A part of myself has a soft spot for Hollywood musicals as together with film-noir, they were among some of the first of classic Hollywood films which I had grown around (Singin’ in the Rain was a favourite in my younger years, and still remains one to this day). One of those reasons as to why I still hold an attachment to musicals arises out from West Side Story, which always succeeds with pulling in myself towards all the energy it revels in while it lasts – a joyful, heartbreaking, and all-around blissful experience from start to finish. A glorious update from the setting of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this may very well be the one interpretation of the story that I enjoy the most. Like Maria sang, she felt pretty. That is certainly what West Side Story is, but more too.
One would already know what sense the story of West Side Story plays itself out to be if already familiar with the tale of Romeo and Juliet, we have two star-crossed lovers from differing groups who are unwilling to get along with each other and the trials before reconciling. Looking upon the updates which have been performed by West Side Story, we have a picture of the American dream being denied upon cultures who wish for a shot in some way or another – from the interactions between the Sharks and the Jets. Even with the dated picture through the use of slang on both ends of the spectrum, something sadder comes into play when we realize how strongly the message at hand still rings within our own age. No matter what group of cultures it may be, hatred still breeds and only tragedy can unite them.
It may not be easy to dismiss the obviously exaggerated accents especially from the Sharks (George Chakiris as Bernardo for instance) but the picture of hatred which emphasizes the tragedy in West Side Story builds up the emotional strengths which it contains. One can apply how the Sharks and the Jets may instead by a group of African Americans, Arab Americans, Asians, and the picture of hate from the two opposing groups still remains as intact with how the world is going. As stated in the prior paragraph, the fact that an extreme tragedy can unite the differing groups because of their aspirations towards the American dream is where a high level of effectiveness comes in. Behind the dated slang, it still rings true today with how hatred spawns within society in some way or another, and the damaging effect it leaves.
Like the Shakespearean tragedy which sets the backdrop, the romance in West Side Story does feel forced, but not in an extreme sense to which qualms come into play. It is forced especially when looking back at how much is going around them, but it never loses our interest. Maria and Tony play the archetypal Romeo and Juliet of the Shakespearean tragedy which inspired West Side Story, but the reason the tragedy behind the young love we are witnessing here is so effective is because of how Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins are willing to show the effects that the hatred from their ends is spewing. From the performances of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, the effects of this hatred become clear from the manner to which they emote towards one another, it is always compelling. In a contrast, we also have the hatred spewing from Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris, as it only builds up more and more from their actions. The accents, regardless of how unconvincing they may sound, soon do not matter when every emotion is handled so perfectly.
For how much I have talked about the brilliance of how true it still rings today especially with how tragedy unites everything, what is left is the beauty which it still contains as a musical. Whether it be the beauty of the dance choreography or the songwriting by the always wonderful Steven Sondheim, there’s a liveliness present that gives the feeling of watching all of it take place on the stage. The set pieces themselves carry the appearance of a stage, adding more to the blissful experience it presents through feeling much like watching on Broadway. The songs, no matter what it may be, you can choose from “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or “I Feel Pretty” (which admittedly makes me smile every time I hear it), are always candy for the ears but where an effectiveness comes in for how they bring us closer to the characters’ minds, for all the optimism and hatred that they emote.
I feel as if there are more things to go ahead and ramble about in regards to the sort of wonder that West Side Story always brings upon for a viewer like myself, but every viewing goes on to remind me about how it is a perfect picture of everything that I love witnessing when I watch a musical. Not only that, but the running social commentary to which it presents is still something that helps in creating an emotional pack for such a wonderful experience. It understands so perfectly how hatred continues to fuel the world we live in, and at the same time provides candy for the ears through the lovely music, much to the point that it evokes all sorts of emotions from the audience, just the way I want everything. West Side Story is, and for me, will always remain a perfect musical and a definite American classic.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, from the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents
Produced by Robert Wise
Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn
Release Year: 1961
Running Time: 153 minutes
I could not have said it better. West Side Story is always at or near the very top of my personal list of favorite films. To me, the music is what carries it most, a brilliant score from the opening notes onward. But as you point out, all the element work beautifully together to make an experience like no other. I like musicals in general, but this film surpasses them all. A masterpiece of American cinema.
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It’s truly something magnificent.
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