Millenial Take on West Side Story


Jan Versweyveld

Tony and Maria being pulled apart by the rival gangs.

Ricardo Rios, Staff Writer

West Side story is a cult classic and one of the most popular modern iterations of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It follows two rival New York street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. One of the gang members falls in love with a member of the other gang, and the tale of forbidden love ensues. 

The movie takes place in a blue-collar neighborhood in New York where the streets are owned by a gang known as the Jets, which consists of young, distraught boys who spend their days bustling around the streets and courts of 1950s New York. During a time period where racial tensions were high. A rival Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks moves into the Jet’s turf and tension is brought about. 

The musical started out as a play ion Broadway and was later adapted into the film ‘West Side Story’ in 1961. The film received 11 Oscar nominations and was even considered as “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress.

Since then the film has lived on in the form of live musicals today, one of the most notable being Ivo van Hove’s recent rendition. 

Ivo van Hove’s “millennial” take on West Side Story takes place in a grittier version of New York and features more blood and a whole different casting of characters, plus a change of all the original dancing of the movie, and a complete overwrite of the song “I Feel Pretty,” sung by Maria. The film, despite being a different interpretation of West Side Story, is barely that. 

One of the main plot points of the film is the prejudice the Jets feel towards the Puerto Rican Sharks, which acts as a fuel for their hostility towards them. Even the police officer in the film, Officer Krupke, does not feel the same way towards the Puerto Ricans and the Jets. Despite how awful it is, this is a central part of the movie and accurately reflects the time period that the film is supposed to take place in. The casting for the Jets now involves a diverse group of characters other than white men. 

Which begs the question, why make the other group up of only Puerto Ricans? Why do all these other groups hold animosity towards Puerto Ricans? In the original rendition of the musical, the animosity felt towards the Sharks wasn’t only because they were a rival gang, it was because the Jets were made up of predominantly white males who held this animosity towards the Sharks because of the color of their skin and their culture. In the new interpretation, it is hard to distinguish between the two gangs in a seen featuring the Sharks and the Jets.

All the classic finger snapping and the, at times silly, ballet choreography was stripped away from this version of the musical as well. It seems all the original characters and charm the film had that made it what it was is gone now. Not to mention the song“I Feel Pretty” of whom many disagree with the decision of removing from the play.

Ms. Ellington, the theatre teacher, voiced her disagreement with these decisions, “My issue is the actual dialogue of the show and taking out songs, especially songs that are so well known. People go to the show to see those songs.” Olivia Swabek, having sung the original song for chorus, strongly disagrees with the decision to remove the song from the play, “I don’t like that they took the song out of the play, it’s not right”.

It’s not that these changes to the original play made the play worse, it simply changed to reflect gang violence currently in America. “I like that they are making it more than just white versus Hispanics, they’re showing different dynamics,” said Ms. Ellington.  The film is trying to incorporate more racial groups in order to represent all races equally.

However, the new interpretation strips away from the integrity of what West Side Story was, the melodramatic and energetic aspects of the musical have been swapped for a grittier and more gory version that acts more as a social call to justice rather than the homage to Romeo and Juliet that it once was. The Jets, who were once a band of mistreated misfit kids are now a source of social commentary. The Officer Krupke song scene especially seems to have been overwritten entirely as a means of social commentary on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. This rendition of West Side Story has become a play of social commentary that attempts to cover many issues, rather than creating an artful representation of one specific racial struggle.

This play is a lot of things, but one thing it certainly isn’t is West Side Story.