West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Written by Ernest Lehman from the musical play by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
1961/USA
The Mirisch Corporation/Seven Arts Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Action: When *you* was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age… You was never my age, none of ya! And the sooner you creeps get hip to that, the sooner you’ll dig us!

This movie was made for musical comedy/ballet/opera geeks like me and I love it.

This is famously Romeo and Juliet updated to reflect gang life in New York City.  The Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the Jets, a gang of working class “white” teenagers, and the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants.  Tony (Richard Behmer), who is trying to go straight after having been leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks.  The Jets and the Sharks are already locked in gang warfare and the attentions of Tony to Maria only escalate matters.

The feud leads to tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.  With Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s girlfriend and Russ Tamblyn as Riff, Tony’s friend and new leader of the Jets.

I assisted the director of my high school production of West Side Story and it has a special place in my heart.  But besides nostalgia, I continue to think that the music is some of the best ever written for the stage. Bernstein’s score gives me chills in places.  I can see how some might find all the pointy toed dancing by gang members and their girls ludicrous but I just sit back and enjoy it.  Rita Moreno absolutely deserved her Academy Award even if George Chakiris remains a puzzlement.  Highly recommended to others like me.

The Blu-Ray that came in the mail contained a song-specific commentary by Stephen Sondheim that I ate up.

West Side Story won ten Academy Awards – Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress; Best Director; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color; Best Costume Design, Color; Best Sound; Best Film Editing; and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.  It was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

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4 thoughts on “West Side Story (1961)

  1. I always feel a little guilty saying that I don’t love West Side Story. I think it’s a grand and beautiful presentation and production. I can’t fault any of it except for one thing: I hate the story. Romeo and Juliet is probably my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s definitely my least favorite of his popular ones. That really gets in the way of my enjoyment, even when the movie is as well-made and has so many good performances as this one.

    • I don’t mind Romeo and Juliet so that’s not a problem for me. I remember really digging Zeferelli’s version when I saw it in the theater way back when. We’ll have to see how it holds up.

  2. I have some problems with vintage musicals, but I surrender to this one. The subject matter has relevance and the music is quite agreeable. Some of the pointy toed gang dancing definitely is ludicrous, though 😉

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