Switching Roles Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Ernest Lehman's West Side Story are similar in many ways; however, in those comparisons there are some minor differences. Aside from the similarities between Romeo and Tony or Juliet and Maria, there are many other likenesses such as the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet and the fire escape scene in West Side Story. In Romeo and Juliet the scene starts off with Romeo listening to Juliet give her "What's in a name?" speech, and similarly, in West Side Story the scene starts off with Maria overhearing Tony singing "Maria." Because Lehman took the Romeo and Juliet story and developed a setting in more modern times, there had to be some parallels in the story, and Lehman suitably took an apartment fire escape to replace the famous balcony. However, there is a difference in that in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was the one talking, and Tony is the one who is singing, not Maria, Juliet's counter part.
Also, in Romeo and Juliet the nurse was calling Juliet to come inside from the balcony. In West Side Story, Lehman chose Maria's father to call her. In West Side Story, Anita is the nurse's role, but Maria has a close relationship with her parents, unlike Juliet whose best friend was the nurse. This part of the scene bears a very strong resemblance to the one in Romeo and Juliet, because there are really no character switches or major changes. Another similarity is that as Romeo and Tony are leaving, a time is set up for the lovers to meet the next day. Again, however, there is a difference. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo sets up the time and place that he and Juliet will meet the next day. In West Side Story, Maria sets up the time and place. This is another situation where the character roles are sort of switched. Lehman most likely had Maria set up the meeting because the bridal shop would be empty at closing. If they went to Doc's store, the Jets would most likely be there and treat Maria badly. To name another difference, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo sneaks up on Juliet and overhears her talking to herself. In West Side Story, Maria is on the fire escape of her family's apartment, and she overhears Tony singing about how he loves her, but, Tony sort of sneaks up on her, so technically both stories show likenesses in these scenes too. This is more suitable for the time period of West Side Story, because in the 1950's Maria would not be out in the evening without an escort. Again, there is the reoccurring theme of switched roles between the two stories. Throughout both plays, there are many scenes that coincide with each other; however, there are also minor differences in each one. One of these differences is the change in roles of the characters that Lehman used to fit the classic Shakespeare story into the modern time period. But, the fact that the stories are set in two totally different ages and settings, would make it difficult for the typically unknowledgeable person to know that Lehman adapted Romeo and Juliet to create his West Side Story.