West Side Story draws its inspiration from a popular source: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The musical transposes the story of star-crossed lovers from warring families to the mean streets of 1950s New York City. Instead of the warring Montagues and Capulets, New York’s west side is dominated by two gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. On this page, we’ll summarize the narrative of West Side Story, with special reference to its song and dance numbers (marked in bold) and a few of its best-known lyrics. For complete lyrics (with side-by-side comparison between the show and the 1961 film adaptation), click on the links in red to visit the official West Side Story website.
The musical opens with a wordless “Prologue,” danced and mimed by two gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets, a gang of White boys, hold sway over the city streets and alleyways under the leadership of Riff. Together they harangue Bernardo, a member of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, when he passes through. Gradually, the Sharks begin to grow in number, until they are finally able to isolate one of the Jets, a boy named A-Rab. Bernardo pierces A-Rab’s ear, leaving a bloody wound. Eventually, the Jets return to their patch and confront the Sharks, leading to an all-out battle. Into their midst come the police, led by Officer Krupke and a plain-clothes detective named Schrank. They dismiss the Sharks and tell the Jets to make nice or else there will be trouble.
The Jets take stock of the incident and A-Rab’s pierced ear. Anybodys, a girl with aspirations of joining the Jets, pops in to offer her services in a fight. Riff, their leader, dismisses Anybodys and calls for a rumble: an all out battle for supremacy over the streets. First, they have to arrange a war council with the Sharks to decide terms. Riff wants his old pal Tony by his side. When the other guys protest that Tony has left the gang, Riff sings “Jet Song“ reminding them that “when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.”
“When you’re a Jet,Riff, singing “Jet Song”
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.
When you’re a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You’re a family man!”
Later that day, Riff goes to Tony, who now works at the store owned by kindly old man Doc. Despite Tony’s protestations, Riff convinces him to come to the dance that night along with the other Jets. With Riff off to take care of business, Tony sings “Something’s Coming,” optimistic that something good is coming around the corner just for him – though what it is, he isn’t sure.
Elsewhere, in their family bridal shop, Anita and Maria, both Puerto Rican girls, are preparing for the dance that night. Maria complains about her conservative dress and about being brought to America by her brother, Bernardo. Anita, who is Bernardo’s lover, chastises Maria and reminds her that it’s her destiny to marry Chino, another Shark, and enjoy life in America. Bernardo and Chino arrive in preparation for the dance, and Maria urges them to make her first night as a young lady in America special.
Later, the two gangs arrive at a local gym for the big dance. Glad Hand, the uncool “square” hosting the dance, encourages the Jets and the Sharks to mix for a change, and the dance begins. The experiment soon fails, however, and devolves into the number “The Dance at the Gym,” a challenge in which the competing gangs try to outdo each other with their best moves. During the dance battle, Tony and Maria spot each other and are immediately smitten. As they draw together, Bernardo intercedes and rebuffs Tony. Despite Tony and Maria’s protests, their respective gangs pull them apart. Before they leave, Riff and Bernardo agree to a war council at Doc’s, the neighborhood’s neutral ground.
Tony, overcome by the beautiful women he has just met, sings the ballad “Maria“ and calls out to her at her home. She comes to him on the landing of her apartment fire escape (not unlike the balcony in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) and Tony climbs up to her. The two sing the duet “Tonight,” in which they marvel at how their world changed the instant they found one another. Maria urges Tony to leave so as not to be discovered, but asks him to meet her at the bridal shop the following day at sundown.
“Maria!Tony, singing “Maria”
I’ve just met a girl named Maria,
And suddenly that name
Will never be the same
As Tony leaves, the rest of the Sharks come to the stage to discuss the day’s events. Bernardo grumbles about Tony, remarking that he, the son of Polish immigrants, is considered an American because he was born on the mainland, but Puerto Ricans are treated as second-class citizens. The men and women start to argue about life in America, the boys complaining about its racism and economic limitations, the girls loving it for the new comforts they enjoy. The boys depart in a huff, leaving Anita and the girls to sing “America,” in which they decry the island they left behind and celebrate the new life they enjoy on the mainland.
At Doc’s, members of the Jets anxiously await the war council and bicker with Doc, who laments the way the boys spend their time fighting amongst each other. Riff and his lieutenant, Diesel, arrive with their girlfriends in tow. Riff sings “Cool“ in order to lower the temperature in the room and make sure the Jets have their wits about them when the Sharks show up. The Sharks arrive in due time and begin the negotiations for the rumble. They settle on the following night under the highway, and are just about to determine the weapons when Tony steps in. He chastises them all and says the only way to settle this is to have a one-on-one fight between the best men from each group. The gangs agree but Riff pulls a bit of trickery by nominating Diesel as their best fighter, rather than himself. As Bernardo reconsiders what he signed up for, Detective Schrank butts in. He dismisses the Sharks with some racist epithets and turns on the Jets, claiming to be on their side while clearly trying to get more details about the rumble. The Jets refuse to spill the beans and Schrank leaves. With the store emptied out, Tony helps Doc clean up and then confesses he is very much in love.
The following day, Tony meets Maria at the bridal shop as planned. Anita is there, too, but promises to say nothing about their rendezvous so long as Maria is back home shortly. With Anita gone, Maria convinces Tony to go to the rumble that night and stop it entirely: no fist fight, no nothing. Tony agrees and together they plot out their future. With the help of dummies and bridal clothes, they imagine meeting each other’s parents, setting a wedding party, and getting married. Their pantomime culminates with the song “One Hand, One Heart,” in which they pledge their undying love to one another.
With a momentous night ahead, the whole Company joins together to sing a reprise of “Tonight.” The Jets and the Sharks celebrate the coming rumble and the opportunity to assert their dominance over the neighborhood. Tony and Maria sing of the beautiful night they will share together. Excitement for the next few hours runs high.
“We’re gonna rock it tonight,Both gangs, singing the reprise of “Tonight”
We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball.
They’re gonna get it tonight;
The more they turn it on, the harder they’ll fall!”
Finally, under the highway, the Sharks and the Jets get ready for the fight. Just as Diesel and Bernardo are about to get into it, Tony bursts in and urges them to stop. He goes to Bernardo as a friend, attempting to diffuse the situation, but Bernardo lashes back at him and eventually pushes him down. This prompts Riff to interject and draw a knife; Bernardo does likewise. In the dance number “The Rumble,” the two gang leaders circle each other, lunging and feinting as they try to run each other through with their knifes. Eventually, Tony interjects again, distracting Riff. Bernardo takes this opportunity and buries his knife in Riff. All hell breaks loose, and in the midst of it Tony seizes a knife and stabs Bernardo back, killing him. As the police appear on the scene, the gangs scatter, and Anybodys grabs Tony and ushers him to safety.
At her home, Maria happily gets ready for her “wedding night” with Tony while chatting with her friends Rosalia and Consuelo. They sing “I Feel Pretty,” Maria enjoying her own beauty while the other girls mock her lovesick delirium. Eventually, Chino comes calling and the girls leave them alone. Chino brings news of the rumble and the death of Maria’s brother, Bernardo. When Maria asks about Tony, Chino realizes she is in love with him and tells her the awful truth: that Tony is the one who killed her brother. As Maria collapses in grief, Chino exits into the next room, grabs a gun, and leaves.
While Maria grieves, Tony climbs in through her window. Maria lashes out at him at first but then crumbles in his embrace. Tony confesses to killing Bernardo but promises he didn’t really mean to, just as Bernardo didn’t really mean to kill Riff. Together, he and Maria dance as a voice offstage sings “Somewhere,” an ode to a better world. As the harsh world around the lovers melts away to a paradise where they can all live together in harmony, the rest of the ensemble comes together to dance again. Unfortunately, the fantasy soon comes crashing down, and Tony and Maria realize the only thing they can do now is run away together.
Meanwhile, A-Rab and Baby John, a fellow Jet, are slipping through the streets trying to avoid Officer Krupke. While Krupke gives chase in the wrong direction, the rest of the Jets, including Action, Snowboy, and Diesel, join up and sing “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Throughout the song, the boys humorously imitate the various grown-ups in their lives – social workers, judges, police officers, parents, etc. – who all lament what delinquents they are. In the end, the boys argue it’s the system that’s let them down. As they wrap, Anybodys rushes in with news that Chino is off to shoot Tony and the Jets set off in hot pursuit.
“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand –
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers are all junkies,
Our fathers are all drunks.
Golly Moses – natcherly we’re punks!Action and the Jets, singing “Gee Officer Krupke”
Back at Maria’s home, Anita comes knocking while Maria and Tony are in bed. Tony tells Maria to meet him at Doc’s and escapes out the window. Maria opens the door and is confronted by Anita, who sings “A Boy Like That“ and tells her to go looking for someone of her own kind. The song evolves into “I Have a Love,” in which Maria pleas for understanding and defends her love for Tony. Suddenly, they are called upon by Detective Schrank, who wants to question Maria about what happened at the dance the previous night. Maria asks Anita to go to Doc’s and get her some aspirin, a ruse indicating Anita should go to Doc’s and tell Tony that she has been delayed. As Anita departs, Maria gives Schrank false testimony about the events of the dance to keep him off Tony’s trail. Anita goes to Doc’s as Maria asked her to and is confronted by the Jets. They stop her from going down to the basement where Doc and Tony are hiding. The Jets pour racist abuse on Anita and harass her in a choreographed “Taunting” dance until Doc emerges from the cellar and gets them off her. Furious, Anita decides to leave and tells the Jets not to bother with Maria: Chino found out about her and Tony and shot her in a jealous rage. The boys believe the lie, and Doc laments this latest twist of tragedy. He goes back down to the cellar and breaks the horrible news to Tony. Distraught, Tony rushes out into the night and calls for Chino to come shoot him, too.
Tony arrives in the streets, calling out for Chino. Anybodys emerges and tries to convince Tony to slip away for his safety, but Tony refuses. Into their midst steps Maria. Tony, overjoyed, rushes to reunite with her. As he does, another figure appears: Chino. He shoots Tony. Maria runs to her love and cradles him, singing a brief “Finale“ in which they imagine the life they could have lived together. Tony dies. As the gang members assemble, Maria seizes Chino’s gun. She aims it at each of them in turn, shouting through her grief, wondering aloud how many others have to die before the violence stops. Unable to pull the trigger herself, she casts the gun away. The police arrive and look on uselessly. Finally, the gangs come together and carry Tony’s body off in a funeral procession. Baby John, meanwhile, lays a shawl on Maria’s head, indicating her passage into mourning.
West Side Story is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which means it takes the general framework of the original piece and adjusts most of it to a new time and place. Like Shakespeare’s play, West Side Story follows two young lovers from warring factions as they try to make a new life for themselves while their friends and family continue to fight each other. Obviously, they have taken the action from “fair Verona” in Italy to the mean streets of New York City, and thrown in some song and dance for good measure. They also made a number of big changes to the story. One of the biggest changes involves the ending: unlike Juliet, who takes her own life after discovering Romeo dead at her side, Maria chooses to live and make a powerful statement to the assembled gang members. In this way, West Side Story stands out from Romeo and Juliet because it imagines greater opportunities for its heroine and a clearer path toward peace.
Staying with the topic of adaptations, consider the following three points.
- Did you know that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is actually based on a previous work? In fact, virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays are adaptations in and of themselves. See if you can find out what served as the primary inspiration for this Romeo and Juliet.
- Obviously, Tony and Maria correspond to Romeo and Juliet, respectively. But who else from Shakespeare’s play fits nicely into West Side Story – and who doesn’t? You may find that Riff and Bernardo, the warring captains, bear a striking resemblance to Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin, and Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, both of whom are intent on keeping the war between the families going. As for Anita? She doesn’t really have a Shakespearean source: she is very much the creation of the West Side Story team. Is there anyone else in the West Side cast of characters who has a distinct Shakespearean inspiration, or is distinctly made up by the musical’s creators?
- Romeo and Juliet has been put on film many times, but few versions have been as striking as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and John Leguizamo. Like West Side Story, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet updates the action to a contemporary period, namely Verona Beach, California in the 1990s. However, it keeps one very, very important feature of Shakespeare’s text. What is that?
Feel free to comment below with your answers and thoughts!
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the story, take a look at The Gang: four men who came together at just the right time to create a masterpiece.
Laurents, Arthur, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Random House (Firm). West Side Story : A Musical. New York: Random House, 1958.