Emma’s Random (West Side Story) Thoughts: It’s All Maria’s Fault

1 If you have never seen West Side Story at Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra performing the score live, you have never seen West Side Story.

2 I haven’t seen West Side Story in almost 10 years, so I was not sure what I would think about the film or the show.

3 The music is still phenomenal.  When the Cleveland Orchestra started playing the overture, I was thrilled.  My mom started crying.  I can’t blame her.

4 I couldn’t help notice that virtually none of the the Puerto Ricans were actually Puerto Rican, or Hispanic.  They were wearing incredibly heavy, dark makeup.  They couldn’t find a single Puerto Rican who could sing and dance?  When George Gershwin staged Porgy and Bess, he was able to cast an entire company of classically trained African American performers.  (Rita Moreno is Puerto Rican.)

5 I cried during “Maria.”  I usually do, during the “Maria, say it loud and there’s music playing.”

6 The audience laughed during “Tonight” when Tony told Maria that he loved her.  So did I.  First of all, they’ve been talking to each other for ten minutes.  Second of all, neither Natalie Wood or Richard Beymer are teenagers, so it seems ridiculous for him to speak that way.  I was a little worried that the film wouldn’t work anymore.

7 The live music was incredible, but there were a few moments when they were off tempo from the singers.  They quickly corrected themselves though.

8 I realized this time around that the entire thing is Maria’s fault.  I am serious.  Tony wasn’t going to go to the rumble; he only goes because Maria asks him.  He would never have been there to kill Bernardo.

9 West Side Story makes two significant choices that heighten the tragedy of Bernardo’s death.

A In Romeo and Juliet, Bernardo’s analogue is Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin.  In West Side Story, he is her brother.  This makes his death all the more tragic, because it truly seals the fate of the young lovers.  Even if Maria is able to forgive him, their relationship is now doomed.

B The decision to change “America” from the original stage production gives Bernardo a depth that Tybalt does not have.  In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt is fiery, and that’s about it.  There is no reason for him to be that way.  He is less of a character than an instrument of the plot.  However, Bernardo is a young man struggling to adapt to a new city that does not want him or his people.  (I don’t want to say a different country because Puerto Rico is a territory of the US, not a separate country.)   There is a discussion in the movie (and play) where he points out that Chino has a better job than Tony, but he only makes half of what Tony makes, because Tony is an American.

The movie version of the song “America” heightens the sympathy for Bernardo.  In the original stage play, the Puerto Rican girls, Rosalia and Anita, sing a song that is basically about how Puerto Rico is an impoverished Hell hole and America is the promised land.  It’s actually pretty racist in a way.  There is an underlying fear in the song about the overcrowded Puerto Rico and the fact that the Puerto Ricans procreate.

In the movie, the song is a bit more pointed.  The subject is not the dirty, poor, Puerto Ricans procreating like rabbits, but the promise of America being undercut by discrimination.  Bernardo’s references to having door shut in his face and being denied an apartment because of his accent gives him a psychological realism that Tybalt does not have.  Bernardo is a fighter in a gang because society has marginalized him; Tybalt is a fighter because…plot.


11 I cried when Maria found out that Tony killed her brother.

12 In West Side Story, Tony and Maria have sex, but it has no bearing on the plot.  In Romeo and Juliet, it is actually very significant to the plot.  Juliet sleeps with Romeo, and the next morning, her parents tell her that she is going to marry Paris.  Juliet is Catholic.  Her marriage to Romeo is ratum et consummatum, ratified and consummated.  This means that it cannot be broken.  She is trapped.  And so is Friar Lawrence.  He is being asked to officiate at a bigamous, invalid, adulterous union.  The stakes are fucking high.

13 Once again, the death of Tony is Maria’s fault.  She tells Anita to go tell Tony that she will be late, which of course leads to Tony believing that she is dead.  She wasn’t that late!  He would never have known!  Every decision that Maria makes backfires terribly and everyone dies.

14 The “taunting” scene is incredibly well done.  Arthur Laurents called it the “attempted rape” scene and it definitely gives that vibe, but not overly so.

15 Is this a hopeful ending?  My mom felt that the music did not resolve at the end, which implies that the tensions could emerge again.

16 The Cleveland Plain Dealer said that Cool is an underrated song.  I disagree.  Cool is a great song, and I often find myself humming that one.

Plus, how many musical songs ended up as Gap commercials?

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1 Response to Emma’s Random (West Side Story) Thoughts: It’s All Maria’s Fault

  1. wilfried says:

    I went to a chambermusic- recital with two of my boys this morning per invitation by André Roe (and Geoffrey Baptiste), their former piano teacher..
    It was a short, intimate piano recital with pieces for piano ‘à quatre mains’.
    At the end they played parts of Leonard Bernstein’s « West Side Story » : America, cool, I feel pretty, Maria, One hand one heart, Something’s coming, Somewhere , AND Tonight.
    Reading your random thoughts about « West Side Story » came at a perfect moment for me.

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