Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of the classic Broadway musical by the same name, “West Side Story,” keeps all of the plot intact while adding modern perspectives to it. The original, being a work inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, tells the story of two lovers caught in the middle of a territorial and racial gang war. Despite having great form and grand sequences, the film occasionally falls short of the potential depth it could have had.
‘West Side Story’ Plot Summary
The film begins in 1957 in a neighborhood on the west-side of Manhattan, parts of which are being demolished for the construction of new building complexes. Riff, the leader of the Jets, one of the young gangs in the neighborhood, rallies his boys and marches to a park in order to vandalize a Puerto Rican graffiti. The Sharks, who are all Puerto Rican immigrants, intervene, and the two rival gangs break into a fist-fight. The two gangs often fight with each other over control of the neighborhood—the Jets believe the area to be theirs solely because they are white, and the Sharks demand the right to stay and control it because the neighborhood is predominantly Puerto Rican. The police arrive to break off the fight, and are led by a racist white officer, Krupke, and his aid, Lt. Schrank. Krupke wants the Jets to work unofficially with the NYPD, but when they refuse, he reminds them that the city council will be evacuating all of the residents of the neighborhood soon, effectively ending the existence of both gangs. Neither of the gangs pay any heed to this, and after the Sharks leave, the Jets decide to continue building up the feud at the dance ball organized that night. Riff visits his best friend Tony and asks him to join them in the fight. But Tony, who had once been a part of the gang and had only recently spent a year in prison for assault, wants to change his ways and stay away from violence. Riff leaves very upset when Tony vehemently turns down his request, and so Tony decides to attend the dance just for his friend’s sake.
The Sharks, on the other hand, are led by a passionate, hot-headed young man named Bernardo; on the night of the dance, his girlfriend Anita helps his younger sister Maria prepare for the night. Bernardo wants his sister to go out with his good friend Chino and does not want her to be associated with any white man, but Maria has no such inhibitions. That night, at the dance ball, the organizers ask the participants to try dancing with each other irrespective of race, but the members of both the gangs refuse to do so and instead wage an informal dance face-off between each other. While all this is going on, Tony and Maria catch glimpses of each other and, out of immediate attraction, indulge in a dance of their own behind the seating stands in the hall, where they also share a loving kiss. But soon Bernardo finds out about this and is terribly angered by it. While both the gangs manage to avoid a ruckus inside the hall, Riff and Bernardo decide to have a big “rumble”, or fight, between their two gangs the following night, a fight that would determine who the neighborhood belongs to once and for all.
What Happens To Bloodthirsty Rivals Bernardo And Riff?
That very same night, Tony goes to the Puerto Rican locality in search of Maria, and when he finds her on a balcony, he confesses his love for her. Although Maria is initially scared, she too expresses her attraction and interest in Tony, and the two promise to meet the next day. The next morning, as Bernardo and Anita (who are also Maria’s flat-mates) have a disagreement over life in their native country and life here in America, Maria gets wind of the street fight that has been organized, and realizes that it is being fought over her love for Tony. She emotionally asks Bernardo to call off the fight, to no avail, and then, after meeting Tony, asks him to persuade Riff to cancel the fight. Although Tony is not that interested at first, Maria’s expression of love and their desire to be together convinces him. Meanwhile, fearful of the Shark’s easy access to weaponry, Riff buys a gun illegally to take to the fight. When Tony comes to talk sense into him, he sees the gun and takes it away from him. Out of anger and frustration over Tony’s absence in their fights, Riff fights Tony and gets the gun back with help from the other Jets members.
The police department, on the orders of Krupke, had also tried to stop the fight from happening by interrogating the Jets about it, but failed to do so when Anybodys, one of the gang members, created a ruckus inside the police station. At night, the two gangs gather at a salt warehouse and are about to start a fight when they are joined by Tony and Chino (who wanted to be a part of the Sharks but was dissuaded by Bernardo). Seeing Tony there, Bernardo takes the fight to him and riles him up. At first, Tony does not respond, but then a fight breaks out between them, which in turn leads to a knife-fight between the gangs. In a very heated moment, Bernardo stabs Riff and kills him—Tony is unable to control himself after this and he stabs Bernardo to death. As the police arrive on the scene, both gangs flee from there. A very shocked and disturbed Chino informs Maria of the events, and then sets out to kill Tony with Riff’s gun, which he had taken from the crime scene.
In this way, Spielberg fittingly adds depth to the issues of racial inequality and immigration to the classical musical as part of the modern conversations that have almost become a necessity in today’s modern world. Although the Puerto Rican characters, especially Maria, Anita, and Bernardo, all have their roles as individuals in the plot, they also have a greater role to play in voicing their dissent against social and economic injustice in their own country, which they have left behind, and the racial injustice that they face at present in America. However, these enunciations do at times feel a bit stretched and superficial, with only mere mentions being made. But this cannot perhaps be held against Spielberg or the film, as the director chooses to be faithful in his adaptation of the original play.
What Happens To Tony And Maria?
Maria, now aware of Chino’s intentions, sends Anita (who forgives Maria for her love and its result) to warn Tony of the imminent danger. Anita goes to the general store where Tony is staying hidden, but is swarmed by the remaining Jets. In a villainous frenzy, the young men hurl racist abuse at her and also attempt to sexually assault her. Valentina, the old lady running the shop, saves her in time, and Valentina tells her a false story about how Chino had shot Maria dead. When Valentina reports this to Tony, he runs out onto the street and soon sees Maria running towards him. But the happy scene is quickly shattered as Chino comes out of the shadows and shoots Tony down. A shocked Maria threatens to kill everyone with the gun at first, but ultimately can not do it. The Jets members carry Tony’s body away as police cars arrive, responding to the gunshots.
‘West Side Story’ Ending Explained: Why Does Maria Not Shoot The Gun?
At the base of the characters and the plot in ‘West Side Story’ is of course Shakespeare’s great tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Like in the play, Tony and Maria are expected to be against each other, but the world turns upside down when they fall in love with each other.
From the very beginning, Maria is very averse to the idea of racial discrimination and the gang-war that her brother is involved in. This is why she is initially opposed to the idea of bonding with Tony, for she does not want to aggravate the fight between the Sharks and the Jets. On their date she asks Tony to try and stop the brawl as she would rather give up on her love than incite any more bloodshed. Tony too, with his own reformed outlook towards life and violence, tries his best to convince Riff to stop the fight, but Riff is too blindly driven by aggression.
In the true essence of a romantic-tragedy, emotions surpass rational thought—Maria is unable to distance herself from Tony, she instead professes her love for him as well, of course with the latter’s promise to try and stop the violence. But Tony too, gets overrun by emotions, and he stabs Bernardo in a rush of blood, as revenge for Riff’s death.
A notable departure, both from this overpowering momentary emotion, and from the bard’s tragedy, is when at the end of “West Side Story,” Maria refuses to be run over by her emotions and to shoot Chino dead. Snatching the gun away from Chino she confesses her hatred, her desire to kill however many gang members (from both the gangs) as she can and then kill herself. But then in a very emotional change of heart, she throws the gun away and embraces Tony’s body—Maria is too tired of the violence around by now, and she takes up the chance to instead embody peace and forgiveness, and in the process brings an end to the feud between the gangs. Instead of rage she is perhaps driven by a calmer and greater love for her beloved Tony, and decides to fulfill the promise of bringing peace to the neighborhood that both of them had wanted. In doing so, the character of Maria elevates to a position above everyone else, for she is the one to have kept her word even through sorrow.
The cinematic execution in ‘West Side Story’ is quite enjoyable—the classic songs are played out complemented with grand choreography. The camera and its smooth movement throughout the sets, especially in the song sequences are very appropriate. It might be argued that Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ does not add too much to the original productions, or even create an unforgettable experience on its own, but it definitely provides a good retelling of the classic incorporating some elements of the present day.