West Side Story

Based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, West Side Story takes us into the heart of New York’s Upper West Side in the mid-1950s. The film opens with aerial shots showing the enormous scope of the city. But little by little it comes closer and closer down to the people in this neighborhood.

1961 - West Side Story posterHere two teenage street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are bitter rivals in a turf war. And just like Romeo and Juliet, Tony (a former Jet) and Maria (sister of Bernardo, the Sharks gang leader) fall in love. And just like the Montagues and Capulets nobody is happy about it, especially because in this version the issue of race is front and center.

The members of the Sharks are from Puerto Rico and the Jets are a white gang. The film was made just 4 years after the musical’s Broadway debut so I’m pretty impressed at how honestly Leonard Bernstein (music) and especially Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) tackled race relations in the late 50s. The gritty theme, complex musical sequences, dynamic dance scenes, and focus on modern social issues really marked a defining moment in American musical theatre.

“Maria,” “America,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere” are just some of the iconic songs in this musical.

The film adaptation stays true to the play. Even more than a musical, even more than Shakespeare, West Side Story is Broadway. The way they walk, talk, act, sing and dance…it’s all Broadway. Even the sets look like they’re on stage.

1961 - West Side StoryFrom the very beginning even the tough guys dance through the streets. Rival gangs “fight” through choreographed dance sequences. I don’t mean choreographed fights. I mean choreographed dancing to represent the fight. Sure, there are some punches thrown but in the midst are pirouettes, leaps and twirls.

But I’m not saying that as a complaint. Frequently film versions of musicals just feel like someone set up a camera and shot the play. But because the direction and cinematography are so top notch the “stage quality” doesn’t come across like something less but rather something more.

The great Saul Bass’ overture backdrop acts like a curtain ready to rise. The color changes along with the music. It’s the most effective overture in a best picture winner so far.

Bass was also consulted for the overall visual look of the film and boy does it show. The way it was shot is so stylistically intentional. The colors, the lighting, the framing of the musical sequences. You can see its influence on La La Land.

Rita Moreno is dazzling as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s closest confidante. She BY FAR exudes more sex appeal than any woman in a best picture winner so far. After last year’s winner The Apartment, West Side Story continues the more relaxed portrayal of male and female relationships. Even though it’s firmly a Broadway musical, the relationships are much more realistic than we’ve seen in most of the best picture winners from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

However the acting is hit and miss. Moreno and George Chakiris (Bernardo) won supporting Oscars and Simon Oakland as Lieutenant Schrank is very good. But Natalie Wood (Maria) is only OK and Richard Beymer (Tony) doesn’t have much charisma or star power and his voice isn’t that great.

There were a number of other actors considered for the role of Tony. It’s a little mysterious how Beymer beat out guys like Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds and Anthony Perkins. Elvis and Bobby Darin actually turned it down. Can you even imagine?

Speaking of vocal prowess, gotta give a shout out to Marni Nixon who did all of Natalie Wood’s singing. She did the same for Deborah Kerr twice (The King and I and An Affair to Remember) and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

It’s a little on the long side. At 2-1/2 hours there’s probably a good 20 minutes or so that could have easily been trimmed down. But the end is strong and completes the story nicely. If you’re familiar with Romeo and Juliet you can figure out how this tragedy ends.

West Side Story became the third film in the last four years to win 9 or more Oscars. Those films combined for 40 Oscars out of 42 nominations.

For the first time, two directors (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) shared the best director award.

Robert Wise had already directed nearly 30 feature films but he had not experience directing a musical. Jerome Robbins, who had directed West Side Story on Broadway, was brought in to direct the musical and dance sequences. But about a third of the way into production the producers got concerned that the film was running over-budget so they fired Robbins. From that point on the dance numbers were directed by Robbins’ assistants. But even though Robert Wise directed the vast majority of the film he recognized that Robbins’ creative contribution to the film was significant and agreed he should be given co-directing credit.

Apparently Wise learned a lot from Robbins about directing a musical because he’d turn around and do it again 4 years later in a little production called The Sound of Music.

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