West Side Story: Summary, Songs, Characters & Composer

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

In this lesson, we will explore ''West Side Story'', a musical written by composer Leonard Bernstein. In looking at the story, we will also examine the songs and characters and learn a bit about Leonard Bernstein's life and work.

About the Musical

The 1957 musical West Side Story was a collaboration among composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The story is based on Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, featuring 'star-crossed', or ill-fated, lovers from opposite sides of the tracks. The Broadway production had nearly a thousand performances from 1957-1960, and was turned into a 10-time Academy Award-winning musical film in 1961.

Synopsis, Songs, and Characters

The curtain rises on the streets of the Upper West Side of New York City with a fight between rival gangs the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and the Jets, an American gang. The territory battle - which is fought through highly stylized dance moves - is interrupted by Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank. The Jets want to continue the fight, and plan to propose a rumble to the Sharks, led by Bernardo, that night at the school dance. Riff, the leader of the Jets, wants his friend Tony to commit to the fight, but the rest of the gang questions Tony's loyalty. Riff is sure Tony is still one of them, singing 'Jet Song'.

In the next scene, a Puerto Rican girl named Maria is working in a bridal shop, making a dress to go to the school dance with her boyfriend, Chino. But Maria tells her best friend Anita that she isn't actually in love with Chino.

At the dance, Maria and Tony spot each other from across the room and immediately fall in love. They start to dance, but Maria's brother Bernardo breaks them up and sends Maria home.

Bernardo and Riff agree to meet up at Doc's drugstore later on. Meanwhile, Tony finds Maria's apartment building and serenades her with 'Maria', which brings her out to the fire escape, a reference to the 'balcony' scene from Romeo and Juliet. They sing 'Tonight', a song about the excitement of falling in love. Meanwhile, Anita and the other Puerto Rican girls sing about the difficulties of adjusting from life in Puerto Rico in 'America'.

The balcony scene from West Side Story.
Photograph of stage production

The next day, Maria and Tony make pretend wedding vows to each other in 'One Hand, One Heart'. The rumble is set for later that evening, and the song 'Tonight' is reprised in a quintet, with Maria, Tony, Anita, the Sharks, and the Jets singing about the upcoming rumble. When the fighting begins, Tony tries to stop it, but knives are pulled out and Bernardo accidentally kills Riff. Tony, in a fit of rage, kills Bernardo. As sirens approach, the gangs scatter, but Tony stands in shock as he sees his best friend dead - and realizes he has killed Maria's brother.

The rumble.
Photograph of stage production

At the beginning of Act 2, Maria, who has no idea what is going on with the rumble, sings 'I Feel Pretty'. Chino comes to tell Maria that Tony has killed Bernardo. Maria can't believe it, and when Tony climbs in her window, she is upset, but still loves him. They decide to run away together in the song and dance number 'Somewhere'.

The Jets are making fun of the cops in 'Gee, Officer Krupke' when the tomboy Anybody's arrives and tells the Jets that Chino has a gun and plans to kill Tony. The Jets set off searching for Tony.

When Tony leaves Maria's apartment, they make plans to meet at Doc's drugstore and run away together. Anita arrives at Maria's apartment, realizing that Bernardo, her boyfriend, has been killed. She tries to warn Maria about Tony, singing 'A Boy Like That', but Maria won't listen and tries to explain with 'I Have a Love'. Anita tells Maria that Chino is looking for Tony and plans to kill him.

When Lt. Schrank shows up to question Maria about Bernardo's death, Maria asks Anita to go to the drugstore to wait for Tony. The Jets are all at the drugstore and they assault Anita, making it clear she's about to be raped, until Doc shows up and intervenes. Furious, Anita lies and tells them that Maria has been shot by Chino and is dead.

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