⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ The author can’t capture the music and dancing of the musical, but he makes up for it with backstories that build on the plot in interesting ways.
🖋 🖋🖋 The story is written in that pulpy, mass market paperback style so popular in the 1960s, and for the most part it still works. Some of the dialogue feels archaic and the writing melodramatic, but in the end this style fits. West Side Story has always been a romantic, almost overripe melodrama, and pulpy writing captures that atmosphere without making it overwrought.
Published November 16, 2021 by Gallery Books (first printed in 1963)
Written by Irving Shulman, based on the play conceived by Jerome Robbins
Genre: Fiction, Romance
🔪🔪🔪🔪 Various scenes of gang violence, stabbings and shootings, references to weapons. Blood and gore are always minimized, with more emphasis on how people react to the story.ove the plot forward). None of the sex scenes include much detail, but one has quasi-violent undertones.
🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 There is one scene which features an attempted rape, described with no anatomical details.
💣 Occasional use of 1960s racial slurs, or dated slang.
💋💋💋 One sex scene described with minimal detail, a fight scene involving attempted rape, and various scenes of teenagers referencing sexual activity.
Whether you’ve seen the story on stage, watched the 1961 film or Steven Spielberg’s remake, West Side Story is a story that continues to enchant new generations. This novelization by Irving Shulman puts the musical’s dialogue and plot in book format, with some changes. Since musical numbers don’t translate into novel scenes, one dance scene (Tony and Maria meeting at the community center’s dance) remains, the others are left out. New lines of dialogue supplement scenes, making up for moments where musical solos moved the plot along.
Shulman also gives characters more backstory. Maria and Benardo’s parents show up in several scenes, instead of being offstage the entire time. Tony’s family life (where his father is, his own immigrant status since he was born in Poland) gets more detail. Minor characters – particularly Baby-John, a young Jet with a passion for comic books – get fleshed out, becoming more than just side roles. Shulman uses a third-person narrator voice to give setting details about 1960s New York City, and the role that gangs played in its culture.
Given that this novel is based on a musical, one would expect it to rehash the musical’s plot without adding much. In fact, Shulman makes some clever additions. Adding the aforementioned backstories lets him probe the characters’ motivations, making it clearer what drives their destructive behavior. The narrator’s voice lets him describe past events – what kind of violent acts the Jets and Sharks usually do, etc. – which highlight how the Jets and Sharks affect their neighborhood. The musical focuses on how the Jets and Sharks interact with each other, their rivalry that feels so all-important. Shulman shows how everyone outside the gangs see both gangs a threat, and comments on just how many other gangs are in New York City.
These narrator’s details add interesting commentary to the story. Showing how subjective the Jets and Sharks are makes it clear that their justifications (“protecting the street from outsiders”) are flimsy. It also helps Shulman put one of the musical’s implied themes in the forefront: this is a story about people busy dying young. They live violently and not for very long, unless they find something beyond the gangs. This makes Tony and Maria’s doomed love affair, their chance to find something new, all the more tragic. West Side Story isn’t quite the same without the music, but this novel shows that a good musical’s plot is compelling on paper as well.
Reviewed by G. Connor Salter
G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.