Look at West Side Story through a simple lens and you might see a Shakespearian classic given a 1950s face lift and set to music. It might seem antiquated, perhaps not as politically correct as we have come to expect, and maybe a bit regressive. However, this musical based off of the bard’s famed Romeo and Juliet is most definitely a thematic spectacle pulsing with song and dance. It’s full of romance, full of angst, all expressed through the motions of the human body. In an age where we often feel like we have come so far and know so much, maybe a film like this is good for us, if we take a step back for a moment.
Robert Wise’s film opens over the skies of New York and we are quickly introduced to the two competing forces that rule the streets with a “snappy” opening number. You have the local street gang, the Jets made up of delinquents of New York and the Sharks consisting of young immigrant Puerto Ricans. They hate each other for different reasons, but the bottom line is that they hate each other, and there’s no other way to slice it. A tiny scuffle broken up by Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke is only a small tremor of what is to come, but it sets the tone.
The Jet’s leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is looking to have a rumble with their bitter rivals and the neutral territory at the local dance is the perfect opportunity to set things up. Although people are having fun and it’s a grand ol’ time you can tell there’s unrest between the factions bubbling under the surface. The indubitably funny John Astin makes a valiant effort to get them all to be friends, but it doesn’t work so well. Bernardo (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks accepts the offer to have a war council, because he wouldn’t mind getting a piece of one of the Jets.
The glue that holds the narrative all together, of course, is the romance that buds on the dance floor when our star-crossed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) first meet. This is important because Tony use to be a Jet and is still the best friend of Riff. Meanwhile, Maria happens to be the younger sister of head Shark Bernardo. This is a relationship that’s not supposed to happen and yet their inhibited, naive passion disregards all else. He’s obsessed with a girl named “Maria.” That’s all he has, a name to go with a face and yet he’s infatuated. The singing of “Tonight” reflects how caught up in this dream they really are. And finally “I Feel Pretty” is Maria’s own exuberant reaction to the turn of events.
As an aside, Richard Beymer supposedly wanted play Tony rougher around the edges instead of a hopeless romantic, but ultimately it seems alright that he did not. Only because this film is not simply a drama where a nuanced performance would be suitable, but it is also a musical and a romance. In many ways we need his character to be as love struck and idealistic as he is. Because his song and his love story are a striking contrast with the world he and Maria live in.
With the rumble afoot the following night, it can only spell trouble for all involved. The moment that Tony promises Maria that he will try to stop the fighting, he is part of it. Things turn out as he could never have imagined. In fact, no one wanted things this way, revealing how big a difference one single day makes. Tragedy hits with a vengeance, making this a marvelous piece of cinematic expression, but also a jarring indictment of this broken world we live in.
All the choreography in the film is directed by Jerome Robbins, and it is beautiful to see the melding of something so graceful like ballet crossed with the street gangs of New York. There’s something inherently contradictory about it and yet the culture as well as the angst is revealed so beautifully. It can be smooth and slick with a group of buddies or violent with arms flailing, heads contorting, and bodies all over the place. But it’s never vulgar, the people might be, but the dance never is. It is always enjoyable to see George Chakiris dance, and he’s not the only one, from Rita Moreno, to a whole host of others. They move with such grace but it is never dull, because it has feeling. And that extends to their entire performances. In fact, Chakiris and Moreno are probably the most enjoyable, because they are far removed from the dreamy-eyed couple of Tony and Maria.
The composition by Leonard Bernstein is obviously outstanding and this is one of the famous soundtracks in musical history including the “Jet Song”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, and “I Feel Pretty.” However, I think I was especially interested in “America” and “Gee Officer Krupke.” The first puts to song the two conflicting perspectives that lead to civil unrest. There’s the idea that America is this land of opportunity and yet there’s also a negative flip side to this ideal. Also, the second song in a comical way comments on the treatment of the youth of America. From a film that might be seem outdated it has some pretty frank analysis of the never ending cycle that goes on.
In fact, if we give our society a good hard stare, have things really changed? Is our discrimination and racism better than that of Lt. Schrank or just veiled behind greater open-mindedness? Are people still hating one another, even when they might be more similar than they realize? Is our society working towards collective good or are we slowly “killing” it through our acts of hate? Even a likable fellow like the drugstore owner Pop (Ned Glass) brings into question those who are against the violence but don’t really seem to do much about it. Words don’t act unless the people behind them do. That can go both ways.
All this pops into my mind because of a musical from over 50 years ago where, yes, Natalie Wood was, unfortunately, playing a Puerto Rican. But hopefully, we can look past that for a moment and see the artistic merit here and then think for a moment what themes we might glean from this West Side Story.