WEST SIDE STORY
SUBJECTS — Drama/Musicals; U.S./1945 – 1991; Diversity & New York; Dance/Performance;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Fighting; Revenge; Romantic Relationships; Bad Associations;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect; Caring; Citizenship.
AGE: 12+; No MPAA Rating;
Musical; 1961; 151 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class. Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
This film is an adaptation of the “Romeo and Juliet” story moved to New York in the 1950s. The movie is regarded as one of the best musicals ever filmed.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
1961 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Score, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Moreno), Best Director (Wise & Robbins), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Color), Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing; 1962 Directors Guild of America awards: Outstanding Directorial Achievement (Wise & Robbins); 1961 New York Film Critics Awards: Best Film; 1962 Golden Globe Awards: Best Musical; Best Supporting Actress (Moreno); Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris); 1961 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay. This film is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. This film is ranked #41 on the American Film Institute’s List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006). It is ranked #2 on the American Film Institute’s List of the 25 Greatest Movie Musicals.
Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass.
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
West Side Story can be of benefit to students studying Romeo and Juliet as it helps them understand the timeless and universal nature of Shakespeare’s themes. The film is one of the best of its genre. The story explores the meaning of romantic attachment, the danger of bad associations, the risks of revenge, the unpredictability and futility of fighting, the evils of prejudice, and the problems inherent in disrespect for authority. Students will be motivated to complete research and writing assignments based on this movie.
Students will gain awareness of how modern filmmakers adapt old stories to communicate ageless messages; they will be introduced to the musical as an art form. Assignments at the end of the film require students to exercise research and writing skills.
Minor. Disrespect for all authority is shown.
After your children see West Side Story, you may suggest they see the film Romeo and Juliet. You may then want to discuss the differences in presentation of similar ideas between the play and the musical.
Puerto Rico is a large island in the Caribbean approximately 3,435 square miles in size. It was discovered by Columbus in 1493 and its people are of mixed Spanish and African descent, with the Spanish influence predominating. It was acquired by the United States after the Spanish American War. In 1952 Puerto Rico became a self-governing Commonwealth associated with the United States. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but pay no federal taxes and may not vote in federal elections. Puerto Rico is not wealthy and unemployment is an endemic problem. After the Second World War, many Puerto Ricans emigrated to the U.S., especially to New York, looking for better opportunities.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
[For classes that have studied the play, ask the following question:] 1. Identify an important difference between the play and the musical in setting, plot, characters, presentation or any other difference that you noticed. How did that difference change your experience of the story?
The answers should include a discussion of the following: the effect of the plot-changes (including that Tony was not exiled and Maria survives); the absence of the church as a major factor in the story; the songs; the dances; that the gang members in the musical are completely isolated from their families; that the police officer in the musical (Sergeant Krupke) is a buffoon, etc.
2. What forces acted upon these young people to cause this tragedy?
Answers will vary and may include the power of love and hatred; a desire for revenge; prejudice; poverty; police insensitivity and the sense of self that is so important to the young.
3. How have race relations and gang behaviors changed over the years since the film was made?
Answers will vary depending upon a student’s experience either in his or her personal life or through images from mass media. All well-supported suggestions are acceptable. Good answers will mention the lessening of racial prejudice (although it is still a factor), the increase in violence, the effects of drug use, and the advent of drug trafficking as a major source of income for gangs.
Additional Discussion Questions.
4. What personal characteristics may have come into play that could have led to a different outcome for the main characters in the film?
Students may decide that open-mindedness, self-confidence, patience and the ability to forgive could have led to a different outcome. Ask students to mention a specific character when they suggest a personality trait that might have forestalled the troubles.
5. What does the absence of positive adult figures in this film say about the society that it portrays?
It tells us that this society is in real trouble. The problem with the parents of the Sharks are described in the song: “Gee, Officer Krupke”. There is little information about the parents of the Jets. One assumes that they are off working almost all day. A strong argument can be made that the ultimate source of the dysfunction shown here is in the families the gang members combined with a society that didn’t take care of its children or provide opportunities for its young adults.
6. Why were the boys in gangs? They tell you in the lyrics to one of the songs. Which song was it?
The song is “The Jet Song”. What they get out of the gang is a sense of belonging to a community that cares about them.
7. What is the difference between the gangs portrayed in the movie and modern gangs?
This is another way of asking question #3 in the Guide. Answers will vary depending upon a student’s experience either in his or her personal life or through images from mass media. All well supported suggestions are acceptable. Good answers will mention the lessening of racial prejudice (although it is still a factor), the increase in violence, the effects of drug use, and the advent of drug trafficking as a major source of income for gangs.
8. Why was ascendancy on one or two poverty-stricken blocks so important to the gang members?
It was all that they could get. The society would not provide them with opportunity, so they took the block.
9. Why did the girls adopt or at least tolerate the boys’ gang affiliations?
We don’t think we have a fully satisfactory answer to this question. The girls followed the lead of the boys, although they did appear to have jobs. As for Anita, she had status as the girlfriend of the leader of a gang.
10. What was Tony’s attitude toward the gangs?
Tony had a job with Doc and he had found a way out of the morass that kept the boys in the gang.
11. Why couldn’t the police talk to either gang?
The police were untrained and prejudiced. The kids were not interested in listening.
12. When Doc seemed to object to the way that the police officer talked to the kids, the officer responded with: “You try keeping hoodlums in line and see what it does to you.” What did Doc mean when he said: “It wouldn’t give me a mouth like his”?
Doc is referring to the disrespectful and prejudiced attitude of the police officers toward the gang members.
13. Why were the police officers against the Puerto Ricans?
14. What does the following exchange between Tony and Maria mean?
Tony: I’ll be all right. I know it.
Maria: It is not us. It is everything around us.
This is an accurate description of their situation. They were in love but they were surrounded by a world of hatred.
15. What are the similarities and differences between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet?
There are many similarities. They include: the plot has two lovers who are members of rival groups which hate each other; they try to get away from the evil but fail; the boy lover kills a member of the family of his beloved in an act of impulsive unthinking revenge; they both end in tragedy. Differences include the time in which the story is set; the fact that Maria survives; the absence of the church as having a role in the story. There are many more and a good discussion will bring them out.
16. How would Tony and Maria’s lives have changed if, instead of killing Bernardo, Tony had forgiven him? Tony and Riff were like brothers, and it would have been hard, but didn’t Tony ask Maria to forgive him for killing her brother? That was hard, too.
There would have been no tragedy. This clearly would have led to the best result after Riff had been killed. It shows the tremendous power of forgiveness.
1. Assume that Tony could not find it in himself to forgive Bernardo. How would this story have changed if, instead of killing Bernardo, Tony had dealt peacefully with his anger, left the scene of the rumble, and reported Bernardo to the police?
There would probably have been no tragedy. Tony and the other Sharks could have testified against Bernardo who would probably have gone to prison for a long time. Tony would still have a chance to keep Maria’s love, but even if this had doomed their relationship, the killing would have stopped.
2. In the fight, did Riff expect Bernardo to be behind the group of boys with a knife pointed at him? Did Bernardo expect Tony to grab a knife and attack him? What do these incidents tell us about fighting?
The answer to each of the first two parts of the question is “No”. The two killings show that you can never tell what is going to happen in a fight. Fights are inherently dangerous and unpredictable.
3. Why didn’t the fact that Bernardo had killed Riff justify Tony’s action in killing Bernardo?
In modern society, punishment for killing someone or for committing any crime is the province of the justice system. Tony should have called the police. The fact that Tony’s judgment was blinded by his grief and rage when he killed Bernardo might be an argument that his crime was second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder or that he should get a lighter sentence, but he should still have let the justice system take its course.
4. Did the fact that Tony had killed Bernardo justify Chino’s action in killing Tony?
No. In our society, punishment for killing someone or committing any crime is the province of the justice system. Chino should have called the police. In addition, unlike Tony, Chino was not acting in the heat of passion. He had time to think and plan. This makes Chino’s killing of Tony first degree murder. Moreover, Tony’s killing of Bernardo was understandable because Bernardo had drawn the knife first, because of Tony’s close friendship with Riff, and because it was done in the heat of passion. All of these considerations make it less justifiable for Chino to take justice into his own hands. It is only in the direst of circumstances on rare occasions, when all alternatives have been tried and have failed and only when acting is necessary to serve a greater good than mere revenge, that taking the law into your own hands would be justified. In almost every other case, if recourse to the law does not get justice for the victims, acceptance and forgiveness are the best and only ethical course of action. See Learning Guide to Hamlet.
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the “Respect” section below.)
5. Was Tony right to kill Bernardo to avenge Bernardo’s killing of Tony’s lifelong friend?
No. See response to Question #3 under Fighting.
6. Was Chino right to avenge the killing of Bernardo by killing Tony?
No. See response to Question #4 under Fighting.
7. Compare what Tony did to the actions of Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” and to the actions of Laertes in “Hamlet”. What were the similarities and what were the differences?
Romeo and Tony committed simple, unthinking revenge. However, Laertes had time to think about his actions. For that reason, his actions were more unethical.
8. Compare the action of Chino in hunting Tony down and killing him to the actions of Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” and to the actions of Laertes in “Hamlet”. What were the similarities and what were the differences?
See response to the preceding question.
9. State the law of unintended consequences and give at least two reasons why it applies with particular force to acts of revenge.
The law of unintended consequences holds that whether or not what you do has the effect you intend, it will have consequences that you don’t expect. As Tony (and also Romeo, Laertes and Hamlet) discovered, unintended consequences can be very unpleasant. There are three reasons that the law of unintended consequences applies with particular force to acts of revenge: (1) Actions that are new or that we have seldom taken before often lead to unexpected consequences. Experience is an excellent teacher. If we have little experience with an action, our anticipation of the consequences will be less accurate than for an action which we have taken frequently in the past. (2) Revenge usually affects a number of people, either directly or indirectly. Everyone is different and when other people are affected by our actions, there is an increased risk that we won’t accurately predict how they’ll react. (3) When we act in a rage or a fit of passion our actions are not well considered and the risk that we’ll fail to anticipate some of the consequences is increased.
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the “Respect” and “Caring” sections below.)
10. Was Maria right to love Tony despite the fact that he had killed her brother?
There is no one correct response to this question. Any good response should deal with the positive value of forgiveness and the practical thoughts of how Maria and Tony would go about constructing a life together.
11. In one of the songs, Maria and Anita sing that, “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong ….” Do you agree with this?
There is no one correct response to this question. Everyone loves in a different way. The overpowering feelings of love sometimes felt by young teenagers, which is the type of love that Maria and Anita are singing about, is very dangerous because it blinds the young lover to a full appreciation of the consequences of what they are going to do.
12. Was Maria devoid of family feeling if she could love and go away with a man who had killed her brother? Did Maria bear any of the blame for Tony killing her brother?
There is no one correct response to this question. Any good response should reject the idea that family always comes before love and then go on to deal with the positive value of forgiveness and the practical thoughts of how Maria and Tony could have constructed a life together after he had killed her brother.
13. What role did Tony’s bad associations play in this tragedy?
Tony tried to separate himself from the Sharks but couldn’t. He should have seen Riff for what he was, a boy/man that Tony loved, but who was seriously misguided. Had he done this, perhaps he would not have killed Bernardo but instead he could have forgiven Bernardo or gone to the police.
14. Tony told Riff that he was no longer interested in the gang. Why couldn’t Tony completely extricate himself from the gang situation?
Loyalty to his friend. This story shows the risks of loyalty to friends.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
1. Anita lied to the Jets about Chino killing Maria. What role did she play in Tony’s death? Do you blame her for Tony’s death?
Anita’s lie sent Tony to the streets in despair. It prevented Maria and Tony from successfully escaping the whole sick situation. Anita’s actions were another act of revenge, and all acts of revenge involve breaking one or another moral/ethical principle. Most acts of revenge violate the Pillar of Respect and involve violence. Anita’s act of revenge involved lying. Anita bears some responsibility for Tony’s death.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
2. What role did prejudice play in this tragedy?
It may have provided the boys with the initial reason to separate into gangs, but the basis of gangs is in economic, social and psychological deprivation and the exclusion of young men and women from economic opportunity. After the gangs were formed, the prejudice against Puerto Ricans provided a ready-made excuse.
3. What benefit could the boys in the gangs have derived from the wise counsel of elders who they trusted?
Doc, the owner of the store where the gangs met, was the only adult that the kids in the gangs seemed to trust. Had they listened to him, they would not have fought and there would have been no killings.
4. After the killings, when Anita visited Doc’s store, the Jets were probably just teasing her, albeit roughly. What was the unintended consequence of their action?
Tony didn’t get the message that might have saved his life. In fact, he got the wrong message that contributed to his death.
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the “Fighting” and “Revenge” section above.)
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See question # 16 in the Subject Matter questions and questions 1, 3, 4, 10 & 12 in the Social Emotional Learning Questions.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
5. The police in this film are presented as persons not being worthy of respect. Did this justify the gangs in flouting the law? Explain your answer.
No. The police would have prosecuted Bernardo and they would have prosecuted Tony. To repeat: It is only in the direst of circumstances on rare occasions when all alternatives have been tried and have failed and only when acting is necessary to serve a greater good than mere revenge, that taking the law into your own hands would be justified. In almost every other case that the law doesn’t work, acceptance and forgiveness are the best and only ethical course of action. In this case, since Riff had been killed in a fight that he had helped to organize and since Tony had acted in the heat of passion, there was no reason for any side to take the law into their own hands.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Research and write an informative essay on the several ethnic groups that have created communities in New York [or substitute the city in which class members live] over the years. Specify the difficulties faced by each group as it worked to integrate into American culture. Create a timeline that shows the periods when these groups came to the city and note when their numbers began to diminish as integration into the larger community was achieved. Be sure to include newly arrived ethnic groups.
2. Write a review of West Side Story in which you evaluate the acting, music, and dancing that appear in the film. Express your opinion of this film and determine whether or not it deserves to keep its status as one of the all-time great musicals in American film history or whether it is outdated in its presentation.
3. Assume that Chino was prosecuted for murder and convicted. Have the students form into groups, brainstorm the closing arguments in the sentencing for either the prosecution or the defense, and then hold a competition to see who comes up with the best argument.
For additional six assignments, click here.
- Obtain the screenplay of the film. Divide the class into groups of 10 or less and assign characters to each student to read. The readings can be among the group or with the rest of the class as an audience. The smaller parts can be assigned to one or two persons.
- Ask students to write an essay listing out the differences between the plots of West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet and describe why the playwright for West Side Story needed the changes in the story to make their new tale work.
- Ask students to describe the moral message of the play. Another way to put this question is, “What was the playwright trying to tell us in this play about the way that people should or should not act?”
- Ask students to describe what this play tells us about people. Another way to put this question is, “What was the playwright trying to tell us in this play about the way that people act?”
- Ask the students to select a major character in the play and describe what was motivating him or her.
- Ask the students to write essays on appropriate questions set out in the Discussion Questions section above.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.
BRIDGES TO MUSIC
If your child is musically inclined, get them the score from the local library or music store and let them play some of the music. If someone can play the piano, get the family together and sing some of the songs.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
Lyrics for the songs and other information is at The Official West Side Story Site.
This Learning Guide was last updated on May 3, 2013.