Jets to try and get along, but he has one of the most racist attitudes towards the Sharks of anyone. When Doc scolds the Jets after they attack Anita, Action reminds Doc that they did not make the world they have inherited. In subtle ways, the film shows that the youths at the center of the narrative are as much victims of the ways they were brought up, and products of a broken world, as they are perpetrators of crimes.

  2. 2

    How does the dancing help reveal the emotional aspect of the story?

    West Side Story seamlessly blends music, dance, and narrative in a way that makes the elevated dance numbers seem like organic extensions of the narrative rather than heightened breaks. This is evident from the very beginning of the film, when the Jets begin walking down the street, gradually breaking into balletic movement. The dancing serves to contrast high art with gritty realism, but it also shows the ways that the characters have emotions that are bubbling up inside them and are too strong to contain. The Jets dance down the street because they are eager for a fight and they want to feel like they have some power in the world. The expressiveness of the dancing shows this. Later, dancing highlights the differences between the Sharks and the Jets, as the two gangs dance on either side of the gym. Then, in a number like "Cool," dancing again shows the ways that the Jets are trying to keep their hot-headed emotions under wraps, to quell their overwhelming feelings.

  3. 3

    What is the role of loyalty in West Side Story?

    Loyalty functions in multiple ways within West Side Story: loyalty to one's race, loyalty to one's friends, and loyalty to oneself. Both Tony and Maria experience internal and external conflict when they sacrifice being loyal to their races in order to be loyal to each other and their feelings of love. Loyalty is fluid in this movie. During the rumble, Tony is loyal to Riff and the Jets after Bernardo kills Riff, then chooses to be loyal to Maria, going to her and planning to run away.

  4. 4

    What elements of the plot of West Side Story are most similar to its source material, Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet?

    The central premise, for one thing, is almost identical to that of Romeo and Juliet. Two young lovers from dueling "families" find themselves falling in love, much to the chagrin of their respective clans. The difference in this musical is that instead of Capulets versus Montagues, the story concerns Sharks (Puerto Ricans) versus Jets (whites) clashing in a gang war over the run of the neighborhood. Many of the characters are stand-ins for characters from the original, with Riff standing in for Mercutio, and Bernardo for Tybalt. Even the misunderstanding at the end bears some resemblance to the ending of the Shakespeare, in which Romeo kills himself after mistakenly thinking that Juliet is actually dead.

  5. 5

    What were Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' respective roles as directors of the film?

    At the time of filming, Robert Wise had never directed a musical, and the original stage musical of West Side Story had been such a labor of love for choreographer Jerome Robbins that it seemed natural to have them both take the helm. Wise was charged with directing the narrative scenes, while Robbins covered the musical numbers, which clearly have his choreographic and visionary touch.