Skip Links
Close Search
Chloé Zuel as Anita in Opera Australia's West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House, 2019. Image: Jeff Busby

Cheat sheet: 
West Side Story

Brush up on your musicals with the Jets and Sharks in a battle for love

Showing until 6 October. Book tickets

This article was first published by Opera Australia

Opera Australia

The composer

Leonard Bernstein. American. 20th Century.

The music

An eclectic mix of jazz, theatre music and classical forms.

The history

Premiered on Broadway in 1957 after a run in DC. A 1961 film version became a cult classic and cemented the musical’s place in history.

The main players

Maria — a young Puerto Rican girl

Tony — former leader of the Jets, a sincere young man who is trying to leave the gang lifestyle behind

Riff — leader of the Jets, Tony’s best friend

Anita — Maria’s friend, a ‘big sister’ figure

Bernardo — leader of the Sharks, Maria's brother, Anita’s boyfriend

The setting

The Broadway musical is set in the 1950s. This production takes some cues from the 1950s but is set in a contemporary, timeless world.

What's the story?

The Jets (a gang of all-American boys) are at war with the Sharks (a gang of Puerto Rican boys), and the Upper West Side is their battleground.

When Tony (a former Jet) and Maria (a Puerto Rican girl) meet and fall in love, the pair wonder if they can overcome the deep rivalries between their communities. Optimistically, they sing: “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.”

But the two gangs see it differently, and the stage is set for a bloody fight.

(Not to give anything away, but the story is based on Romeo and Juliet, and we all know how that ends.)

The cast of Opera Australia's West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House, 2019. Image: Jeff Busby

The cast of Opera Australia's West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House, 2019. Image: Jeff Busby

A little history

Romeo and Juliet… but with a Latin beat. It wasn’t the first idea for the project that became West Side Story, but it was the one that stuck.

The doomed love story between a Puerto Rican girl and an All-American boy struck a nerve, both for its gritty, true-to-life storyline and its inventive music. It changed the genre forever, lifting the bar for other creators.

In 1949 up-and-coming choreographer Jerome Robbins was thinking about a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. He got Leonard Bernstein (music) and Arthur Laurents (book) on board.

But their initial idea, where a Catholic boy and Jewish girl fell in love, felt stale. They abandoned the project. Five years later, Bernstein and Laurents read news reports of gang violence between Puerto Rican and Anglo-American street kids. They were inspired. East Side Story became West Side Story.

The cast of Opera Australia's West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House, 2019. Image: Jeff Busby

The cast of Opera Australia's West Side Story at the Sydney Opera House, 2019. Image: Jeff Busby

Arthur Laurents got chatting to lyricist Stephen Sondheim at a party and brought him in to meet Bernstein. Robbins had his dream team.

The four collaborated closely. Sondheim took passages of dialogue and turned them into songs. Bernstein moved songs around to serve Laurents’ vision of the story. Robbins created choreography that advanced the story, instead of embellishing it.

In 1957 West Side Story premiered in Washington. The show was a hit. Its subsequent premiere on Broadway left audiences and critics reeling. Whether they liked it or not, it was clear this musical was something special. It ran for 732 performances and then toured nationally. A production ran in the West End for more than 1000 performances.

Hollywood came knocking, and the 1961 film took a popular musical and made it a cult classic.

What's the big hit?

Where to begin? Nearly every song in the musical is a bona fide Broadway hit. ‘America,’ ‘Somewhere,’ ‘Tonight,’ ‘I Feel Pretty,’ and ‘Something’s Coming’.

One of the most important is the tri-tone, or ‘devil’s interval’, which he uses throughout the score to highlight tension and drive the story forward. The tri-tone is an interval (distance between two notes) that sounds unstable - your ear reaches for a note that would resolve it, or make it sound finished.

Can you sing this line from ‘Maria’? ‘Ma-ri-a, I’ve just met a girl called Maria’. The first two notes ‘Ma-ri-’ is a tri-tone. That’s why it sounds so gorgeous when Tony sings the ‘a’ — the uncomfortable interval is resolved.

The prologue opens with a tri-tone and a motif that symbolises discord. It reappears whenever you meet the Jets. Unlike Tony’s tri-tones, they are often left unresolved. There is violence brewing, and the music makes you feel it. Listen out when the Jets try to keep their ‘Cool’ — the song is full of tri-tones and the result is you can feel the tension in your guts.

Bernstein sets us up to feel the longing and love of ‘Somewhere’ long before that song appears in the score. If you listen carefully, you can hear parts of the song in other places: the rhythm of the line Some day! Somewhere! in the last notes of ‘Maria’, and the melody of There’s a place for us under the closing notes of ‘Tonight’.

By the time the pair of lovers sing ‘Somewhere’, we already know how we’re supposed to feel.

Bernstein combines these two ideas with powerful effect in the finale, where the melody of ‘Somewhere’ competes with two unresolved tri-tones. This story isn’t over. What will the gangs do next?

The legendary creatives

Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins was a giant of dance and theatre, known for his innovative ballet choreography and celebrated for his impact on Broadway musicals.

He loved to dance, and he loved to tell stories. The result was choreography that explored more than how the body moves: his choreography was original, emotional, startling. His New York Times obituary praised his "genius for capturing the essence of an age".

Nowhere was that more apparent than the tense, explosive choreography of West Side Story, a project he took from idea to international sensation.

Robbins served as associate artistic director and then artistic director for the New York City Ballet from 1949–1990.

He died in 1998 after a stroke.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was a lion of American music.

He was a brilliant composer, who wrote West Side Story, On the Town, Candide and a bunch of other musicals. He also wrote symphonies, choral works, chamber works, ballet scores and an opera.

He was a conductor, who became the youngest ever (and first American) Music Director of the New York Philharmonic at age 40.

He was such a talented pianist he could conduct a piano concerto from the piano, while playing.

He won 16 Grammys and a lifetime achievement award in 1985.

After one of the most distinguished careers in music history, Bernstein retired from conducting in October of 1990, suffering from lung disease. He died of a heart attack five days later.

Arthur Laurents

Arthur Laurents was a playwright and screenwriter whose grasp of character and appreciation for brevity brought him early success.

He had already written several radio plays and a Broadway success before collaborating with Robbins on West Side Story. The pair (plus Sondheim) worked together again on Gypsy. 

Laurents directed the hit musical La Cage aux Folles and wrote the screenplay for many classic films, including Hitchcock's Rope and The Way We Were.

He revived West Side Story on Broadway in 2009, creating a bilingual version where the Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish. 

Laurents died in 2011 at 93.

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is a lyricist and composer whose work continues to push the boundaries of the American musical. He's often called the greatest lyricist of musical theatre, and no one disagrees.

As a boy, Sondheim played with Oscar Hammerstein's son James, and the famous lyricist became a surrogate father and mentor to Sondheim. As a young man, Sondheim gave his work to Hammerstein to critique, and credits the theatre great with teaching him to write of himself, of what he knew and felt.

Sondheim was just 23 when he got talking to Arthur Laurents at a party. The young lyricist agreed to meet Bernstein, and began working on West Side Story in his 20s—a musical that would launch a still stellar career.

Sondheim is a prolific composer: Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Company are some of his biggest hits. His work is never formulaic, always original. He thrives on surprise.

"Surprise: if it’s in the lyric, the unexpected word, the unexpected note, the unexpected incident. The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about. If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise." (New York Times)

Sondheim turns 89 on March 22, 2019.

Conversation starters

  • Robbins originally planned to write a story about a star-crossed romance between a Jewish girl and Catholic boy on New York’s Upper East Side. Bernstein and Laurents changed his mind when Puerto Rican and American gang violence began to figure in the news.

  • Robbins visited a high school dance in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood of New York to get real-life inspiration for his choreography

  • Robbins wouldn’t let the original Jets and Sharks casts mix, to help create real tension on set. They rehearsed in different rooms and weren’t allowed to eat lunch together.

  • Chita Rivera, who played Anita on Broadway, and dancer Tony Mordente, who was a Jet, actually got married and had a child! (And that was in spite of Robbins’ ban on Shark-Jet socialising).

  • Robbins decided not to kill off Maria after composer Richard Rodgers told him: “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her.”

  • ‘One Hand, One Heart’ was actually written for Candide. Bernstein swapped it out for ‘O Happy We’, which he originally wrote for West Side Story.

  • Bernstein and Sondheim had a late stroke of inspiration and wrote ‘Something’s Coming’ just 12 days out from opening night.

  • The 1961 film brought home 10 Academy Awards, and still holds the record for most awards won by a musical.

  • Sondheim got the gig as lyricist through a bit of old-fashioned networking. Talking to Arthur Laurents at a party, the pair got to discussing Laurents’ new project with Leonard Bernstein. Sondheim asked who they’d found to do the lyrics, and was just in time – they hadn’t contracted anyone.

  • Sondheim was actually looking to move into writing music along with lyrics, but was keen to meet Bernstein, so he agreed to play for him.

  • Sondheim made up nonsense street slang so the language wouldn’t date. He wanted it to be the first Broadway musical to use the 'F word', but learned they’d never get a cast album approved. The boys say ‘Krup you!’ instead.

Help us keep the Opera House open to everyone, forever.

Your gift today can bring a great artist to the stage, enable a disadvantaged child’s visit, preserve this beloved icon, and much more.

We’re not for profit and raise over 90% of our costs from non-government sources.

We can’t do it without you.


You may also like...


Different shades of hip-hop feminism

Listening to music as a feminist means you also have to engage with its race politics

Transforming the Tudors: An interview with SIX co-creator Lucy Moss

Ahead of the Australian premiere of SIX, we spoke to co-creator Lucy Moss about the origins and future of the cult show.