West Side Story retains a special place in my heart, being raised on music and Broadway musicals in my formative elementary school and junior high years. Original cast recordings and movie soundtracks of the classic Rogers & Hammerstein musicals were a staple at home, and I’d spend many hours listening to the songs, memorizing lyrics, reading the jacket descriptions, and visualizing the play. The one musical that stood out was West Side Story, and I wanted to see the film badly after seeing the trailer at the age of 13.
My parents flatly forbid me to see it. "It's about gangs," they said—end of discussion. The year was 1961.
If my parents were so worried about the story corrupting me, they should have prevented the soundtrack album from entering our home. The music already told the story—that's the nature of the beast when considering the better Broadway musicals. Six years later, West Side Story was re-released into theaters, and I was finally able to see it on the big screen—very much as I had already imagined it so many times while listening to "Cool," "Somewhere," and "Tonight."
Viewing the film now, it's laughable to think that its subject matter is harmful to adolescents. Gangsta rap, television, and more realistic movie dramas have created a paradigm shift. Where else will you see choreographed gangs singing and dancing on the streets with absolutely NO profanity, except in a musical play?
As unrealistic and dated as this sounds, West Side Story continues to hold up today, as long as the viewer buys into the musical protocol. Credit Leonard Bernstein's genius for creating music that stands the test of time, and Stephen Sondheim for lyrics that carry the story forward while retaining a freshness often lacking in other musicals from the 1950s.
Based on the hit Broadway sensation of 1957 that sets Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan's west side, the Polish Jets gang replaces the Montagues, and the Puerto Rican Sharks take on the role of the Capulets. Acting and singing are not necessary for the leading role of Maria—Natalie Wood is chosen for box office appeal (coming off her teen appearance in Rebel Without a Cause), with her singing dubbed by ubiquitous Marni Nixon, who will perform the same duties for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Playing her Romeo is Richard Beymer as Tony, who carries off the role fine in medium and long distance shots, and more awkwardly at close range. But it's no big deal—the music and choreography carry the day.
To fit juvenile delinquent standards, the adults are even less prominent and effective than they are in Shakespeare. No parents are ever seen on screen. Doc, owner of the candy store, takes on the Friar Lawrence role, a caring man who inadvertently passes on bad advice. The only other adults are the clueless Glad Hand (John Astin), who thinks the way to harmony lies in forced games at community dances; the racist hard-assed Lieutenant Shrank (Simon Oakland), who futilely seeks the next gang rumble and the beat cop Officer Krupke (William Bramley), who becomes the object of an insightful song that illustrates the impotency of the juvenile justice system.
Winning two of the film's ten Oscars are both leading Sharks characters for supporting roles—George Chakiris as Bernardo and Rita Moreno as Anita. The saucy Moreno dazzles throughout, most notably in the high spirited "America" where her purple-dressed dance routine stands as one of the most exhilarating ever performed on screen. Her musical delivery is impeccable as well, the knowing jabs exchanged with Bernardo about Puerto Rico and the American dream highlight and are sincerely rendered:
Puerto Rico . . .
The major strength of the film lies with the powerful music, a hip, jazzy urban sound that continues to resonate. Sequences that incorporate the music best are the scenes that strike a chord visually and remain in memory. Of course, borrowing play choreographer Jerome Robbins (arguably the greatest in Broadway history) to co-direct with Robert Wise guarantees musical sensitivity. Besides the "America" sequence, two others stand as icons in musical history, nearly as memorable as Gene Kelly cavorting in the rain:
You ugly island . . .
Island of tropic diseases.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing . . .
And the money owing,
And the babies crying,
And the bullets flying.
I like the island Manhattan.
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!
The opening sequence—the overture on an abstract of the southern tip of Manhattan, changing colors from yellow to blues for "Maria" to reds for a Puerto Rican number before clearing to reveal Manhattan (pre-World Trade Center days) and some inspired overhead tracking shots of well known landmarks—the Verrazano Bridge, the UN Building, Empire State Building, Yankee Stadium, Columbia University, and scanning over more and more congested tenement buildings before closing in on a single playground to a close-up of Jets’ leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and his snapping fingers.
Not doubting the power of Bernstein's evocative music, Wise still finds ways to make it more effective. He changes the order of some musical numbers from the stage play to great advantage. In particular, "Cool" is much better placed after the rumble where it adds intensity to the final scenes, and earlier the comical "Officer Krupke" eases the tension, despite its tongue in cheek humor.
"Quintet"—before the rumble, five factions all reveal their thoughts through song—the Jets prepare to "have their way tonight," the Sharks are going to "cut em down to size tonight," Anita is going to "have a private mix tonight," and Tony and Maria separately dream that "tonight won't be just any night." Each of the five begins with separate verse but Bernstein ingeniously mixes them together simultaneously to form a truly amazing finale that knocks your breath out!
Although high school teachers love to compare West Side Story to Romeo and Juliet, that has become so cliché that students nationwide should rebel and insist on tackling the musical on its own merits. It certainly doesn't shy away from tough sociological questions that continue to plague society forty years later. The light-hearted "Officer Krupke" song asks some very tough questions about the nature of juvenile delinquency and how to tackle it, and "America" confronts racism head on. Questions of loyalty, peer pressure, and seeking independence are all addressed.
These numerous strengths make up for any weaknesses in the film. Modern audiences may chuckle a bit at the squeaky clean language—they don't even use the word "crap," substituting a more awkward "crud." And some of the visual techniques feel clunky compared to more up to date methods—the blatant framing of Tony and Maria by blurring the surroundings or darkening the borders, for instance. But taken as a whole, West Side Story stands proudly alongside other musicals that retain their relevance. The play will certainly enjoy future revivals, but check out the film version. It has weaknesses and flaws, but is worth revisiting every few years. Baz Luhrmann should have taken more careful notes from Wise and Robbins, but then again, he didn't have Rita Moreno to work with.