West Side Story

English Title: West Side Story

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: Mirisch Pictures

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise

Producer(s): Saul Chaplin , Robert Wise, Walter Mirisch

Screenplay: Ernest Lehman

Cinematographer: Daniel L Fapp

Art Director: Boris Leven

Editor: Boris Stanford

Runtime: 152 minutes

Genre: Musical

Starring/Cast: Richard Beymer, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, Natalie Wood

Year: 1961

Volume: American - Hollywood

In the unbearable summer heat, teenage gangs battle for territory in this Romeo and Juliet update. The neighbourhood has been taken over by Puerto Rican Sharks, antagonizing The Jets, who claim the turf as their own. Small-scale encounters are policed by the jaded Inspector Shrank and his hopeless sidekick, Krupke. When the adults organize a social for the teenagers, Jet Tony meets Shark Maria and they fall instantly in love. Tony promises to stop the fight planned that night. The gangs meet, but despite Tony’s efforts, things get out of hand and both gangleaders – Riff and Bernardo – are stabbed. The gangs take to the shadows and, in revenge for the slaying of his mentor, Bernardo’s protégé Chino reports the tragic news to Maria and then goes off in search of Tony. Maria is distraught, but pledges to run away with him. As the net closes, she sends a message which goes wrong: Tony is told that Maria has killed herself, and he steps into the street begging Chino to kill him too. Just as Maria emerges from the shadows, a shot rings out, and Tony collapses: a final death that brings together the warring gangs in an uneasy – but hopeful – truce.

West Side Story stands apart from many musicals because it is so respected in almost all camps, and acclaimed for its dramatic power and social relevance, its score, and its innovative dance aesthetic. Jerome Robbins, credited with the original idea, was an acclaimed choreographer whose Metropolitan Opera ballets had been widely applauded; composer Leonard Bernstein, already successful with On the Town (1944), was highly respected as a virtuoso pianist and music director of the New York Philharmonic; bookwriter Arthur Laurents had written the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and would go on to write scripts for other key shows including Gypsy (1959); and lyricist Stephen Sondheim graduated to write such well-respected musicals as Follies (1971), Sweeney Todd (1979) and the Pulitzer-prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984).
The anecdotes are many: the show was nearly called East Side Story and was originally about Jews and Catholics; it was also rescued from being called Gangway!; original casting choices included Audrey Hepburn for Maria and Elvis Presley for Tony; and the film’s location-shooting on the streets of the Upper West Side stalled the development of the Lincoln Center.
It is a dated film, yet still enormously popular with audiences. The central performances lack subtlety by today’s standards; the script sounds forced and clumsy; and the colour palette is garish, especially given the liberal use of greasepaint. Yet there are memorable moments, not least the overhead cinematography of the opening sequence, emerging from abstract credits, accompanying the iconic whistle of the music’s prologue and capturing the heat and tension of streets in which everyone feels a stranger.
The updating of Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary milieu works well, as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version confirms. Since 1950s’ New York was a hotbed of interracial tension, the pitting of second generation European immigrants against newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants was absolutely topical. News reports of gang fights and street killings featured in the press even during the opening week of the Broadway show. The fact that the gang members of this story are just kids is resonant – they box above their weight, they play dangerous games, and they do not anticipate the consequences of their macho behaviour; in a twenty-first-century culture of knife-crime and urban anger, these are factors that make West Side Story a social parable that, even fifty years on, still packs a punch.
Whilst it may have contemporary resonance, it is also a product of its time, and it is worth considering the complex context of 1950s’ America, not only steeped in racial unease, but also recovering from World War ll and deeply embedded in McCarthyism. This film characterizes the contradictions of what has made America fiercely protective of its identity in the world and paranoid about ‘alien’ invaders. Nevertheless, the film is not entirely progressive, having received much bad press for its portrayal of Puerto Ricans as violent, misogynist thugs. A further insult was the casting of very few Latino performers (Rita Moreno’s Anita is about the only exception), which led to the film-makers effectively blacking-up their actors, an indicator of the very different attitudes towards race in this pre-civil rights period.
The irony is that these gangs come across as somewhat fey hoodlums with very little sense of threat. They are kids who claim territory in the playground and the school gym; they do not drink, do not swear, and display enviable vocal and dance prowess. This is gangland-lite, so as much as it engages with a serious issue from the dangerous streets of the urban ghetto, it also projects this to its middle-class audiences in a sanitized and palatable way.

Author of this review: Dominic Symonds