West Side Story - The Play and the City

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Take a virtual journey through the streets of New York that inspired West Side Story's set designs. 

New York City as Set

The 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story tried to bring the darkness, edge, and grit of New York City to the stage via choreography, costume, and music. Scenic designer Oliver Smith was part of that effort. For each scene, he built a stark, minimalized representation of the streets of Manhattan. Tenement buildings, flimsy fire escapes, graffitied walls, chain-link fences and towering bridge supports gave the production an air of tension and entrapment. This was an environment where characters had to fight for every scrap of power or hope.

New York City as Set

New York Tenements from Germantown to Chinatown

Many of West Side Story’s sets drew inspiration from tenement neighbourhoods. New York City’s tenements were crowded apartment buildings that were constructed to house ever-growing immigrant populations. In the early 20th century, most immigrants came from Eastern Europe. In the 1950s, Latin immigrants began displacing whites in some neighbourhoods, leading to the ethnic tensions captured in the play. Chinese immigrants have been a stable presence throughout the city’s history. Today’s Chinatown retains some of the insular, crowded character of earlier immigrant enclaves.

New York Tenements from Germantown to Chinatown

Vacant Lots

New York’s constant construction and complex infrastructure inevitably lead to empty spaces scattered across the city. These vacant lots—sometimes temporary, sometimes unintentionally permanent—can become the domains of the homeless, criminal gangs and others on the fringes of society. Chain-link fences, the signature of these spaces, figure prominently in Oliver Smith’s set designs for West Side Story.

Vacant Lots

Urban Wastelands

In the 1950s, car culture dramatically changed the structure and scale of American cities. Highways and bridges created unintentional barriers and open spaces, such as underpasses. These dark, confined, and neglected areas often became the settings for criminal activity, and they served as inspiration for Oliver Smith.

Urban Wastelands

Fire Escapes

As building codes became stricter in the 19th and early 20th centuries, external metal fire escapes became an essential part of multi-story apartment buildings. Intended as safety features, they also became balconies and hangout spaces for people living in confined, crowded apartments without air-conditioning. Fire escapes became a quintessential visual element of New York City architecture and an important element of Oliver Smith’s set designs for West Side Story.

Fire Escapes

Graffiti

As youth crime and gang activity rose in New York City in the 20th century, so did the prevalence of graffiti. The painted scrawls on the West Side Story sets were early hints of a spray-painted explosion that covered the city’s buildings, bridges, subways, and even cars and buses in the 1970s through the 1990s. Over those decades, graffiti evolved from simple personal and gang signs—tags—to complex works of public art.

Graffiti

Teenage Hangouts: Drug Stores to Bodegas

In West Side Story, the Jets’ hangout is Doc’s Drugstore. A ‘drugstore’ in the 1950s was far more than a pharmacy—it was an all-in-one convenience store that offered candy, newspapers, cigarettes, and magazines. Many drugstores had lunch counters and served ice cream. Today’s urban bodegas serve much the same purpose, offering cheap, convenient food, sometimes 24 hours a day. Many of New York City’s bodegas, delis and convenience stores are owned by immigrants or the children of immigrants and serve immigrant communities.

Teenage Hangouts: Drug Stores to Bodegas
Credits: Story

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