At the time, it was a sensation. In 1957, no one had seen anything like it. While Meredith Wilson’s more mainstream The Music Man would walk away with the Tony Award that year, Broadway was really buzzing about a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set amongst the juvenile gangs of New York. Originally entitled East Side Story and centered on the Catholics and Jews of the city, the concept was later ported over to the growing Puerto Rican population. Thus West Side Story was born, a show unlike any the stage or its frequenters had experienced before. Marking the Great White Way debut of Stephen Sondheim and the continuing climb upward of both composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, it was eventually translated to the big screen and earned 10 Oscars in the process.
Still, for many, West Side Story (Now available in a remarkable Blu-ray release) is an anomaly that belies its late ’50s formation. As a stage play, Robbins rewrote the rules regarding dance, putting his cast through grueling rehearsals to achieve an amplification of the innovations began by icons such as Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille. The semi-salty language of the libretto and the decision to avoid some of Shakespeare’s darker tragedies also indicated as desire to bend the rules and seek new directions. Still, when the time came to make the movie, talent was tossed aside for looks and star power. Two non-singers – Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood – were cast as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria (Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon provided the voices, respectively) and the rest of the company contained holdovers from the Great White Way as well as unknowns and newcomers.
It was typical Tinseltown – take a fantastic show…say, My Fair Lady…employ some from the original run, and then plop a tone-deaf celebrity (Audrey Hepburn for a role originated by Julie Andrews…really?) in the center and expect that moviegoers won’t care. Granted, they didn’t, but that wasn’t what was important. While producers gave Wood and Beymer a chance to sing, they ended up carefully mixing the former with her off-screen chanteuse while giving the latter a couple of lines here and there. Luckily, everyone else – George Charkiris as Shark’s leader Bernardo, Rita Moreno as his saucy gal pal Anita, Russ Tamblyn as Jets’ point man Riff – brought authentic singing and dancing abilities to the production, providing a backdrop of romanticized realism to Robbins’ re-imagined rumbles.
Now, some 50 years later, the artistry involved really overwhelms any artifice. West Side Story settles into its swing right off the bat and then twists wildly back and forth, balancing basic melodrama (kids who can’t be together even though they are destined to be) with insane sequences of electric movement meant to comment directly on the racial tension and social dichotomy of the various gangs. Unlike Shakespeare’s storyline, which sees family feuds and petty squabbles keeping Romeo and Juliet apart, West Side Story argues for a deeper, more culturally in-tune topicality. While the music and choreography are what truly seals the deal, the underlying themes (especially in today’s slightly more tolerant times) come across with a big, bravura bang.
In essence, West Side Story suggests the coming juvenilization of the world. It’s a film built on the backs of Elvis (who was actually approached to play Tony, only to have Colonel Tom Parker turn it down) and Rebel Without a Cause. It hinted at the horrors of the growing youth gangs running amuck in big cities while citing the ethnic issues fueling the fighting. Songs like “America” and “Cool” offered contemporary takes on immigration and violence, while the moon/June melodies of “Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” and “I Feel Pretty” argued for Bernstein’s ability to manufacture timeless tunes. It’s interesting to note that the famed composer was working on Candide at the same time, and while that show features a few memorable songs, West Side Story sounds like his greatest hits.
Bernstein also anticipated rock and roll, the influences of world music – especially the growing Latin and Hispanic elements – and the need for sound to be reflective of its backdrop. There is a definite cosmopolitan feel to West Side Story, a big city stomp where horns blare out dissonant stabs while the rest of the orchestra circles the sequences like predators preparing for the kill. With the often elemental lyrics from Sondheim, the results rip through the speakers and disorient the listener. Bernstein basically took the typical showtune and retooled it to fit the format he was working in. He then delivered to an audience unprepared for such a jazzy beatnik blast. It required them to rethink their preconceptions and restructure their appreciation (the soundtrack album remains one of the best selling LPs of all time). ‘
As for the acting, director Robert Wise (with significant help from Robbins) brings out the best in Beymer and Wood, making their lack of singing ability secondary to their connection as a couple. Even as we watch the lip sync lackings, the emotions between Tony and Maria win us over. This is especially true in the dress shop serenade “One Hand, One Heart.” As a single beam of light breaks up the darkened space, our performers pour out their souls, cementing their believability as lovers destined for tragedy. Moreno also makes a mark as the sexy yet serious Anita. She more than makes up for Charkiris, who seems more comfortable as a male model than a living, breathing character. When required to dance, however, Robbins brings out their best, achieving a level of human spectacle that’s impossible to ignore.
In fact, it’s safe to say that the reason West Side Story has never been remade is that, flaws in all, there are certain aspects of the film that could never be improved on. The clever way that actual New York City spaces are merged with studio sets, the leap frog sense of innocence lost among the mid-’50s faces of a growing foreign demographic, the considered cool beat of a world waking up…and perhaps, most importantly, the driven dance delights envisions by Robbins. While the hip hoperatics of 2011 could easily accommodate his vision, the choreographer’s work here is so special, merged with his unusual eye behind the lens (he handled all the dance sequences except one) to set a benchmark few could follow. Someone may step up one day and decide to tackle this Herculean hit, but they do so at their own professional peril.
As with many masterworks of the past – Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca – there are errors here and there, imperfections that actually add to the overall timelessness of the title and one can’t imagine that the youth of today would find anything entertaining or enlightening about this revamped take on The Bard. Still, West Side Story is an essential moment in the musical’s history, an atomic bomb detonated over everything the artform had come to rely on and represent. Even half a century later and retooled to Hollywood’s hindering standards, its brilliance still shines. In 1961, it walked away with mainstream success and Oscar glory. In 2011, it’s a fabulous refresher course in song and dance as art.