#354) West Side Story (1961)

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#354) West Side Story (1961)

OR “Sang Warfare”

Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Written by Ernest Lehman. Based on the play by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Class of 1997

The Plot: “Romeo and Juliet” gets a modern retelling in the 1950s urban jungle of New York’s Upper West Side. There’s an escalating turf war between two gangs of juvenile delinquents: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the all-white Jets. At a local dance, former Jets leader Tony (Richard Beymer) meets Maria (Natalie Wood) – sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris)- and the two immediately fall for each other. Both parties are warned about seeing “one of them”, but the two continue to meet in secret, unaware of their love’s inevitable tragic conclusion. Oh, and it’s a musical.

Why It Matters: Though the NFR’s write-up praises the film for being “even bigger and more elaborate” than the stage production, it points out that both Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are dubbed and miscast.

But Does It Really?: The original Broadway production of “West Side Story” was a watershed moment for theater, and the film has left a lasting ripple effect on American pop culture, but…it didn’t do much for me. The dance numbers are still electrifying and are matched by Bernstein & Sondheim’s untouchable score, but I couldn’t get into this film beyond its technical achievement. Ultimately, the miscasting of Natalie Wood is the film’s downfall, as is the then-common studio practice of dubbing all of the principles’ singing. “West Side Story” will always have a place in film history, but overall I don’t know if it holds up as well as people claim it does.

Everybody Gets One: Jerome Robbins was already a celebrated Broadway director/choreographer when he staged the original “West Side Story”. When approached by producer Walter Mirisch to choreograph the film, Robbins refused unless he could also direct. A compromise was reached: Robbins would direct the songs and dances, and the more experienced Robert Wise would handle the “book scenes”. Robbins’ extensive retakes led to the film going over-budget and behind schedule, and he was dismissed. “West Side Story” is his only film as a director.

Wow, That’s Dated: Of the main Sharks, Rita Moreno is the only one who is actually Puerto Rican; Natalie Wood is Russian, George Chakiris is Greek, and Jose de Vega is Fillipino. To make matters worse, Natalie Wood talks in a stereotypical Puerto Rican accent, and all of them wore dark makeup so that their skin tones matched.

Seriously, Oscars?: “West Side Story” tied “Judgment at Nuremberg” with 11 Oscar nominations and won 10, including Picture, the Supporting trophies for Chakiris and Moreno, and Director for Wise and Robbins – the first time that prize was shared. Robbins also received an honorary Oscar for his choreography. That’s all well and good, but what about “The Hustler”?

Other notes

  • The stage cast of “West Side Story” were bypassed for the film; deemed too old to convincingly play youths. Natalie Wood was cast for her star power, Richard Beymer for his all-American looks. Although both could sing, neither was up to the demands of the score, and were dubbed by, respectively, Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant.
  • One question about the overture: What am I looking at? I feel like Saul Bass phoned this one in.
  • The opening ballet is an exhilarating introduction to this movie’s world, but once we get to Riff and Tony (and an obvious jump from on-location to in-studio) the film loses some of its energy.
  • The real star of this movie is Jerome Robbins. His style has been parodied to death, and it doesn’t make sense for gang members to excel at ballet, but his choreography highlights the emotions and tensions of each scene. It is still exciting to watch almost 60 years later.
  • The problem with an HD transfer of an old movie is that you can see the process shots coming a mile away. The transition from the dance hall to the streets in “Maria” sticks out with great clarity.
  • “America” is the best number, led by charismatic turns from Chakiris and Moreno. Good thing the subject matter is no longer relevant and we acknowledge Puerto Ricans for the American citizens they are, right? …Right? [Nervous laughter, followed by loud sobbing]
  • Nice workaround using a fire escape for the balcony scene. In fact, the whole film follows “Romeo and Juliet” quite faithfully, but the updates are so natural you don’t notice.
  • “Gee, Officer Krupke” was in the second act of the play, but was swapped with “Cool” for the film. “Krupke” becomes especially superfluous in its earlier placing, but it’s a nice showcase of Russ Tamblyn’s acrobatics.
  • As Maria, Natalie Wood is her usual charming screen persona, but it’s impossible for me to get past her accent and dubbed singing. “I Feel Pretty” should be a lovely highlight of the film, but it comes off as an uncomfortable missed opportunity. Catchy song, though.
  • I know they’re just going off of “Romeo and Juliet”, but Tony and Maria need to slow their respective rolls. It has been less than a day!
  • The “Tonight Quintet” gets back to the film’s emotional core, and demonstrates how to successfully film a song that covers several characters at once. Thomas Stanford earned that editing Oscar.
  • As previously mentioned, “Cool” is now placed after the rumble, and makes for a better choice to relieve the tension of the previous scene. Between the famous opening riff and the finger snapping, this is the number that has become our cultural shorthand for “West Side Story”.
  • Man, we spend a lot of time with the Jets towards the end of the film. Wasn’t Natalie Wood in this at some point?
  • Rare for the early 1960s, the credits don’t appear until after the movie ends, preserving the film’s dramatic tension. Okay Saul Bass, you win this round.

Legacy

  • “West Side Story” is one of those movies where the cultural impact is an aesthetic rather than a specific moment. I suspect most people aren’t even aware they’re referencing the movie when they snap their fingers and emulate the choreography.
  • Wise and Lehman would reunite to adapt another acclaimed musical for the screen: “The Sound of Music”.
  • As of this writing, production is set to begin on a Steven Spielberg directed remake of “West Side Story”. The cast looks promising, and the creatives have a high pedigree, so I’m hopeful.
  • “West Side Story” had filmdom’s definitive finger snap for decades. If only Thanos hadn’t gotten the Mind Stone.
  • The stage version of “West Side Story” has played around the world in the last 60 years, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a production that eschews Jerome Robbins’ choreography or Joseph Caroff’s poster art.
  • Most notable of the film’s parodies is the Oscar-winning 2005 short film “West Bank Story”, which transplanted the rivalry to Israel and Palestine.
  • And of course, this is the breakthrough movie for the legendary, EGOT-winning, unstoppable Rita Moreno.

Listen to This: The “unequaled” original Broadway recording of “West Side Story” made the NRR in 2008. Cary O’Dell is once again on hand with a historical essay, as is a 2017 interview with Stephen Sondheim about all his NRR entries.

12 thoughts on “#354) West Side Story (1961)”

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