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Is West Side Story Based on a true story? What is the story behind it?

A tale of love blossoming in an atmosphere of violence and prejudice, West Side Story returns to the screen, but what was the inspiration behind the story?

A tale of love blossoming in an atmosphere of violence and prejudice, West Side Story returns to the screen, but what was the inspiration behind the story.

It’s a story as old as time, an impossible love, star-crossed lovers but the location this time was 1957 New York City. The tale of Tony and Maria in West Side Story is a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

But instead of two young lovers of prominent Italian families feuding with each other, the boy and girl live in the blue-collar Upper West Side from rival factions of "natives" and "newcomers". So it begs the question of whether the story was based on a real-life event from decades ago.

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The musical was originally supposed to be the East Side Story

When Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins, who suggested creating an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to the other two, first began work on what would become West Side Story in 1949, the two young lovers came from different backgrounds. Neither was based on a real-life person just what the creators knew around them in New York City.

The girl was to be a recent Jewish immigrant from Israel and the boy an Italian Catholic, with the drama unfolding in the Lower East Side during the Easter-Passover season. However, the material had already been covered and the project was dropped.

The story moves to the Upper West Side

Then in 1955, Laurents and Bernstein, who were working in Hollywood, took up the project again drawing new inspiration from the Chicano gang wars in Los Angeles that were frontpage news at the time. Despite Robbins having given names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities of people who were Communists and were later blacklisted from Hollywood, the two approached Robbins about collaborating again on the project.

They presented him with swapping the religious tensions for one between rival street gangs of whites verses Puerto Rican migrants, who were moving in large numbers to New York City in the 1950s. At the time, the Upper West Side was a blue-collar multiracial area of New York City, the city itself was experiencing turf wars between gangs. Robbins was in, and the ball got rolling again.

The end result made its debut on Broadway in the fall of 1957 receiving critical acclaim. Two years later West Side Story graced the silver screen and the movie took home 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

2021 remake of West Side Story stays true to original

Steven Spielberg has brought West Side Story back to the screen keeping it in 1957 New York City. He and screenwriter Tony Kushner have given it a makeover while staying true to the original. The setting in the Upper West Side is grimier than the original and in ruins, as buildings are being torn down to make way for new developments like the Lincoln Center. Those will eventually push both the Sharks and the Jets out, further highlighting the pointlessness of their prejudice driven feud.