Is 'West Side Story' Based on a True Story?

After three years in the making, Steven Spielberg's reimagining of West Side Story is hitting theatres. Spielberg is not the first person to adapt the 1957 musical to film, with Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins taking the plunge back in 1961. The original movie quickly became a classic, winning 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Spielberg has insisted he is not trying to remake or reboot the original movie but instead focused on bringing the original material in the 1957 Broadway musical to life, he told ABC News. He has made very few changes to the story, with all of the musical's songs making an appearance and all of the original characters.

However, a new twist in Spielberg's adaptation is the addition of Valentina (played by Rita Moreno), who is the widow to Doc (Ned Glass), the candy store owner the Jets hung out in. Spielberg has also made sure to include a diverse cast, only casting actors with Hispanic backgrounds in Hispanic roles, something the 1961 film missed.

Is West Side Story Based On A True Story?

No, West Side Story is not based on a true story, but the musical's setting and issues of race, social class, misogyny, and inequality are very much real.

West Side Story was conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins who wanted to adapt Romeo and Juliet into a musical. He approached composer Leonard Bernstein who would be behind the music and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics. American playwright Arthur Laurents wrote the book.

Originally, Robbins planned for the plot to follow the ill-fated romance between a Catholic Boy and a Jewish girl in the Upper East Side of New York City. However, after reading in the newspapers about gang warfare in U.S. cities the story changed.

The plot of West Side Story also took inspiration from William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about two star-crossed lovers. However, for the play, Laurents loosely took the feud between the Montague and Capulet families and made it into a rivalry between two New York City street gangs. The forbidden romance of Romeo and Juliet would play out via Tony, and Maria, two teenagers with ties to the warring gangs.

Set in a blue-collar neighborhood in New York's Upper West Side in the 1950s, West Side Story explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are made up of working-class white teenage boys from broken homes and the Sharks consist mainly of Puerto Ricans.

At the time West Side Story was conceived, the largest wave of migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City was taking place, known as "The Great Migration". The influx of people and different cultures lead to tensions in the community between immigrants and New Yorkers.

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Steven Spielberg based his 2021 adaption on the original 1957 Broadway musical Disney

Tony Kushner, the screenwriter for Spielberg's West Side Story insisted in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that West Side Story is not an exact adaption of Romeo and Juliet.

He said: "The source material, Romeo and Juliet, is about hatred between two groups that are sort of two sides of the same coin. Nobody even knows why the Capulets and the Montagues hate each other.

"That's given a misimpression about West Side Story, which is that the Jets and the Sharks are the Capulets and the Montagues. They're not. The creators believed very deeply that race hatred and bigotry and oppression and discrimination are profoundly malevolent aberrations and can lead to cataclysmic consequences. And I think that is the tragedy of West Side Story. It is an anti-racist, democratic musical."

For the original musical, Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins, and Laurents were keen to ensure the musical was an authentic portrayal of teenage gang rivalry and teen culture. Show choreographer Jerome Robbins attended a high school dance in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Harlem, he also attached newspaper clippings of gang violence on the backstage bulletin and did not allow the cast of the Jets and Sharks to socialize together.

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West Side Story follows two rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks Disney

At the time West Side Story was conceived, gang warfare was rife in New York City. Speaking to NPR, Grover Dale who starred in the original Broadway as Snowboy, one of the Jets told NPR: "There were gangs right there, and I walked past guys that were doing the catcalls that I was delivering on stage. Where do you think I learned how to do that? On 84th Street is where the rumbles were happening."

To ensure his film's authenticity, Spielberg visited the San Juan Hill neighborhood, a formally predominant Puerto Rican neighborhood, and spoke with people who lived in the area during the 1950s.

Spielberg told ABC news: "It [the film] needed to be realistic. It couldn't be a theater musical. It had to be a street musical. It had to feel like these were the real streets that these stories, these events, and this comedy, and this jubilation, and this tragedy was taking place on."

West Side Story is out in theaters on Friday, December 10