West Side Story was created about the same time as Cleopatra, though unlike the gargantuan film, the Bernstein musical has become one of the most popular Broadway plays, and most revered musical films, of all time. It’s a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, set in New York of the 1950s. Instead of Montagues and Capulets, the rival families in this story are the Sharks and the Jets (the Puerto Rican gang vs. the Caucasian homeboys, more or less).
In an effort to make peace between the rival gangs, a dance mixer is set with the rival clans invited to come together in peace. Here they meet: Tony, one of the Jets, and Maria, the beautiful Puerto Rican girl. The magical moment of their meeting is recalled as Tony sings “Maria.” The very next day, Tony pays a visit to Maria in the dress shop where she works (“One Hand, One Heart”). Maria makes him promise to stop the fight between his gang and her brother’s, the Sharks.
In the song “Tonight,” Tony and Maria sing of their love, while several other stories intersect the song, including the upcoming fight scheduled between the rival gangs.
That evening, as that fight is about to get under way, Tony hurries in, and begs them to stop, as he has promised Maria. Maria’s brother Bernardo, who is enraged that Tony is interested in his sister, pushes him back furiously. Suddenly knives appear, and Tony’s friend Riff and Bernardo begin to fight. Riff is killed, and Tony, grabbing his weapon, in turn kills Bernardo.
Meanwhile, Maria is happily preparing to meet Tony when she hears the news. Chino, an angry and jealous suitor, rushes out in search of Tony, who has already climbed the fire escape to Maria’s room. As they cling to each other desperately, they envision a place where they can be free from prejudice (“Somewhere”).
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He also is a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.