Star-Crossed, Star-Spangled Lovers: The Romeo & Juliet Connection to West Side Story

By Kimberly K. Edwards, Intern

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“A pair of star-cross’d lovers…” described the dynamic of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship in William Shakespeare’s classic play. Thwarted by outside forces of family, friends, and a friar, the two finally united in death. Tragically beautiful, this sixteenth-century tale influenced modern day theatre and cinema, featuring several movie and book adaptations starring some of Hollywood’s most wanted actors and actresses.

Nonetheless, Shakespeare himself was guided by a prior work to spark such a masterpiece. Arthur Brooke’s 1562 free paraphrase poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was performed at the Globe Theatre in England in 1595, and published in print in 1597.

The storylines were similar, following the fates of Romeo and Juliet, which enticed readers and theatre patrons for centuries to come. A timeless work of art that transcended media, the romance came to life on stage, on the page, and eventually on the silver screen.

When Arthur Laurents wrote West Side Story, he adapted the plot to omit the death of Juliet, stating that it was, “A device that would not be swallowed in a modern play” (Source). Purposely changing this element of the Romeo and Juliet tale, West Side Story sparked interest among a wider demographic, outside of traditional Shakespeare fans. Furthermore, West Side Story assumed its own identity of presenting themes relevant to its audience, setting, and time in which the story took place.

In particular, the romance of Tony and Maria sparked controversy as an interracial relationship. In the mid-twentieth century, and in a post-war culture, the idyllic and white washed picture of the United States prevented interracial couples from receiving the same treatment as their “mono-racial” counterparts, and in some states, interracial couples were banned from marriage.

With this in mind, Laurents brought attention to the topic of diversity and racial awareness in the twentieth century in West Side Story. This particular subject added complexity to the love shared by Tony and Maria, and facilitated a discussion that brought theatre into modernity through a presentation of current issues adapted on the stage. The star-crossed lovers became star-spangled through West Side Story, which applied the romance to the cultural melting pot of the modern-day United States.

To join the discussion of diversity and romance as it appears in West Side Story, be sure to see Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre’s adaptation of the play from July 18-28! Bickford Theatre and the New Jersey Youth Theatre produced this adaptation. For more information and tickets, call (973) 971-3706, and visit www.morrismuseum.org.

Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre started production in the Fall of 2001. It is currently in its eighteenth season of feature performances, run by Artistic Director Eric Hafen.

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