Contrast of Romeo and Juliet an West Side Story



Contrast of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story
Essay submitted by Bob Garrard

Three Hundred Fifty Years of Blind Love: A Contraposition of Shakespeare and
Robbins’ Romeo and Juliet


Andy Warhol once said, "They say that time changes things, but actually you have to change them
yourself." Two hundred fifty years passed between the original Romeo and Juliet and the premiere
of West Side Story on Broadway in 1957. However, time did not change the message of the
story, simply the creators’ unique visions evolved. Shakespeare’s delivery of the timeless tale of
desperate love in his classic Romeo and Juliet proves to only intensify through retelling and
modern interpretation. Audiences cherish Romeo and Juliet as one of the most beloved plays of
all time from the Elizabethan Age to the present. Romeo and Juliet have attained the role as the
quintessential lovers, and the noun, "a Romeo," is synonymous with " lover." Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet is closely based on Arthur Brooke\'s tale, The Tragicall History of Romeus and
Juliet. The language, attitudes, and customs detailed in the play are generally English, in spite of
Brooke’s original Italian setting. In 1949, choreographer Jerome Robbins decided to retell
Brooke and Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy using song and dance, elements of racism and
nationalism, and a modern vernacular. Robbins called upon the musical talents of composer
Leonard Bernstein and the words of Arthur Laurents for the script and book. The love story
proved to have universal appeal throughout all artistic forms, as it had already been adjusted for
opera and ballet. The contemporary adaptation of this timeless classic alters details and deepens
the message of hatred, but maintains Brooke and Shakespeare’s vision. The relationships
between the characters, plot sequence, and theme of hatred in West Side Story and Romeo and
Juliet intertwine resulting in two similar, yet varying versions of the most famous love story of all
time.

The relationships between the characters of West Side Story and Shakespeare’s Romeo and
Juliet are reflective of their respective time periods and the original story. Maria and Juliet
represent a slightly practical counterpart to both Tony’s and Romeo’s idealistic nature. Maria’s
brother Bernardo and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt portray impulsively stubborn and violent characters
who both die from wounds inflicted by the male lead. Lieutenant Schrank is similar to Prince
Escalus, although Schrank is unfair in his treatment and attitude towards one gang- the Sharks.
Anita and Nurse both take on the role as Juliet’s confidant and trusted friend, often tampering
with their roles as messengers. The mischievously tomboyish Anybodys, who desperately wants
to be a Jet, would best fit into the role of Balthasar, since it was she who aided Tony in escaping
after the rumble, as well as later informing the other Jets that Tony was being hunted. Finally, the
character of Doc appears to fulfill the role of Friar Laurence because both possess somewhat of a
peacekeeping nature. Doc attempts to get through to Tony by dramatically pleading, "Why do
you live like there’s a war on? Why do you kill?" (2.5). All of the characters are consistent to the
heart and soul of the story as well as the slightly differing plots.

West Side Story maintains Romeo and Juliet’s intricate and exciting plot using appropriate
adaptations to accommodate mid-twentieth-century pop culture. For instance, both artistic forms
portray mutual disrespect between the parties. At the dawn of Romeo and Juliet, Capulet’s
cohorts harass Montague’s. "I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they
bear it," boasts Sampson (1.1.42-43). In the opening scene of West Side Story, several members
of a Puerto Rican gang insult A-rab, a member of the opposing gang. It is here where Lieutenant
Schrank becomes aware of the potential rumble. In Romeo and Juliet Escalus, Prince of Verona,
threatens, "If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace"
(1.1.103-104). In West Side Story, Schrank mediates in his own way when he declares, "I got a
hot surprise for you: you hoodlums don\'t own the streets"(1.1). Later, another similarity takes
place. Riff convinces Tony to attend the dance at the gym just as Benvolio persuades Romeo to
attend the Capulets’ masquerade. Tony