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“The Boy Must Die? Yes, the Boy Must Die”:
West Side Story as Shakespearean Tragedy
and a Celebration of Love and Forgiveness
West Side Story is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, and is
considered to be one of the finest adaptations of a Shakespearean play ever written.
The structure of the first act of West Side Story follows almost exactly the structure
of the first three acts of Romeo and Juliet. And the major characters of West Side
Story, Tony and Maria, are parallels to Romeo and Juliet.
The opening fight between the Jets and the Sharks mirrors the fight between the
Montagues and Capulets and this fight is broken up by the modern American
representation of the law, Officer Krupke, instead of the Prince who weighs in
against the two warring clans in Renaissance Verona. In both the modern musical
and the Renaissance tragedy, the opening scene, in the manner of Greek tragedy,
lays bare the plague that afflicts society—unchecked violence exacerbated by
extreme prejudice.
The two scenes that follow, the introduction of Romeo/Tony, and of Juliet/Maria,
depict the longing of the young to escape from this plague. Romeo/Tony knows that
the current trajectory of his life is meaningless and hopes that a new path will open
up for him. And Juliet/Maria does not want to marry within the narrow confines of
her familial/ethnic group, seeking instead to forge her own path for her own life.
Thus the conflict between the protagonists and an antagonistic society is
established.
When Romeo/Tony and Juliet/Maria meet and fall in love in the next two scenes, the
dance and balcony scenes, this conflict is set in motion. For the protagonists, their
love, so idealistic, youthful, innocent and intense, seems to both them and the
audience, able to transcend the vicious realities of their societies and indeed to
outshine the wonders of the natural world itself. So both West Side Story and Romeo
and Juliet depict the hope and faith in the all-conquering power of romantic love.
The parallel marriage scenes that follow in both works provoke strong emotions in
the audience as all of us have witnessed marriages and felt the joyous hope that such
unions represent.
However, both works are tragedies and the marriage scenes are followed almost
immediately by an eruption of violence so strong that the marriage of the
protagonists is shattered and with it the hope that it had promised. Romeo/Tony, in
attempting to stop a fight, unwittingly causes the death of his best friend,
Mercutio/Riff, at the hand of Juliet/Maria’s kinsman, Tybalt/Bernardo. And when
Romeo/Tony then kills Tybalt/Bernardo in revenge, he becomes an actor in the
circle of violence, and as a character in a tragedy is slated to die. “Yes,” as
Dumbledore tells Snape in Harry Potter, “the boy must die,” even though we, as the
audience, resist this truth.
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Such a difficult truth, that romantic love alone, will not overwhelm and defeat hate,
is explained very differently in West Side Story than it is in Romeo and Juliet. And
this difference is made very clear through scenes in West Side Story that are not
parallels to any of the scenes in Romeo and Juliet. These scenes in West Side Story
derive partly from the tradition Jewish socialism, a tradition that deeply influenced
the writers, composers and directors of West Side Story. This is most evident in the
only scene in the first half of their musical without parallel in Shakespeare’s work—
the America scene. One of the most recognizable songs of the show subtly
demonstrates a major concern of both the Torah and 20th century socialism, that
commodity fetishism lies at the root the violence and prejudice that plagues society;
or as the Christian gospel notes, that the love money is the root of all evil.
It is entirely appropriate to link West Side Story to the Christian gospel as well as the
tradition of Jewish socialism, since its creators were versed in the basic tenets of
Christianity, a number of them having written or composed a mass for a modern
audience. Indeed, the Catholic mass informs the structure of the second half of West
Side Story the part of the musical that diverges most from Romeo and Juliet. And so,
while it continues to echo Romeo and Juliet, the second half corresponds in many
ways to the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The second act of West Side Story begins by hammering home the truth that all
humans have sinned, that all are “no damn good” and this is made most evident in
the Gee Officer Krupke number. This complex song also satirizes the attempts of
human institutions—the legal, mental health and social service institutions in
particular—to heal a broken society plagued by sin. The I Feel Pretty number
celebrates the eventual union of Christ and His bride, symbolized in the musical by
Tony and Maria. Tony comes in after the song, psychologically broken and
physically bloodied, imaging the Christ who must die for us and atone for our sin.
But before atonement can occur, the congregation must ask for forgiveness and in
the dream vision of Tony and Maria, the entire cast performs a ballet and sings in
the Somewhere number, “we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving.”
Even the dead Riff and Bernardo, representing that “great cloud of witnesses” that
have been reconciled with each other, join in the singing. The song concludes with
the Rite of Peace and the audience too is enjoined to hold the hands of the cast and
enter the “way of forgiving.”
The Eucharistic scenes of the musical move to their rapid conclusion in the next
scene when Anita confronts Maria with her pain and agony over the loss of her love,
Bernardo. In this scene and the one that follows in which the Jets attempt to rape
her, Anita symbolically represents the agony and scourging of Christ before His
death. Tony dies in the next and final scene, with Maria as Virgin Mary mourning for
him, and as the Church proclaiming that all are responsible for the death of the
innocent.
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Yet Tony and Anita are very flawed symbols for Christ just as Maria, who says at the
end “I can hate now” is a flawed symbol for the Virgin. They are merely flawed
human actors enmeshed in the tragedy that is human life. West Side Story portrays
the hope of atonement and redemption “somehow, somewhere,” but its
overwhelming focus is on the here and now. Young men die unjustly in a “nation of
laws” and the innocence of young women turns to bitterness and hate. American
society does not always fulfill its promise and the boy does die. Far, far too many
boys die. In this context, even the hope represented by the Christian Eucharist
seems impossibly distant.
The powerful hope evident in West Side Story comes not from a future that is
promised but because of a love made all-conquering by first forgiving oneself and
others. This is the great theme of Shakespeare’s later works, not fully realized in his
youthful work, Romeo and Juliet. As human beings, in the here and now, we are able
to build a better society as the great examples of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and
Nelson Mandela have shown us with their mature understanding of forgiveness and
reconciliation, mercy and justice, and love.
In West Side Story we are called to move beyond the boyhood notion that romantic
love is the enduring and real Presence. As Jon Snow in Game of Thrones is told, we
must “Kill the boy and become the man.” “Yes, the boy must die.” And this is tragic,
but necessary. A greater love that affirms life comes following forgiveness, as Maria
and Anita state in their duet that sums up the theme of the show: “When love comes
so strong, there is no right or wrong, your love is your life.”
David F. Turk
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