What would Romeo and Juliet be like if Juliet hadn't died? What if Paris killed Romeo, instead of vice versa? What if instead of occurring several centuries ago, it took place on the streets of New York City during the 1950s, with a bunch of fresh-faced youths posing as street toughs and dancing and singing their hearts out? Well, just take a look at West Side Story, and you will have your answers. It is impossible for anyone familiar with both texts to not note the obvious major similarities between the two plays. From the opening scenes in both, up through the rumble in West Side Story/death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the plays mirror each other (Poelstra). It isn't until the last part of West Side Story, where Tony, our modern-day Romeo, dies and Maria, Tony's Juliet, doesn't (unlike the two star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare's work), that the major difference between the two works becomes apparent.
Granted, instead of tension between feuding families, West Side Story offers prejudice between races, as illustrated between street gangs, the Jets and Sharks. Some of the characters in West Side Story are carbon copies of those in Romeo and Juliet: Maria (Juliet), Tony (Romeo), Bernardo (Tybalt), Lt. Schrank (Prince), and Anita (Nurse). Others appear to be a composite of characters, namely Riff, a combination of Benvolio and Mercutio, and Doc, who appears to fulfill the role of Friar Laurence (possessed somewhat of a peacekeeping nature: "You couldn't play basketball?", he asks, when informed of their upcoming "war council" [Laurents 57]) yet, at the same time, it is implied in the film version, not the play that he is a pharmacist, and there was, after all, an apothecary in Romeo and Juliet . The tomboyish Anybodys, a Jet wannabe, would best fit into the role of Balthasar (although Doc's character fits into this role marginally as well), since it was she who aided Tony in escaping after the rumble, which resulted in the deaths of Riff and Bernardo, as well as later informing the other Jets that Chino, the Paris of the Sharks, had a gun and was hunting down Tony.
In the opening act of Romeo and Juliet, Sampson and Gregory, servants of Capulet, harass Balthasar and Abraham, servants to the Montagues. "I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it," boasts Sampson (I.i.48-50). In the opening scene of West Side Story, several Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo, harass A-rab (notice the similarity in name to Abraham), a white dude, a Jet, and therefore, an enemy of the immigrants. In no time at all, other Jets, led by Riff, rush to A-rab's side. No words are exchanged between the gangs, since it is, after all, a musical, and they basically just jump around in exaggerated fashion. Nevertheless, the scene, like the opening of Romeo and Juliet, sets the stage for the remainder of the production.
It is here where Lt. Schrank and his faithful compatriot, Officer Krupke, happen on the scene to break apart a potential rumble just like Escalus, Prince of Verona, did in Romeo and Juliet: "If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace" (I.i.103-4). Or, as Schrank would phrase it, "I got a hot surprise for you: you hoodlums don't own the streets" (Laurents 6).
Following the altercation between the gangs, it is decided by Riff that the time has come to take care of the Puerto Ricans once and for all, "clean em up in one all-out fight!" (Laurents 10). Riff will challenge them at the dance at the gym later that night. But, he wants his old pal Tony, who founded the Jets with him, in as his Lieutenant (Laurents 12). So, he goes to fill in Tony, who has made a sincere effort to forsake the gang life by becoming gainfully employed at Doc's candy store. This is where another parallel occurs: just as Benvolio talks Romeo into attending the ball at the Capulets, Riff talks Tony into attending the...