West Side Story within the British Raj Context

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West Side Story and The British Raj are two completely different subject matters, but somehow can still relate to the present day. Within this essay you will be reading about how I plan to incorporate these two subjects together, to produce a new adaptation of the award winning show, West Side Story. By bringing these subjects together, we will get to create a new and interesting work of Theatre, that not only tells a tragic love story of two people who can't be together, but also a story on the British invasion of India. Therefore giving a entertaining and educational piece of Theatre.

The British Raj was the rule by the British Crown on the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947. This was put into place after the Indian war against the British. This was also when the crown was handed over to Queen Victoria (Royal.uk, 2019). It lasted until India was divided into two sovereign dominion states which were; The dominion of India, and the dominion of Pakistan.

West Side Story is a musical in which a modern day Romeo and Juliet are both either involved or has had past relation to New York street gangs. In the harsh and crippling streets of the upper west side, two gangs battle for control of the turf and domination. The situation becomes even more complicated when an ex gang member falls in love with a rival's little sister. Later on within this written piece, there you can find more information regarding these two subjects. Within this assessment there will be multiple elements of the process discussed, and how we have created this production.

Exploring the World of the Play:

From 1848 - 1947, Great Britain had complete control over India and some others around it, this is now known as ‘The British Raj’ (Wilson, 2019). In India, this word means government or rule. Within this time period, India changed into the country as we know it today. Britain at the time has a number of colonies, which are parts of the world that they control, before they decided to take over all of India. As well as the many other countries, India did not have the power at the time to fight back against Britain taking over, therefore, making the country divided and possible for the British to take over the whole region. In fact, some of the British leaders did in fact have the power in India for over 200 years due to a trade business owned by the British government. However, in 1858 Britain decided that they wanted to take over the whole region of India, after some of their leaders wanted to start a war for independence. This did not work in their favour as the British had a much better and powerful army, which lead to them winning and taking over the entire country.

The infamous West Side Story (Wikipedia, 2019) is an adaptation of the incredible story of Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2016) written by William Shakespeare (Britannica, 2019). Set in the 1950 upper New York, this story explores two gangs who are from different ethnic backgrounds, with the Sharks being Puerto Rican and the Jets being an all white gang. Tony, who is a member of The Jets, falls in love with Maria, who is the little sister of the gang leader of The Sharks, which doesn’t fall well with the others. To settle the matter as to who takes dominican on the street, both parties agree to have a rubble (a fight), in it falls complicated as Tony is in love with Maria. Against Maria’s will, Tony attempts to break the rumble but ends up killing the gang leader of the Sharks, Bernardo, who also happens to be Maria’s older brother. Tony a while later is told that the love of his live was shot by another character within the show and goes out to find him. He ends up finding Maria alive, but this happens just before he is shot to death at the end of the musical.

The reason as to why I have decided to do an adaptation of West Side Story including the British Raj, is because if I feel it is an important message that the show has about loving who you want and not worrying about what others think. In this day in age, a lot of people are worried about who they are, what they are, and even in different cultures around the world, arranged marriage is still accepted as normal. Culture is changing and I felt like it was time to revamp this amazing story, that has been around for many years. If you go to see West Side Story today, you will probably notice culture change throughout history that has happened for us to get here today, or maybe things hasn’t changed as much since the musical phenomenon has come out? Since 1950, there have been many changes not only in America but all over the world, and what better way to portray different cultures and times today, than to create a piece of theatre that most people know well, and are able to understand the context of the play also. Taking a piece of well known Theatre, and changing it slightly is a risk to do in the industry, but by doing this it gives out more interest and will therefore hopefully provide more people with information that they might not have known before.

For this adaptation of the production, in order for this to make a connection with The British Raj, some of the characters were in need of a slight ethnic change. My idea for this production is having West Side Story set in British Raj, and the character or Maria would be an Indian princess, and the character Tony would be a working class British boy. The Sharks will be Indian, and the Jets will be British; Maria - A young girl who finds herself in the middle of the conflict between the two gangs. In my adaptation, she is half Indian and half British, who is also the King’s daughter. Kutcha Butcha is a term used during the Raj which we found would be fitting for our adaptation of West Side Story. Kutcha meaning uncooked or under done and butcha as children. The colour of half baked bread, which in our production, Maria would be. This essentially refers to a mixed race child. During the Raj, mixed race children from Indian and British descent were accepted and adults were encouraged to interracially reproduce. This idea all refers back to the idea of belonging. Maria is town between two worlds, two halves of herself. Where does she belong?

Tony - A poor British boy who has fallen in love with Maria. He was a former leader of the Jets, but now has a new lifestyle that doesn’t involve gangs. Also torn between two world, to either go for the one he loves of stick by his friends. Finally decides to go for Maria but then if left with an unfortunate death. Anita - She is the feisty one of the group, and is the girlfriend of the King and is also Indian. She wants what is best for Maria but very much disapproves of the choices that she is making about Tony. As the King’s wife, she is highly respected within the community. Bernardo - (1858) British government took over the running of India. Raj is the Hindu word for sovereignty. This translates as supreme ruler, especially in reference to a Monarch. Bernardo takes over as King. In our version of West Side Story, Bernardo represents the power that Britain had over India after the rebellion. He depicts the brutality that was shown towards the people of Indian within this time. Bernardo truly believed that Tony was an intruder as he brought in a foreign army to essentially take over the crown, to end his reign.

Some of the key themes found in West Side Story are; Love - their love blossoms, trying to show everyone that fighting isn’t the answer. Loyalty - Tony is expected to stitch with the Jets, but is no longer apart of their gang, yet Maria is starting to hate Tony for killing her brother (The King) but returns her loyalty to Tony. Revenge - This is the main theme that drives the violence within the production. It is never known how or when this rivalry actually started. Youth - Compared to Romeo and Juliet, this story is a little bit kinder to its protagonists. They have passion and impulse that comes with being young. It ends in a tragaffy that always hits harder when youth is involved. Race - The film itself got a small amount of backlash about being racist. Compared to today, we are more accepting to the show, and are society has gotten over the anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Jets and Sharks may be rumbling over who has dominance and who takes power, but at the end of the day they are all losers within the little game they play with one another. They are powerless. While they fight over ownership, the police remind them that they can ruin their lives whenever they feel like it. The two gangs in West Side Story are essentially fighting against that as much as they're fighting against each other, and all of them secretly know how it's going to turn out. (Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008)

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All of the themes in the original script and our version are linked back to self ruling and imperialism. Here in Great Britain, we have always been keen on having our own independence and authority. We do not like other countries and power figures dictating to us how we should be running our country. However this fact becomes ironic due to the fact that we, Great Britain have never been good at giving other countries their independence. We Westernised other countries, ordering them how to dress and act in order to conform to our social norms.

Now ‘BREXIT’ has come into play, we are rebelling against other countries who are offering us a brexit deal. Great Britain is now showing a clear dichotomy between two sides, decided whether to leave or remain. However this is ironic because back in the 1850s (Raj) we sent convoys to India to set trading deals and to impose catholic views and victorian ways of living. We want to self govern again, which is definitely relevant to our history, that Great Britain is not so great at being ruled or controlled by others and yet across our history, our capitalistic approach, represented just that.

Rehearsal Considerations:

For this production, we are going to have 7 weeks to prepare for opening night. Sending off the scripts to the cast so that they can get familiar with their lines and who they are as a charger. This then means that they are then able to go away individually and research on the culture and who they are as a character. They will also have to consider how they will approach every scene and song, at least in terms of the overall effect they are wanting to achieve.

First Rehearsal - The full cast read through is done at this point in the process. Making sure that every body is clear of the story and understands their characters. As the weeks go on, there will be a vocal coach coming in to help with the accents so that they are able to get it correct. Day By Day - The first week or two is about playing around with what they want the scenes to look like, this means that there could be a lot of standing around, so others are expected to be off with the vocal tutor. When it comes too week 3 of the rehearsals, everyone should be off book and wearing something similar to their characters to make sure that they are able to move around easily and not get to on stage and struggle with the costumes. During this time choreography is going to be taught and learnt, this therefore means that the cast yet again are going to need to go away and research and understand Indian dance at that time period. Dance in India has many different styles that are normally classified as classic or folk. Just like other aspects of India, different dance styles have formulated all over the country and have developed according to local traditions and elements from others parts of the country. At the end of every rehearsal there will be a cast notes so that everyone is aware of what needs to be improved.

Costume Fittings - These are separate than rehearsal days and are done two weeks before the show opens. Making sure that everyone’s costume fits perfectly, and are able to move in them is very important. If they cant move on stage then the choreographer will have to alter the movement. Tech Rehearsal - Full cast and crew are needed for this part of the process.The whole show is walked through in performance order making sure that all the lights/sound and mics are correctly on cue. The cast will be in full costume so that they are able to sort mics out within the materials.

Dress rehearsals - More than one of these will be scheduled, as the performance includes moving set ect. This is the last time that as a cast we are going to be able to correct any technical issues that may still be around. Also, by doing dress rehearsals, it means that if anythings goes wrong with costuming eg, quick changes, then we are able to work our way around it and not ruin the show for a paying audience.

One important things that every cast member needs to have, is a strong speaking voice. This is because when they are stage, sometimes the voices can be drowned out by the theatre, so having a vocal coach will help them keep a healthy and strong voice for the show. Having a vocal coach will means that you will properly understand how you voice works and how to take care of it. Not only can they show you those things, but they can also help you with your character, and how they sound be speaking. For example, Bernardo is a strong character, he is a King, so having a powerful voice will help give of the information that he is important.

Practicalities Of The Production:

When we are in the royal household, there is going to be fabric dropped from the walls are ceiling, and we were thinking of having this as goldy/silky colours. Royalty at the time meant having lots expensive things and having statues that are just placed in the middle of the room. I imagined that when you walk into the King’s palace, you are suddenly created with a bunch of bright colours and expensive items. But when you get out onto the streets, you are surrounded by poverty and dull colours that show no colour whatsoever.

In this adaptation of West Side Story, we really wanted to keep the spirit of Indian culture alive, and make sure that all the vibrant colours that represent different things are still included within the story. Clothing in India changes depending on the different ethnicity, geography, climate, and cultural traditions of the people of each region of India. The known history of the Indian subcontinent dates back to about 5000 years. The first civilization known as the Indus Valley civilization, has archeological evidence of draped garments. The traditional clothing found in India would be a Sari and wrapped garments.

So in our adaptation, we wanted to make sure that all of these were depicted within the play. For example, the costuming for Maria and Anita, we wanted them both to be in red and gold dresses, so that we can see the link between the two as they are both classed as royalty. For Maria, we will have her upper body in traditional Indian garments with bright colours and for the lower half a victorian bustle dress with many layers. The layers mixed with our intense lighting will represent the heat and how bustle dresses were not appropriate for the climate and heat of India. We will have the bustle dress in dark monochrome colours to suggest that India had grown dark and depressing due to the invasion of British soldiers and how the identity of Indian culture was being stripped from the natives. we have red fabric or jewellery on her to make it more effective when we find out that her blood isn't as pure as others.

Bernardo, as the king, will be representing the British government who ruled India at the time. He will wear victorian clothing to depict the power westerners had at the time, but we will incorporate golden silky materials within his costume. The gold medals and material will symbolise an element of royalty and power and show a clear divide between him and his lowers, representing hierarchy as his ‘kings’ status.

As fabrics were in such high demand for the rich, this meant that it was far too much money for the poorer people of India to be able to have these nice clothes. They had to resort to wearing clothes that didn’t necessarily fit them and were handed down to them. Tony, as a poorer person, was lucky enough to have some nicer clothes, so I wanted him to be wearing brown trousers and a cream, dirty top. This is because he blends in with the crowd, when you see him amongst the richer people, you will distinctively be able to tell which one he is, as he will be wearing very beige colours compared to the others. At the time of The Raj, it was a very hot period, so we wanted to portray that within our lighting and set designs. So when it came to giving the audience an idea of them being in a hot country, we decided on using colours such as red/orange and yellow. We decided to use these colours because it will give a direct effect on the audience, by showing them what they had to wear at that time period in the scorching heat temperatures. By having the characters in the bustle dresses it will show how much material was being worn at the time.


The reason as to why I have chosen to contextualise West Side Story, is because it is still relevant to this day in age. People are still obsessed with waiting to be in control, and fighting over having authority or ownership on something. West Side Story and the British Raj are a direct relevance to this issue. With one being fictional, it brings out a more creative and theatrical side to the story, and the other side being truthful, and hopefully making the audience reflect on these issues, that have happened and continue to happen today. This production shows the multiple themes that the original had in it, such as; love, between the two main characters. Violence, which is shown between both parties of the fights, and finally youth. At the end of the day everything that the government or the people in power around the world do, has a big influence on the younger generation. They are counting on us to provide them with the kindness and love that they need to support each other.

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