Romeo & Juliet vs. West Side Story
What would Romeo and Juliet be like if Juliet hadn't died? What if Paris killed Romeo, instead of vice versa? What if instead of occurring several centuries ago, it took place on the streets of New York City during the 1950s, with a bunch of fresh-faced youths posing as street toughs and dancing and singing their hearts out? Well, just take a look at West Side Story, and you will have your answers. It is impossible for anyone familiar with both texts to not note the obvious major similarities between the two plays. From the opening scenes in both, up through the rumble in West Side Story/death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the plays mirror each other (Poelstra). It isn't until the last part of West Side Story, where Tony, our modern-day Romeo, dies and Maria, Tony's Juliet, doesn't (unlike the two star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare's work), that the major difference between the two works becomes apparent.
Granted, instead of tension between feuding families, West Side Story offers prejudice between races, as illustrated between street gangs, the Jets and Sharks. Some of the characters in West Side Story are carbon copies of those in Romeo and Juliet: Maria (Juliet), Tony (Romeo), Bernardo (Tybalt), Lt. Schrank (Prince), and Anita (Nurse). Others appear to be a composite of characters, namely Riff, a combination of Benvolio and Mercutio, and Doc, who appears to fulfill the role of Friar Laurence (possessed somewhat of a peacekeeping nature: "You couldn't play basketball?", he asks, when informed of their upcoming "war council" [Laurents 57]) yet, at the same time, it is implied in the film version, not the play that he is a pharmacist, and there was, after all, an apothecary in Romeo and Juliet . The tomboyish Anybodys, a Jet wannabe, would best fit into the role of Balthasar (although Doc's character fits into this role marginally as well), since it was she who aided Tony in escaping after the rumble, which resulted in the deaths of Riff and Bernardo, as well as later informing the other Jets that Chino, the Paris of the Sharks, had a gun and was hunting down Tony.
In the opening act of Romeo and Juliet, Sampson and Gregory, servants of Capulet, harass Balthasar and Abraham, servants to the Montagues. ...
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...t left for me?" (Laurents 143).
Whereas Romeo and Juliet's love was one intended to last an eternity, attaining a spiritual realm with their deaths, that of Tony and Maria was restricted to the material world, ending "with Tony's death and . . . forever lost" (Poelstra). Even so, the relationships in both plays reflect the "intolerance, misunderstanding, and mistrust that seem to be ever-present in human society". Perhaps this makes the themes of love and fear, that abound in both plays, all the more relevant to our modern, commercialized, technological and, to some extent, still segregated society, and, therefore, a more accessible vehicle for today's audience (Poelstra).
West Side Story allows the basic elements of a story four centuries old to be retold in a fairly modern-day setting (after all, street gangs are more prominent now than ever before). A retelling that has garnered its own wide audience appeal over the past four decades, showing that certain tales can stand the test of time more than once, provided the content and context effectively reflects the world within which it occurs.
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