Written by Tash Cope, Edited by Issy Smith
With the release of West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021) one number stands out and thus illuminates with new vigour the teenage rebellion that drives the narrative: ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. The Jets push back against all adults and forms of authority in their lives, and the self-awareness that this number highlights only seems to encourage them. The musical, throughout its history onstage and onscreen, has seemingly had a fascination with teenage rebellion and in many cases conveys this through musical numbers that allow rebellious freedom against the adults that aim to restrain them. Spielberg’s West Side Story is an adaptation of the 1957 Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim stage show—and the later 1961 film—of the same name, which is in turn inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Through its use of musical numbers it conveys this, however Spielberg achieves something altogether more powerful by creating a more dynamic and elaborately choreographed sequence to pit the boys against the law enforcement that holds them captive, hence literally constraining them which results in the boys pushing back in a more passionate and energised manner. The number sees them using the chairs and benches of the courtroom as props as they stand and dance on them: practically destroying the room and directly defying the orders of Krupke to stay sat down whilst he is gone.
Similar choreography can be seen in the musical Spring Awaking, created by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. Throughout the Broadway production, the cast stand on chairs and utilise them in numbers in order to convey rebellion in much the same way that West Side Story does in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. In Spring Awakening, characters stand on chairs whilst in school as a rebellion in much the same way The Jets do in the courtroom as they rearrange the furniture and thus repurpose an adult authoritarian space into one of defiance. Children are frequently told not to swing on chairs or play on them when they’re younger, and thus such scenes represent a rejection of childhood and a profession of autonomy against society that has constrained them for so long. It represents, especially in Spring Awakening, a departure from childhood and an entrance into adolescence that brings with it rebellion against the society that constrains them.
This can be traced back to the classical Hollywood musical, with The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) utilising the same props in order to symbolise teen defiance. In the ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ sequence, Liesl and Rolf dance on the benches of the pavilion following a number that begins with the teens admitting they are naïve with lyrics such as “totally unprepared are you to face a world of men”. The defiance here exists in conveying that these characters are too young to be engaging in the way they are. This is also exemplified by the way in which the scene concludes with a kiss following the dance sequence on the benches solidifying the depiction of sexual defiance occurring in this sequence, as the benches are repurposed in order to perform choreography that culminates in the building tension being resolved. Additionally, themes of teenagers exploring their sexuality for the first time are also integral in Spring Awakening and thus the rebellion at the heart of the narrative is largely the result of this.
In the 2006 original cast production of Spring Awakening during the musical number ‘Totally Fucked’, Melchior sits on a chair suspended at the back of the stage as he is physically separated from the rest of the cast with a prop that once represented rebellion now being used to constrain him. Prior to this number, the blame of his friend Moritz’s death is wrongly placed on him. Melchior knows he cannot fight these claims placed on him by the adults who impose authority throughout the narrative. He sings “you’re just a fly, the little guys, they kill for fun” and thus in many ways the lyrics of ‘Totally Fucked’ are alike to that of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, as the Jets also sing about the ways in which the world feels against them while they are also constrained in a court room. They sing “that’s why I’m a jerk”, which mirrors Melchior’s acceptance that he is “fucked alright and all for spite”. These numbers both occur in the second act, and are written in a major key despite the hopeless disenchantment with society they depict. Additionally, Spring Awakening is a rock musical in which folk and rock musical motifs predominate; rock music represents rebellion particularly for teenagers. Both ‘Totally Fucked’ and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ occur after the teens have been pulled into an oppressive authoritarian environment for questioning for crimes they haven’t committed and therefore what was initially adolescent rebellion becomes a target for legal enforcement in an environment completely out of their depth.
Following this, the reality of such rebellious disenchantments have narrative consequences, and numbers that occur towards the end of the second act such as ‘Those You’ve Known’ in Spring Awakening, and ‘Somewhere’ in West Side Story, are melancholic reminders of all that can be lost in youthful defiance to such authority. Both numbers are reminders that after so much loss, there is hope in memory, especially in a memory that promises development. In both examples, there is hope that the teenagers depicted may do better than their parents before them, as is conveyed in lyrics such as “there’s a place for us” in ‘Somewhere’, and “when you say there’s a way through this” in ‘Those You’ve Known’. Both numbers are once again written in major key, therefore giving a sense of hope despite the melancholic tone created by the slow tempo. Furthermore, in ‘Those You’ve Known’ Moritz and Wendla sing to Melchior as he contemplates suicide, and thus musically, their scales get progressively closer together as they come together to stop him going through with it. Wendla and Moritz literally meet in the middle onstage as Melchior is situated between them, this staging positioning him as the one who will instigate change as his friends sing to him from the grave. Furthermore, the number is composed of a soprano, baritone, and tenor vocals in order to create a distinct dynamic between the teens who share the stage in the penultimate number of the show. This contrasts against West Side Story as Rita Moreno sings ‘Somewhere’, looking back on a life and still hoping for better and an overcoming of harmful authority, whereas in ‘Those You’ve Known’, we see Melchior hoping for a better life ahead of him by choosing to live carrying the memory of his friends with him.