West Side Story Study Guide
West Side Story (1961)
Director: Jerome Robbins
Screenwriter: Ernest Lehman
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Choreography: Jerome Robbins
Released by United Artists
In order to appreciate the film version of West Side Story it is important to understand a little about the medium from which the film was adapted, the Broadway musical. The Broadway musical is considered by some to be one of the great contributions of American culture to the arts. Its historical predecessor would be considered the European operetta. Although the musical's original contributors resided in England, the form rapidly evolved through the works of people like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart and the duo of George and Ira Gershwin. Perhaps the most well known pair of musical producers and songwriters were Rodgers and Hammerstein. Some of their works included Oklahoma!, The King and I,and The Sound of Music (the film version of which was also directed by Robert Wise).
As far as popularity and commercial success were concerned, especially in shifting the musical from the stage to film, there was no more prolific team than the Freed Unit, whose leader was Arthur Freed. The Freed unit helped elevate MGM and the musical film genre to new heights in what might be considered the heyday of musical films. Singin' in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz were just a few films to their credit in a streak that spanned over a decade.
West Side Story was originally conceived of by Robbins and Bernstein as a story depicting the conflicts between an Italian-American Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family. This story was to be a modern musical version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The story in this version was thus called East Side Story. After reading about the emerging phenomenon of juvenile delinquent gangs and turf wars, Arthur Laurents, the playwright for the stage version of West Side Story, felt that the story would have more brevity if it focused on this current phenomenon. This resulted in a story about the gang phenomenon in the context of ethnic tensions in New York City.
What are some examples of the ways West Side Story parallels Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet? What are some significant differences in these two stories and why are they important?
How are the dances in the film choreographed to help tell the story?
In what technical ways do you think the film and the stage version of West Side Story differ? Even if you've never seen a live musical you can probably imagine the limitations of the stage in comparison to the conventions of film.
What information do the settings and costuming choices in West Side Story give you?
How is the opening scene of the film shot? What is the purpose of this shot?
How does Wise use the camera and editing to determine the pace of the film? Wise got his start as an editor (he edited Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, for example). Do you see any signs in his directorial style of his editing background?
How does the film make use of color to help tell the story?
How does Leonard Bernstein's score (the non lyrical aspects) provide additional exposition in the film?
Immigration and discrimination are major themes in this film. How do you think these themes might have been dealt with had the film been made today? Which ethnic groups might be represented now? Where might this story take place?
In class we've talked about the idea of code shifting, meaning that certain texts require the audience to be able to recognize and decipher different codes in order to garner meaning from the text. Do you think that musicals as a genre require the audience to code shift? In what ways?
What meaning can be conveyed through song and dance that may not be able to be conveyed through dialog alone?
What ideological argument do you think West Side Story is making?