West Side Story

The Sharks dance in West Side Story

“I like to be in America, OK by me in America, everything free in America, for a small fee in America!”

Musicals have been declining in popularity since the 70s, but they used to be big business in the movie industry. Classics like Singing in the Rain, The Sound of Music, and even some that only recently got movie adaptations, like Les Miserables, are all revered as amazing films. West Side Story, a 1961 musical directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, comes from a changing era when the old classic musicals were still popular, but the world was changing and they were becoming less relevant. It attempts to bridge that gap by giving us a story set in inner-city New York about two rival gangs fighting for control of their turf. This is still every bit a classic musical, and having every gang fight take the form of a choreographed dance number does tend to understate the inherent danger, but this film does do a good job of remaining fully a classic musical while also addressing modern topics. It honestly does feel a bit dated today, but I still had fun watching it and many other modern viewers do too.

The story is an updated version of Romeo and Juliet, with two rival gangs representing the Montagues and the Capulets: the Jets, a group of white ruffians, and the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rico immigrants trying to make a name for themselves in America. The Jets decide to have one big fight to determine which gang will ultimately control the area, and to deliver their message, they choose Tony, a reformed Jet who’s now trying to make an honest living. Tony reluctantly agrees to give the message to Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. When he does, he meets Maria, Bernardo’s sister, and the two instantly fall in love. As you would imagine, this puts them in a very difficult situation, as Bernardo has already accepted the challenge and the showdown is looming. Tony and Maria try to form a meaningful relationship against all odds, but tension between their two gangs makes that tough.

All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns—with hate. Well, now I can kill too, because now I have hate!

This is a classic musical, and the main draw here is the impressive singing and choreography. The songs, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein, are well-written and clever, if a bit campy, and hold up to some of the best musicals in history. The choreography is equally impressive with all of the motions fluid and expressive. The actors and actresses worked hard to make their performances flawless and this film really pushed them to their limits. The song “Cool” in particular was so taxing on the actors that, when filming of that number wrapped up, the actors burned their kneepads to celebrate. The result is something really special. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of classic musicals, but this was so well-done that I had to appreciate it.

There were some changes from the theatrical production that I think really helped the movie version. Some changes were made just to conform to movie censorship standards of the time, but those were minimal lyrical changes that didn’t have much impact. What really helped was reframing the issue of race. In the song “America,” for instance, the original lyrics, sung by the Puerto Rican Sharks, more or less made fun of Puerto Ricans in a way that white audiences would laugh at. The movie changed the lyrics to be about how the Puerto Ricans were experiencing racism in America and how it made their new lives harder—something that challenged white viewers. Some other changes, like moving the humorous song “Officer Krupke” to be before the tone shift in the second half, really helped keep the movie serious when it needed to be. And the ending is significantly different that the original Romeo and Juliet. The outcome is more or less the same, but the method is totally different, and that really spoke to the issue of race more effectively than the original would have.

Tony and Maria, sitting on a fire escape, share a romantic moment in West Side Story
West Side Story did a great job of modernizing the original Shakespeare play. The romance between Maria and Tony, while rushed, feels pretty natural.

The tone of the film is interesting. The first two-thirds of the film are actually pretty light, considering the subject matter. I don’t know much about mid-century gangs in New York, but I doubt they called each other Daddio and I’m almost certain they didn’t sing songs to tell each other to get off their turf. I was honestly expecting something a lot darker, so the first bit of the movie was sort of disappointing to me. After the showdown that everything is building toward, the tone shifts and becomes much darker as the characters have to deal with the harsh reality of the situations their hatred has created. The drama became real and the ending became much more powerful after this tone shift, and the shift itself was really effective largely because the first bit of the movie was so light. If you’re watching this and the campy fun keeps you from enjoying it or taking it seriously, just be patient—there’s a big payoff in the end.

West Side Story is a great musical that bridges the gap between old-fashioned ones like The Sound of Music and the new rock musicals of the 70s, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it actually does pretty well in both categories. By today’s standards, it’s still somewhat old-fashioned, but its comments on racism and the timeless love story are still very relevant today and have a lot to offer modern viewers. If you’re looking for a good classic musical to watch or just want to catch up on this enduring classic, check it out!

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:33
Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Year: 1961
Genres: musical, romance
Rating: NR

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