I’m generally not into musicals, but West Side Story is an exception. I saw it in high school, and I liked its retro cheese factor. Now that I’ve seen it as an adult, I love it—for quite a few reasons I didn’t appreciate back in high school.
The cast here is flawless. Russ Tamblyn as gang leader Riff—well, he’s a Jet all the way ‘til his last dying day. Richard Beymer brings a sweet and likable innocence to Tony. George Chakiris as Bernardo oozes mystery, menace, and machismo. Susan Oakes plays Anybodys with just the right amount of sexual ambiguity. Somehow, Natalie Wood as Maria, a Puerto Rican, works. And who doesn’t love Rita Moreno as Anita?
The story is clever: a modern, urban American adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Manhattan street gangs the Jets and the Sharks instead of Verona houses the Montagues and the Capulets—an S.E. Hinton novel with dancing. Very cool!
Dance at the Gym
Speaking of dancing, yes—gang members snapping their fingers and pulling ballet moves as if they’re in a Michael Jackson video is corny. But it works. Jerome Robbins does breathtaking choreography here. The shots are big, colorful, energetic, and visually stunning. My favorites are the exteriors at the beginning: I feel dizzy, I feel sunny, I feel fizzy and funny and fine. West Side Story is definitely a film for the big screen.
Needless to say, the songs are classic. I’ve known them forever—some before I knew West Side Story. Written with Leonard Bernstein, this was Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway debut (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story). His trademark wit shines through the lyrics and the rhythms. I’ll always think of my friend Frank, who sang songs from West Side Story as he did dishes when we were roommates in college.
Despite its silly corniness—a large part of its charm—West Side Story is dark. It raises a lot of issues still prevalent today: race, delinquency (though we call it “thuggery” today), hate toward “immigrants.” Despite the many light moments here, the dramatic scenes are dramatic; they make you forget, albeit momentarily, the light stuff. The gym dance, the rumble, and the scene where Anita goes to Doc’s store to give a message to Tony are all suspenseful and intense. The final scene in the basketball court is a real tearjerker.
A large part of West Side Story was filmed on a soundstage, but it still nails the look and feel a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore.
Did I miss anything here?
In 1997, the United States Library of Congress deemed West Side Story “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
(Music Box) A
Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival