Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How 'West Side Story' Gave "Romeo and Juliet" a New Home in America.




VOICE ONE:

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

VOICE TWO:

And I'm Shirley Griffith.

Today and next week we bring you the story and songs from the American musical play "West Side Story."

(MUSIC)

VOICE ONE:

"West Side Story" opened fifty years ago this month, in New York's Winter Garden Theater. It was an immediate hit and played there for almost two years. Since then, it has been performed in many other theaters in the United States and in other countries. And millions of people have seen the motion picture version released in nineteen sixty-one.

It is possible, however, to enjoy "West Side Story" without having seen the play or movie. For it is the music of composer Leonard Bernstein that is most famous.

VOICE TWO:

Choreographer and director Jerome Robbins developed the idea for "West Side Story" about fifty-five years ago.

Most musicals of that time were not serious plays. They were written and performed purely for enjoyment. Robbins wanted to create a different kind of dance-musical. It would mix real social conflicts into a dream-like work of art. His idea was to make a modern American version of the great tragic play "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare.

In that play, two innocent teenagers, Romeo and Juliet, fall in love. But their powerful families are old, bitter enemies. They will not give up their hatred of each other. This leads to the deaths of several of their children, including Romeo and Juliet.

Jerome Robbins' idea was to make a musical play about the hatred between Americans of different cultures. He and Leonard Bernstein decided to base the play on the tensions caused by the immigration of Puerto Ricans to New York City.

Arthur Laurents wrote the words to the play. And Stephen Sondheim wrote the words to the songs.

Puerto Rico is an island commonwealth of the United States in the Caribbean. In the nineteen fifties, many Puerto Ricans were moving from their island to the west side of New York. They spoke Spanish. Their culture was different. Some native New Yorkers felt threatened by these new people in town.

The story takes place at the end of summer. We are introduced to two groups of teenagers. These two gangs are fighting for control of the streets. The local gang -- the "Jets" -- has long battled with the Puerto Rican gang -- the "Sharks." Now, the Jets want to push the Sharks out of their part of the city.

VOICE TWO:

Our first song is sung by the actors who appeared in the first production of the play. In the song, the Jets declare that anyone who is a member of their gang -- a Jet -- is always a Jet. Loyalty to the gang is more important than anything else.

(MUSIC)

Tony is a past leader of the Jets. But he no longer believes much in the gang. He is beginning to imagine a life outside the gang's territory. In this song, Tony senses that something new and important is about to happen to him. The part of Tony is sung by Larry Kert.

(MUSIC)

VOICE ONE:

Now, the action turns to the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Bernardo is leader of the Sharks. His seventeen-year-old sister, Maria, has just arrived from Puerto Rico. She has been brought to New York to be married. Her family expects her to marry Chino, another member of the Sharks.

That night, there is a dance. Both the Jets and the Sharks attend.

(MUSIC)

VOICE TWO:

The dance takes place at a neighborhood center -- neutral territory. The situation is tense, even threatening. The gangs dance in their own groups. Then the boy, Tony, and the girl, Maria, see each other across the room. They meet. They dance together. They are from enemy gangs, different cultures. Yet they know, immediately, that they want to be together.

Suddenly, Bernardo -- Maria's brother -- sees them. He is angry to see Maria talking with a member of the Jets. He sends her home.

VOICE ONE:

Tony leaves, too. He tries to find where Maria lives. He sings as he walks.

(MUSIC)

Tony finds the apartment building where Maria lives with her family. He calls to her window. She comes out quietly to the metal fire escape. Maria can stay for only a few minutes. She and Tony declare their love for each other. Then she must hurry inside. Carol Lawrence sings the part of Maria.

(MUSIC)

VOICE TWO:

It is now very late at night. The Jets and Sharks are about to meet with members of their own gang to plan a big fight, a "rumble." The gang that loses the fight will be forced to leave the area to the winning gang.

The play has begun to move toward its tragic ending. That will be our program next week -- the final part of "West Side Story. " We close now with the song "Tonight," sung by Maria as she and Tony say goodnight.

(MUSIC)

VOICE ONE:

Our program was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.

VOICE TWO:

And I'm Shirley Griffith. You can download archives of our programs at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.

COMPREHENSION CHECK

1. 1. The director and choreographer of West Side Story was _________ .
a: Leonard Bernstein
b: Muhammed Ali
c: Jerome Robbins
d: The Shark
 
2. West Side Story opened originally in ____________________ .
a: Los Angeles
b: Chicago
c: Puerto Rico
d: New York City.
 
3. West Side Story is based on
a: William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”
b: Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”
c: Brittany Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again”
d: Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”.
 
4. Leonard Bernstein decided to _______________________________ .
a: invest money in West Side Story
b: criticize Jerome Robbins for causing social problems
c: write the music for West Side Story
d: move to Puerto Rico and become the Sugar King
 
5. At the beginning of the play, native New Yorker and immigrant Puerto Rican teenage gangs ________________________ .
a: are struggling for control of their neighborhood streets 
b: are teaching each other their native languages
c: are planning to sail a boat together to China
d: want to form an amateur baseball league.
 
6. Tony, Bernardo, Chino, and Maria _______________________ .
a: are members of the Jets gang 
b: are members of the Sharks gang
c: are the main characters in the story
d: want to live in Albuquerque
 
 
 
 
 
7. At the neighborhood dance,Tony and Maria are ________________________ .
a: introduced to each other formally by Bernardo 
b: attracted to each other from across the room
c: elected King and Queen of the dance
d: unable to see each other because they are both blind
 
8. Tony follows Maria home ______________________________ .
a: because he found her valuable gold watch 
b: because he has fallen in love with her and needs to talk to her
c: because Bernardo asked him to eat dinner with their family
d: because he is homeless
 
9.The Jets and Sharks decide to “rumble”, ________________________ .
a: to dance the mambo, la quebradita, and la lambada at the same time
b: to turn their radios as loud as they can go to the same rock and roll music station
c: to have a mass gang fight in the streets
d: to make love from sunset to dawn
 
10.The gang that loses the rumble must ________________________ .
a: give up control of the streets to the winning gang
b: prepare a big meal for the winning gang
c: buy machine guns and exterminate all the members of the winning gang
d: write a love song to Maria

"Tonight" from "West Side Story" by Leonard Bernstein




West Side Story, Part Two


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