Summary: A musical loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, a young Puerto Rican woman falls in love with a member of a rival gang in New York City.
This isn’t a review so much as it is a declaration of love. West Side Story was one of the first musicals I ever saw and one of the first movies I really, truly fell in love with. Luckily for us, it was revived as a Fathom Event this year, something I unashamedly bought advanced tickets for, dragged my partner to, and proclaimed to all my coworkers my plans for the weekend.
I cried multiple times. I cried when I saw the preview, I cried when I bought the tickets, I cried throughout the movie. It was great. It was also nothing compared to the woman next to me, who was openly weeping. We had a moment.
I believe West Side Story is one of the last great musicals MGM and the entire film industry gave us (yes, even against relatively recent ones like Chicago) and, to this day, is one of the best musicals to ever exist. As a work, it’s phenomenally timeless and relevant. I find that it’s hard to revive or rewatch some musicals due to the really dated subjects and language, and the style of music or visuals, but West Side Story had the advantage of honing in on a familiar subject that this country has always struggled with. Though it’s visuals may change with the time, the plot and its elements have remained topical, carrying over from decade to decade. If anything, as the subject of racism and its discourse has evolved, so does the material and new meaning is injected in each iteration.
Now, how West Side Story has evolved only proves its relevance, as it has its fair share of political incorrectness and whitewashing. The original musical starred quite a number of White actors and actresses as the Puerto Rican gang, lyrics called for exaggerated accents, and choreography that kind of just borrowed from anything associated with Latin America. The movie has quite a lot of White actors in brownface. I acknowledge these things and I’m also keeping in mind that this came out in 1961, because I think it’s important to acknowledge and understand the things wrong with what we love, as well as what they were working with at the time. Is it the perfect depiction of this particular demographic? No, not at all. Hell no. Is it something that speaks of the industry it was born out of and what it was like at the time? Absolutely and so it speaks volumes that the more recent revivals have done the legwork of casting Latino actors and that Sierra Boggess of Phantom of the Opera fame could be persuaded to step down from the role of Maria in a tribute performance. It’s a testament to the multitude of people this movie has spoken to, the way it has been interpreted, and why it always comes up in conversation- West Side Story, as beloved and as inaccurate as it is, can change. It has changed. And people want to change it to fit the expectations we have as a smarter society. From the people who star in it, to the people who give more thoughts into the sets and costumes, to how Lin Manuel Miranda was invited to provide more authentic language to the lyrics (not so great- wince, sorry Lin), West Side Story has been at the forefront of representation in art, as a study, subject, example, and work.
Now the film itself is just… Wow. It really is a technical marvel. Growing up and watching this on VHS is a childhood memory I’ll always cherish, but hearing the opening notes in a darkened theater (and surrounded by a much older audience, might I add)- it felt like I was finally seeing it in the right presentation. I never realized how much the editing, framing, and colors emotively complemented the music and choreography. I was really surprised at how well the visuals of the movie hold up. The colors, the blocking, the tracking, the cutting, and the framing are just so well thought-out and in relation to the dancing and the music… ugh, it’s perfect.
Shoot, am I crying again?
I’ve always found the music to be a wonderfully constructed crescendo of tension and chaos- the slower moments are really, just lovely, and the others just build and build before hitting their stride. There are so many visually striking shots within this movie that are used to punctuate the music- Baby John running across an empty lot, Bernardo and the Sharks kicking up their heels for the first time, the tracking shots of each gang down the streets of New York. Everything is so perfectly coordinated to engage our senses of sight and sound and due to this, it’s so easy to get wrapped up and invested in the story. The Prologue! That Quintet arrangement! Cool! Tell me that 1:51 mark of Tonight isn’t the most hopeful music you’ve ever heard! And this has, without a doubt, some of the best-filmed choreography, thanks to the strictness of choreographer Jerome Robbins, the direction of Robert Wise, and the music of Leonard Bernstein. Ok, Stephen Sondheim was there too- he’s just not as memorable as the others. (Oh and uh, Robbins was driving the dancers into the ground, got fired, and was replaced by Wise. Which, I mean, behind the scenes was a mess. Yeah. But the results are pretty exciting to watch. And we got Rita Moreno! COME ON. She’s the best!)
I also want to shout out to the costumes in this movie because they play a big part in why this movie has aged so well. It’s all pretty simple jeans and t-shirt combos. Minus a few of the hairstyles, Maria’s dressing gown, and Bernardo’s opening outfit (also, the cars), it’s hard to define exactly when this movie takes place- it could have come out of the 80s or 90s. And imagine a movie where you get (maybe) three costumes and two of them are the same but one is just a little dirtier than the other? What happened to that? Also- shouts to censorship laws from back in the day because now I’m an adult and can recognize when things weren’t allowed (blood) but are implied (a crumpled pillow means SEX). It added another element of entertainment and was like a little game!
There are some faults in the narrative- Richard Beymer’s Tony, for example, is just… so sappy. So hopeful. It’s like he grew up in Westchester and not the streets. He’s supposed to be a gang member who sees Maria as his way off the streets and he just comes off as a dumb kid- though he does have a lovely singing voice (thanks, Jim Bryant!). Minus this dude though, it’s all pretty perfect. I’ve always found the real meat of the story to be between the Sharks and the Jets, anyway. It’s fine. If you can give me a war council full of tension, angry dancing, and the mastery that is Cool, I’m okay with it. I also used to have a massive crush on George Charkiris, so…
I’m really looking forward to the rumored Steven Spielberg remake, because I do think West Side Story is a deserving work in need of updating. I’m really excited to see a modern reinterpretation of this and there’s so much potential for it to be made and presented in a more meaningful way rather than “just a musical.” But you know- still a musical. Give me those musical cuts. Don’t let me down, Steven. Come and get West Side Story too, Steven. STEVEN. I’m waiting for you. I’m begging you.
And I don’t care what else you do- just keep that one group hop in Cool, please.