Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
"Could be… who knows…?" Tony senses something in the wind when the movie starts, and even has a whole song about it. Riff calls him to adventure: to come to the dance and back him against Bernardo and the Sharks. But Tony's song is responding to a different, bigger call. Whatever's happening there, it's going to change things for our hero forever.
Tony almost refuses the call. At first, he doesn't want to go to the gym and confront Bernardo. But he relents, which sets the plot into motion.
Part of the vibe in West Side Story is that these kids don't really have a proper mentor. There's even a whole song, "Gee, Officer Krupke," lamenting about how mentor-free their life is. Quite the conundrum for the up-and-coming Campbellian Heroes.
Thankfully, both of our young lovers have someone they can confide in, and who at least attempt to steer them in the right direction. For Tony, it's Doc: the friendly, if utterly hapless soda shop owner who gives him a job and gets him out of the gang life. For Maria, it's Anita, who tries to steer Maria clear of Tony but becomes an understanding older sister-type once she realizes that's not gonna happen.
You could name two points in the film as the threshold. The first comes when Tony shows up at the dance and spots Maria. The second comes when the lovers meet after the dance and pledge their undying love. Suddenly, our hero has something to fight for plus all the trials and tribulations that come with it.
Allies and enemies have a way of changing sides very quickly here. Is Anita going to help the lovers or stab them in the back? Is Riff down with this, or would he if he wasn't stabbed to death? Either way, it's going to be treacherous. The course of true love never did run smooth (to quote this movie's favorite author), and whether it's the cops, the gang war, the ugly death of various loved ones… it's hard to know who's on your side.
The innermost cave in this case is actually not "inner" anything. It's the concept of escape: getting out instead of going in. Tony and Maria need to get away from their neighborhood if their love is going to survive: a pie-in-the-sky dream that even they can't quite figure out how to reach. They even have a song about it, which we dare you to watch without bawling.
To get where they need to go, Tony and Maria need to risk everything. That means trusting folks they shouldn't (like Anita), getting past the cops and their colleagues (who are seriously out for blood), then running as far as they can. It doesn't work. Tony is told that Maria is dead and storms out into the streets to join her. Self-sacrifice is definitely part of the Hero's Journey. In this case, though, it's based on a lie, which means that while it can still be noble, it just won't be happy.
Tony's "reward" for offering his own life is one brief look at Maria—confirming that she is not, in fact, dead—then getting gunned down in the streets. He makes the ultimate sacrifice for love like any good hero should. The trouble is, that sacrifice wasn't necessary, just a stupid mistake fueled by hate.
There's no road back for Tony and Maria. Tony's dead and Maria may follow him if her threats about suicide are to be believed. But in the face of that, the Jets and the Sharks get a good look at what their feud has produced and how they created this tragedy. In that sense, maybe—just maybe—the road back can teach them something.
Literal resurrection, even symbolic resurrection, isn't in the cards in West Side Story. The Hero's Journey deals in epic triumphs, and this one's more of a painful tragedy. But there is a reaffirmation of love as Tony lies dying in the streets, and if their commitment to each other can't continue, at least they can show the world how deep and meaningful that commitment is. Love never dies, etc., etc.
No real elixir here; this isn't a story with a happy ending. But Maria's final speech may hold some measure of benefit to the society around her. She shows them what their hate and anger have done, what it's destroyed, what it's left behind, and for once the lesson seems to have sunk in. She and Tony have suffered for their world's sins. The world at least, finally has the decency to feel bad about it.
New York, New York. We hear it's a helluva town. (Actually, we hear that from the same guy who gave us West Side Story). Here, it's a nice modern stand-in for Shakespeare's Verona, right down to the heat rising from the streets and the nice young men trying to kill each other.
New York's the perennial modern metropolis, the biggest city in America, and one of the political, economic and social centers of the world. Yet even here, there are still corners where things aren't fair or right, and where people still fight over tiny little scraps of dignity.
The setting comes at least partially from the fact that everyone who created West Side Story was from New York. They wrote about what they knew, and what they knew were those working class neighborhoods full of kids with not a lot of hope. What better place to talk about rivals who hate each other's guts and a nice young pair of kids who think that somehow, some way, their love can get them out of there?
The setting was so important to the tone of the film that they actually went to the streets of New York to shoot it. A lot of the outdoor scenes took place on actual streets that you can still visit today (although many of the buildings were torn down shortly afterwards to build the massive Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts). Robert Wise was chosen to direct in part because he could shoot scenes like that very convincingly.
The effect was to make the story feel very real and grounded. That helps keep the musical numbers from flying off into the realm of fantasy and lets us know that the ideas they're talking about—and that William Shakespeare talked about before them—still have relevance today. Hence, New York: city of cities where the good, the bad and the ugly all meet up on those hot summer streets.
West Side Story is ground-breaking in a lot of ways, but when it comes to delivering the information, it tends to rely on the tried-and-true technique of moving to the character we need to see when we need to see him or her, then moving back as the story demands. It's a more-or-less straight linear narrative.
Having said that, it still pulls off the odd trick or two that deviates from our expectations. The opening dance number is a big part of it. The dances are intended to convey several months' worth of plot in a few minutes. From the way the gangs watch and follow each other so closely, you can tell that these rivalries have been a long time in the making. A more traditional film might show us that in a montage or something a little more typical (read: boring). Instead, it uses the musical's inherent ability to defy reality (we don't usually see people breaking into elaborate dance numbers on the street, even in the era of flash mobs) to push the story forward.
Something very different happens when Tony and Maria first meet. The dance hall falls away. Everything gets blurry and the sounds fade. Tony and Maria see only each other. Again, the movie uses the musical number to help convey that: suddenly we're not in anything resembling reality, but one a dark stage with couples moving in perfect sync with each other.
It's not realistic at all, but it helps us understand what Tony and Maria are feeling at that precise moment—that floating feeling, that bolt from the blue. The pace slows; the music changes. It's an intimate moment that puts us right in the heads of those two.
The omniscient narrative style becomes mind-blowing spectacle during the "Tonight" quintet. The scene cuts back and forth between Jets, Sharks, Anita, Tony, and Maria—all happening at the same time, everyone singing their hearts out about what's about to happen tonight, each with their own take on what's about to go down. Besides letting us know what each is thinking, there's an incredible build-up of tension because we can just tell that things aren't going to end well. They're all heading for a disastrous confrontation.
Singing and dancing are the order of the day in West Side Story, which plants it very firmly in the realm of a musical. That means the dance numbers and vocals don't have to match anything resembling reality, and that choreography can kick in any time the characters have something to say. It also means telling the story with song and dance as well as more traditional techniques like dialogue, and West Side Story uses dancing as a tool of storytelling like very few movies before it had done.
On the most basic level, West Side Story is drama, not only because it's adapted from a stage play, but because the material is taken seriously and played straight (singing and dancing notwithstanding). If drama is conflict, we've got it. The conflict is largely between individual characters, as opposed to wars or natural disasters you'd see in a more epic kind of narrative. That helps the musical side of the film blend more seamlessly with the tragic elements, keeping those normally very different genres working together the way they need to.
As a retake on Romeo and Juliet, it's a tragedy (a subgenre of drama) as well, which was very unusual in musicals up until that point. If people are singing and dancing, it usually conveys a happy vibe, which is why most musicals tend to have upbeat endings. There are some exceptions, of course: Sweeney Todd and Cabaret come to mind. But West Side Story makes the tragedy clear from the very beginning with the whole Romeo and Juliet vibe, and all of the upbeat dance numbers in the world can't change the sense of foreboding and doom that permeates the film.
West Side Story actually started out as East Side Story in Jerome Robbins' original pitch to Bernstein in 1947.
It set the Irish Catholic Jets against the Jewish Emeralds, which was in keeping with the ethnic make-up of the Lower East Side area of Manhattan. When they finally got around to making the film, gang conflict between whites and Puerto Ricans on the West Side was in the news.
So there you go.
If you've read Romeo and Juliet, you probably have a pretty good idea how this one ends, and as much as we love Tony and Maria, a future really just isn't in the cards for them. Anita, angry about her treatment by the Jets, gets a phony message to Tony saying that Maria was killed. A grief-stricken Tony tells Chino to kill him too, and Chino obliges. Kleenex all around, and try to keep from sobbing in the lobby, kids.
Romeo and Juliet ends in a similar way, with Juliet faking her death, Romeo not getting the message and thinking she's really dead, killing himself. Juliet wakes up to see him dead, and joins him for real this time. Maria, however, survives.
MARIA: All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate!
At the end of R&J, the feuding Montagues and Capulets come to their senses and reconcile after they find the two doomed lovers lying dead in the family tomb. West Side Story echoes that ending, as the Sharks and Jets put aside their differences for a while to gently carry poor Tony off the playground pavement.
While Shakespeare's warring families seem to call off their feud for good, we don't get that same feel from the Jets and Sharks. The underlying issues are probably too entrenched to keep the ceasefire going, and our guess is that the boys will be back hating on each other in no time.
Some people thought the creators of West Side Story wimped out by keeping Maria alive at the end of the film. She had the gun; she could have killed herself like Juliet. But they couldn't go through with it. That's Hollywood, folks. We love ourselves some happy endings.
Emotional intensity? Yeah, we'll give it that. There are even some people getting killed, which tends to happen when you're portraying an extended gang war. But West Side Story was made while the Hays Code—formal censorship guidelines adopted by the movie industry—was still in effect, which meant you couldn't get too graphic. That meant the violence stays pretty chaste; no bloody brains on the wall as the bullet-ridden victim slides slowly to the floor. You get shot or stabbed and you fall cleanly to the ground.
As for sex? As the West Side locals would say, fuggetaboutit. Any sexy stuff is just suggested and happens off-screen.