Scene Analysis | Heartbreak in a Note: Anticipating the Rumble in “West Side Story”

The second act of West Side Story (1961) starts on a romantic note, but the film’s gang war soon sours romance into rumble. Even as Tony and Maria make plans to run away from the West Side, the tension between the Jets and the Sharks threatens to destroy their relationship before the lovers get their chance. Act II realizes this contrast between love and violence in its third musical number, “Tonight – Quintet,” in which the plot strands developed in the solo and ensemble numbers of Act I compete against one another and seek to drown each other out.

The quintet sequence opens on the Jets and the Sharks preparing for the rumble, each gang intent on felling the other, “stopping them once and for all.” Meanwhile, Anita dresses up for Bernardo, the Sharks leader, in front of her dresser mirror, singing an eerily knowing lyric, “we’re gonna mix it tonight.” Anita’s words refer to her love affair with Bernardo, but also reference the concurrent Jets-Sharks violence brewing. At this point in the story, Maria, Anita and Tony all harbor the delusion that the rumble will be a fistfight, but the gangs stretch chains and brandish wrenches to the contrary. The scene cuts to an oblivious, grinning Tony outside Doc’s candy shop, crooning for Maria, while she herself sings for him on her family’s fire escape; both relish their plans of “seeing my love tonight.” In doing so, they reprise their love duet from Act I, and Tony’s emphatic “today” glides over the ominous brooding of the warring teenagers and longing lovers, underscoring the multiple tragedies about to scar the West Side. Colliding shots of murderous faces quicken the film’s pace, sweeping along both Tony and the viewer to the story’s violent climax. Lieutenant Schrank helps increase the film’s preoccupation with accelerating time, glancing down at his watch while Officer Krupke steers their squad car to the fight.

As an ecstatic Tony leaves Doc’s and walks toward the fight, shots of the Jets and the Sharks are rapidly intercut against the orange sunset and black-silhouetted rooftops. Night is falling, and the murderous rumble draws nearer, regardless of Tony’s expectations. Both in action and orchestration, the scene crescendos into his outburst lyrics, accompanied by Maria much higher up on the musical staff: “Today, the minutes seem like hours/The hours go so slowly/And still the sky is light.” The naivete of the lyric, “the hours go so slowly,” clangs tragically with the film’s now determined acceleration of pace.

Tony and Maria’s “today” hearkens to the daytime of their mock wedding scene, back when the film celebrated love and hope. The second syllable of “today” punctures the scene’s cacophony for a moment, attempting to retain the daytime when the gangs’ conflict had not escalated, and Tony and Maria’s love was unthreatened. Tony sings this note as an innocent lover and not yet as the tortured killer he becomes by night’s end. This discordance with the bloodlust surrounding him lends tragic power to his vibrato. The note laments the film’s central deadly enmity, and yet leans into the violence of the coming act. The “today” that Tony sings about is long gone. Night has fallen, and the rumble’s deadly proceedings are about to begin.

Larry Cherkasov is a film enthusiast from Brooklyn, NY who loved frequenting the Brattle while studying at Harvard College.

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One Comment

  1. kevin mcgrath
    August 24, 2018

    Wonderful critical engagement here, by Cherkasov … His perceptions and comprehension of this cinematic drama is precise, challenging, and deeply informative of the drama’s historical context … Let’s see more soon from this critic …

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