West Side Story

The teenage rebel scene was not limited to the Hollywood screen. Street gang hoods were also in the spotlight on the Broadway stage. West Side Story was a play about ethnic urban gangs that “rumble” in a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet.” The music was by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim. The musical play debuted on Broadway in September 1957 (after the juvenile delinquent movies discussed above) and ran for 732 performances until it closed in 1959. Hollywood made a movie of it that premiered in 1961. Both the play and the movie were winners of significant awards. One critic noted: “Young lovers are caught between prejudice and warring street gangs in one of the most important and powerful musicals of all time.”

“…[W]est Side Story’s plot line confronted a contemporary crisis, one that highlighted juvenile delinquency, street violence, new immigrants, and racial difference.” (https://music.fas.harvard.edu/WSS&MM2009.pdf The story is set in an Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City in the mid-1950s, a multiracial, blue-collar neighborhood. The musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are taunted by the Jets, a white gang. The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang’s leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty.” and “Somewhere” were the most popular songs from the play. As in Romeo and Juliet, the love between members of two rival groups in West Side Story leads to violent confrontations “and a tragic ending with an underlying message: Violence breeds violence, so make peace and learn to share turf.” Among the social themes explored in the musical are “bigotry, cultural misunderstanding and the social failure to fully integrate and empower young people in constructive ways.”

To teenagers, membership in a gang offered a sense of power and belonging. By 1958, boys and girls in New York City made up somewhere between seventy-five to one hundred street fighting gangs, each determined to stake out and defend its turf. For the most part, the street youths in West Side Story engage in relatively harmless activities, such as hanging out, sneaking into movies, and harassing the police verbally. They taunt one another too, using ethnic slurs like Polack (Pole), Mick (Irishman), and Wop (Italian), in addition to Spic (Hispanic). With the exception of Anybodys, a character in the play who wants to join the Jets, the young women in the musical seem content to be the girlfriends of the gang members and deliver messages for them in an emergency. In real life, young women affiliated with a gang sometimes also kept weapons for the young men, stirred up trouble by relaying insults, or formed their own gangs, not hesitating to fight other bands of young women.

When gang members fought, they had a considerable variety of weapons to choose from, and the boys in West Side Story debate the possibilities at length. In New York, hand-to-hand combat, or “skin,” was always an option, but so were switchblades, broken bottles, tire irons, machetes, car antennas—the list was long. Street youths also had access to revolvers and the average cost of a “hot” gun (one that had been stolen or used in a holdup) hovered around $5. The self-made zip gun was a primitive assembly of rubber bands, wood, and metal, which fired a .22 caliber cartridge and could be made in a school workshop. Sometimes it was more important to have the weapons than to actually use them. These were teenagers who were also in the habit of going to the movies, flirting, and listening to the jukebox at the local candy store like other young people their age. But at the same time, most gang members shared the sense that conflict on the streets was inevitable, and that it was better to join a gang than be outside of the loop, unprotected. (https://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/performing-arts/film-and-television/west-side-story#A)

In the Broadway production of West Side Story, “America”—its most political song—omitted mention of minority relations or prejudice. Rather, in the Broadway version, Anita and Rosalia instead argue with each other about the benefits of New York or San Juan (respectively). Regardless of the version, the core issue is: does the good in “America” outweigh the bad, and is “America” really a land for everyone, or is it still a place that rejects minorities and anyone not of the dominant group? But only four years later, when West Side Story reached the Hollywood screen, sensitivities had become more pronounced. “America” could be more explicit. The Sharks were allowed to resent the bigotry to which their ethnicity was subjected: “Everything right in America / If you’re a white in America.” In 1961, no other aria was so open about the gap between dream and reality that ethnic outsiders confronted. And yet, because the Fifties had not really ended, the anger that was about to boil over had to be countered: the girlfriends of the gang members make the case for consumerism and for the superiority of striving for upward mobility, in contrast with the Caribbean stagnation and poverty from which both the boys and the girls have fled: “I like the shores of America! / Comfort is yours in America! / Knobs on the doors in America, / Wall-to-wall floors in America!”

The Sharks are the musical’s Puerto Rican gang, led by Bernardo. His sister Maria, the romantic female lead, has only been living in the United States for a month. New York was a common destination for Puerto Rican families after World War II; it promised work in the garment and hotel industries at a time when economic conditions on the island of Puerto Rico were dismal. Overpopulation, hurricanes, tropical diseases, and the lack of modern conveniences number among the reasons for leaving Puerto Rico enumerated in the tune “America.” The migration reached its peak in 1953. By 1956, Puerto Ricans accounted for almost 10 percent of New York’s population. They were concentrated primarily in the South Bronx and in parts of the Upper West Side. Puerto Rican women immigrated at a higher rate than men, a situation reflected by the trio of women who deliver the “America” number in the musical. Together they all debate the advantages of living in the United States.” https://youtu.be/B1bAAfUC9Js

Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion,
Let it sink back in the ocean,
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing
And the money owing,
And the sunlight streaming,
And the natives steaming
I like the island Manhattan, (I know you do)
Smoke on your pipe,
And put that in

I like to be in America,
Okay by me in America,
Everything free in America
For a small fee in America

Buying on credit is so nice,
One look at us, and they charge twice
I have my own washing machine,
What will you have, though, to keep clean?

Skyscrapers bloom in America,
Cadillacs zoom in America,
Industry boom in America,
Twelve in a room in America

Lots of new housing with more space,
Lots of doors slamming in our face
I’ll get a terrace apartment,
Better get rid of your accent

Life can be bright in America,
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America,
If you’re all-white in America

La, la, la America
La, la, la America

Here you are free and you have pride,
Long as you stay on your own side
Free to be anything you choose,
Free to wait tables and shine shoes

Everywhere grime in America,
Organized crime in America,
Terrible time in America,
You forget I’m in America

I think I go back to San Juan,
I know a boat you can get on,
Bye bye
And everyone there will give big cheer,
Everyone there would have moved here

“Jet Song”https://youtu.be/c9z33lasnkU In the “Jet Song,” you get a picture of the gang culture, i.e. the importance of “turf” and the sense of family (unity) shared by the gang, how gang members cover each other’s back. The Jets want to continue the fight, and plan to propose a rumble to the Sharks, led by Bernardo, that night at the school dance. Riff, the leader of the Jets, wants his friend Tony to commit to the fight, but the rest of the gang questions Tony’s loyalty. Riff is sure Tony is still one of them, singing “Jet Song.”

Snapping Fingers
Smooth Boppy Piano
Riff: This turf is small but it’s all we got, huh?
I want to hold it like we always held it, with skin!
But if they say blades, I say blades but if they say guns, I say guns. I say I want the Jets to be
the number one! To sail! To hold the sky!
Baby John: Rev us up!
Gee-Tar: Voom-va-voom!
Big Deal: Cha-chung!
Action: Wacko-jacko!
A-Rab: Digga-digga-dig-dumb!
Riff: Now, protocality calls for a war council between us and the Sharks to set the whole thing
up. So I will personally give the bad news to Bernardo. Against the Sharks, we need every man we
got we need a lieutenant for the war council.
Action: That’s me.
Riff: That’s Tony.
Action: Who needs Tony?
Riff: We need Tony! He has a reputation bigger than the whole west side.
Action: Tony don’t belong no more.
Riff: Cut it, Action. Tony and I started the Jets.
A-Rab: What about the day we clobbered the Emeralds?
Big Deal: Which we couldn’t have done without Tony.
Baby John: He saved my ever-lovin’ neck!
Riff: Yeah, he’s come through for us and he always
Riff: When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way
from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day.
When you’re a Jet, let ’em do what they can. You
got brothers around, you’re a family man! You’re
never alone, you’re never disconnected! You’re
home with your own when company’s expected, you’re
well protected! Then you are set with a capital
J, which you’ll never forget till the cart you away. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet!
Riff: I know Tony like I know me and I guarantee
you can count him in.
Action: In, out, let’s get crackin’.
A-Rab: Where you gonna find Bernardo?
Baby John: It ain’t safe to go into PR territory.
Riff: He’ll be at the dance at the gym tonight.
A-Rab: Yeah, but the gym’s neutral territory.
Riff(innocently): A-Rab, I’m gonna make nice with
him! I’m only gonna challenge him.
A-Rab: Great, Daddy-o!
Riff: So everybody dress up sweet and sharp and
meet Tony and me at the dance at ten. And walk tall!
A-Rab: We always walk tall!
Baby John: We’re Jets!
Action: The greatest!
Snowboy: When you’re a Jet, you’re the top cat in
town, you’re the gold medal kid with the heavyweight crown!
Diesel: When you’re a Jet, you’re the swingin’est
thing. Little boy, you’re a man, little man, you’re a king!
Jets: The Jets are in gear. Our cylinders are clickin’. The Sharks’ll stear clear
’cause every Puerto Rican’s a lousy chicken! Here
come the Jets like a bat out of hell. Someone gets in our way, someone don’t feel so well. Here
come the Jets little world, step aside! Better go
underground, better run, better hide. We’re drawin’ the line, so keep your noses hidden! We’re hangin’ a sign, says “Visitors Forbidden” and we ain’t kiddin’! Here come the Jets, Yeah!
An’ we’re gonna beat every last buggin’ gang on
the whole buggin’ street! on the whole buggin’ ever lovin’ street!
Gee-Tar: Yeah!

In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” https://youtu.be/j7TT4jnnWys, the Jets sing a humorous tune about how juvenile delinquents are seen by society. They poke fun at the gruff Police Sergeant Krupke by singing about the societal forces that led them to join a gang. The song highlights how modern institutions dedicated towards “social welfare” criminalize typical youth behaviors. In the song, the Jets, who are high-school aged, impersonate different adults who have strong opinions about why “young people today” are in trouble. In making fun of the institutions that define and diagnose them, these young “hoodlums” demonstrate a keen understanding of how disempowered they are to control their own stories. “In the song members of the Jets gang satirize the various explanations of delinquency, and many of the solutions proposed by the justice system, psychologists and social workers. Are delinquents ‘sociologically sick’ or just ‘psychologically disturbed’? Are they ‘depraved on account they are deprived’? Is juvenile delinquency a ‘social disease’? And does it need to be treated by psychoanalysts or by the police? On one level, West Side Story might be seen as another film about juvenile delinquency; yet the most significant social problem it brings into focus is not so much about youth (or inter-generational conflict), but about race (in the ethnic rivalry between the two gangs). And, of course, like its original text Romeo and Juliet, it is primarily a love story, for which social tensions and divisions serve primarily as narrative obstacles to romantic fulfillment.” (https://ddbuckingham.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/troubling-teenagers.pdf)

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke
You gotta understand
It’s just our bringin’ up-ke
That gets us out of hand
Our mothers all are junkies
Our fathers all are drunks
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!

Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that every child oughta get
We ain’t no delinquents
We’re misunderstood
Deep down inside us there is good!

There is good!

There is good, there is good
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!

[SNOWBOY, spoken]
That’s a touchin’ good story

[RIFF, spoken]
Lemme tell it to the world!

[SNOWBOY, spoken]
Just tell it to the judge

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor
My parents treat me rough
With all their marijuana
They won’t give me a puff
They didn’t wanna have me
But somehow I was had
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!

[DIESEL (As Judge)]
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed
He’s psychologically disturbed!

I’m disturbed!

We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed
We’re the most disturbed
Like we’re psychologically disturbed

[DIESEL (as Judge), spoken]
Hear ye, hear ye! In the opinion on this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home

[RIFF, spoken]
Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived

[DIESEL, spoken]
So take him to a headshrinker

My father is a bastard
My ma’s an S.O.B
My grandpa’s always plastered
My grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

[ACTION: (as Psychiatrist)]
Officer Krupke, you’re really a slob
This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good hofest job
Society’s played him a terrible trick
And sociologically he’s sick!

I am sick!

We are sick, we are sick
We are sick, sick, sick
Like we’re sociologically sick!

[ACTION, spoken]
In my opinion, this child don’t need to have his head shrunk at all. Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease!

[RIFF, spoken]
Hey, I got a social disease!

[ACTION, spoken]
So take him to a social worker!

Dear kindly social worker
They say go earn some dough
Like be a soda jerker
Which means like be a schmo
It’s not I’m anti-social
I’m only anti-work
Gloryosky! That’s why I’m a jerk!

[A-RAB (as Female Social Worker)]
Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood;
Deep down inside him, he’s no good!

I’m no good!

We’re no good, we’re no good!
We’re no earthly good
Like the best of us is no damn good!

[DIESEL (as Judge)]
The trouble is he’s lazy

[ACTION (as Psychiatrist)]
The trouble is he drinks

[A-RAB (as Female Social Worker)]
The trouble is he’s crazy

The trouble is he stinks

The trouble is he’s growing

The trouble is he’s grown

Krupke, we got troubles of our own!

Gee, Officer Krupke
We’re down on our knees
‘Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease
Gee, Officer Krupke
What are we to do?
Gee, Officer Krupke
Krup you!