Irving Shulman

West Side Story

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  • Features 2 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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West Side Story Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 39-page guide for “West Side Story” by Irving Shulman includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 2 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Immigration, Xenophobia, and American National Identity and Love Versus Hate.

Plot Summary

When West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, it was a new kind of musical. At the time, the phrase “Broadway musical” was synonymous with “musical comedy.” Musical theatre typically took a lighthearted approach, even when broaching serious issues. But West Side Story, perhaps one of the most famous adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, exposed audiences to gang violence on the streets of New York. If Shakespeare’s lovers are star-crossed and ill-fated, Tony and Maria are also tragically so. West Side Story shows how racism and xenophobia create a system that dooms the youths of working class families. And unlike the typical Broadway musical of the 1950s and before, West Side Story does not offer audiences a happy ending.

Just as Romeo and Juliet are born to rival families, Tony and Maria are associated with rival gangs. Tony is a Jet, a gang of American-born youths led by his best friend, Riff. Maria’s brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks, a gang of first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants. The Jets challenge the Sharks to a rumble (a massive fight) to resolve a territory dispute once and for all. Tony and Maria meet, and fall instantly in love. Tony tries to stop the rumble for Maria’s sake, but Bernardo stabs Riff. Tony reacts, avenging Riff’s death by killing Bernardo. Still in love, Maria agrees to meet Tony that night and run away with him. But Tony receives word from Bernardo’s mourning girlfriend, Anita, that Maria is dead. Grief-stricken, Tony goes out seeking the Sharks who are hunting him. He discovers that Maria is alive, but a Shark shoots him. Tony dies in Maria’s arms.

But unlike Shakespeare’s Juliet, Maria doesn’t kill herself. Instead, she rebukes both gangs for the lives lost, and watches as the Sharks and the Jets come together to carry off Tony’s body. While the adults in Romeo and Juliet weep for their lost children and resolve to change and end the feud, the adults in West Side Story watch helplessly as the two gangs leave the stage at the end. The musical shows a society in which parents and law enforcement have failed to foster community, instead pitting young people against each other to fight the same battles based on the same fears that cause anti-immigrant sentiment today. West Side Story offers a powerful message to audiences: hate breeds more hate. Until violent and discriminatory social structures are dismantled, the most vulnerable members of the community will continue to suffer and die.

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Act I