Archive | 1961 RSS feed for this section

West Side Story (1961)

18 Mar

west_side_story_1961_685x385.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ll just say right off the bat that I hardly know anything about the Broadway play Robert Wise’s 1961 cinematic musical “West Side Story” is based on. I can’t speak on behalf of changes that were made to meet movie standards in the 1960s (though I know it was heavily censored). I’m just reviewing it as a movie. As it was meant to be.

“West Side Story” is a musical based on the acclaimed Broadway play of the same name, at the time told as an updated version of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The story is set in the late 1950s in New York’s Upper West Side and is centered on the feud between two rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks, standing in for the Monatgues and the Capulets. The Jets are all-American white kids who have nothing better to do with their lives than rule the local playground. The Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants now living in the United States, are the rivals of the Jets. Standing in for Romeo and Juliet, who each belonged to one of the two rival groups, are Tony and Maria. Tony (Richard Beymer) is the former leader of the Jets and now has a job as a delivery boy. Maria (Natalie Wood, sporting a shaky accent) is the sister of the leader of the Sharks. Tony and Maria spot each other at a public gathering (a dance), share a nice dance together, and fall in love with each other even when they know one represents what the other is told to hate.

In “Romeo and Juliet,” Romeo and Juliet themselves are arguably the least interesting elements of the story. The same goes for Maria and Tony in “West Side Story” (and it doesn’t help that stiffly-accented Natalie Wood and just-plain-stiff Richard Beymer are miscast in the roles*). But the reason both stories (“Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story”) are celebrated is not because of the two romantic leads but because of what their tragedy means for the rest of the characters that surround them. The two are from warring factions in a community, and they want what no one else wants: to get to know one another because of their differences rather than in spite of them. Their tragic tale is that they weren’t given the chance to fully develop their relationship, because their families and friends were so blinded by their own prejudices against the other group they saw as not worthy of belonging amongst them. Romeo and Juliet say sweet-nothings to each other, they have nothing particularly interesting to say, and they were denied the opportunity to explore where a possible relationship could go. So is the case with Maria and Tony. (Yeah, I know, spoiler alert, but if you know “Romeo and Juliet,” the story structure shouldn’t surprise anybody. There are no happy endings.)

The supporting players are memorable and well-defined. George Chakiris plays Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Of course, he’s going to be angered and ticked off about his sister falling for the former leader of the rival gang, but as we see in the “America” musical number (which I’ll get to soon), we understand more of why he feels this certain way. And it’s to Chakiris’ credit as an actor that even when we want him to shut up and see what he doesn’t want to see, he carries the screen with a solid, charismatic presence. (He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.) Rita Moreno, who took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, plays Maria’s personal friend, Anita, and she’s very effective as well. (And as far as I know, she’s one of the few key performers whose singing voice isn’t dubbed**.) Also terrific is Russ Tamblyn, the cocky present leader of the Jets.

I was very surprised, and kind of upset, by just how much “West Side Story” holds up in presenting difficult social issues, such as senselessness of gang conflict and racial prejudice. It is a big, bombastic musical, and there is a lot of singing and dancing (and even prancing), but that doesn’t mean it shies away from these things. (And this is from the ‘60s, so its representation of these issues is somewhat naive by today’s standards, but it still works.) I obviously wasn’t alive at that time, but take out the singing and dancing, and for all I know, it could be how gangs of different races did see each other back then… I don’t know; moving on.

It is a musical, after all. How’s the music? Wonderful. Many of the songs (including the Jets’ anthem, “Jet Song”; Tony’s premonition song, “Something’s Coming”; the “Tonight Quintet,” in which all key cast members predict something big to come by the climactic finale; and more) are excellent, memorable, well-produced, and well-performed. The most telling song in the film for me is “America,” a song performed by the Puerto Ricans about both the good and the bad of being an immigrant in the United States. (Oh, how far society hasn’t come.) Among the key lyrics—when the optimistic women sing, “Life is all right in America,” the pessimistic men counter it with “If you are white in America.” There are many points and counterpoints in this one song, and overall it delivers great insight into the Puerto Rican women who have great hope for the American Dream and the Puerto Rican men who have been disillusioned by the gang strife and the dead-end jobs, among other aspects of the so-called “American Dream.”

So that’s all well and good on an aural level—what about on a visual level? Outstanding! The choreography with the actors/dancers is amazing—you can tell Wise and his choreographers worked their feet off to create just the right staging for each individual role in the musical numbers, and it shows. In particular, I’ll never forget the lyric-free 10-minute dance number that introduces the feud between the Jets and the Sharks as they walk along the streets of the West Side. It’s wonderfully done. This is everything I look for in a good musical.

Some parts campy, some parts genuine, almost always lively and energetic, “West Side Story” is a lovely cinematic musical that I’ll more than likely revisit many times in the future. Maybe even more than Wise’s subsequent musical, “The Sound of Music.”

*Maybe I’m too harsh on Wood and Beymer. Though I do think they’re miscast, they are trying, at least. And they do have some charming moments, particularly when they’re alone together and contemplate telling their parents about their plans to propose marriage—give that scene credit; it’s probably more interesting than anything Romeo and Juliet ever talked about.

**I was wrong. She was dubbed for one song.

Advertisements