Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.” The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins. Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.
I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation). None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet. But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.
Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center. I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie. As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.
Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno). While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant. The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.
The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris). The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers. Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.
Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic. The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings. Of course, the song and dance numbers are great. I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.” And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling. And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton” is made of stronger stuff than me.