My initial introduction to West Side Story was through the music of the original Broadway stage production of this musical. It came while I was attending day camp out west in the summer of 1962, prior to entering the sixth grade. A girl in the group I was with, who’d just received an LP copy of the original Broadway soundtrack of WSS for her birthday, brought it to camp and played it for the rest of the group. My love for West Side Story took off…instantly.
West Side Story-mania was in the air that summer. Kids roamed the hallways, sometimes in groups, snapping their fingers, and the various songs from WSS rang through the bus to and from camp every day of the week, as the kids sang all the songs. It was cool.
I missed seeing the film version of West Side Story during the heyday of its popularity, partly due to my relative isolation from most of the other kids, and partly because my parents refused to take my sister and I to see it, at least in part because they didn’t think (and my mom still doesn’t think) that West Side Story was a kids’ movie. Having seen this great, golden oldie but keeper of a Classic movie/musical more times than I’m able or willing to count at this point, the more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with my mom on this point.
Since my parents also had an LP copy of the soundtrack of the original Broadway stage version of WSS, I played it on my parents’ Hi-Fi whenever I had the opportunity to do so, because I’d come to so love the music and the story behind West Side Story itself. I would not get to see the movie until seven years later, as my high school years were coming to a close, and WSS, although there was a big national re-release of it, had passed the heyday of its popularity, freshness and newness.
I finally did get to see the film West Side Story for the first time, at around Christmastime of 1968, as a high school Senior, at a now-defunct cinema that was roughly 45 minutes north of Boston, and fell in love with this film the minute I saw it. Little did I, or my family know, that this was the start of my own love affair with the film West Side Story that would last all the way up until the present, much to their amusement, chagrin and resigned acceptance of this particular idiosyncrasy of mine.
Now for the real crux of my essay:
West Side Story, as everybody knows, began as a famous late-1950’s Broadway stage musical, which played in NYC’s Winter Garden for roughly two years before embarking on a national tour, and then an international tour, as well, becoming a hit national and internationally, as well. The concept of West Side Story had actually been started around WWII, when the conflict between Jews and Catholics here in the United States was still fresh. The two gangs were to be Jewish and Irish/Italian Catholic, while Maria was to be Jewish and Tony and Irish/Italian Catholic. There were also afew name changes to this musical along the way as well; It was originally named Gangway, then East Side Story, and, finally, West Side Story. Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the very concept of West Side Story didn’t get really get off the ground until well past WWII, when the conflict between Jews and Catholics here in the United States was not nearly as new and fresh as it had previously been. The large influx of Puerto Ricans into NYC and the Continental United States generally was now the catalyst of conflict, which was between the PR’s and the White European Ethnic Americans. Tony was a Polish-American and a former White European Ethnic American Jets leader, while Maria, who became Tony’s love interest, was the sister of the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Shark gangleader, Bernardo.
After Walter Mirisch bought the rights to the movie version, West Side Story not only became a big hit on stage, both nationally and worldwide, but it became a big hit as a spectacular film, which won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, after its initial release in late October 1961.
Since I was still a teenager in high school the first time that I saw the movie West Side Story, I was able to identify with the Jets, the Sharks and their girls, regarding kids being kids and so on. When I got to be a little older, however, and began watching West Side Story every time it came around to an independent, repertory movie theatre, however, I still loved and appreciated this film, although I had a somewhat different viewpoint of it than I had as a high school kid. I came to appreciate West Side Story as a dynamic work of art and cinematic technology, as well as the intense scenery, the brilliant Bernstein musical store, the wonderfully-choreographed dancing by the late Jerome Robbins, and the very story behind it, as well as everything else.
With the exception of Richard Beymer (who I’ve always regarded as sort of a weak, lacklustre Tony), I thought that WSS had a very strong cast, and was a very strong film overall. West SIde Story, to me, carries a certain message; It succinctly points out the destructive consequences of racial/ethnic prejudice and the violence that often ensues as a result, but there’s also a detectable ray of hope in the end, when several Jets and Sharks come together to carry Tony’s body off after he was shot to death by Chino in retaliation for Tony’s having stabbed Bernardo to death. The scene where Maria comes between the Jets and Sharks as they seem ready to clash once more, seems to have been the catalyst for that ray of hope to have arrived, or perhaps it would’ve arrived anyway. No one knows.
Truthfully, I’m a devout fan of the film West Side Story (it’s my all time favorite movie, hands down!), who’s also seen several very good stage productions of this musical, including the newer, more up to date Broadway stage revival of West Side Story, which, although was largely enjoyable, I looked at with a harder, more critical eye than my sister in law and my then 8-year-niece, neither of whom had ever seen WSS on stage before,
The film West Side Story is a film that I never get tired of seeing over and over again, whether it be in a real movie theatre, on a great big, wide screen with the lights down low, or on TV, and i’ve seen it more times than I’m able and willing to count, at this point. Regardless of how many people claim that seeing it on a great home theatre system on TV is fantastic, absolutely nothing beats seeing West Side Story in a real movie theatre. In fact, WSS cries for a great big, wide movie theatre screen.
The film West Side Story seems to take on a magical, almost three-dimensional quality when viewed on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, with the lights down low. The scenery seems wider and more expansive, and one can see all of everything. The already-brilliant Leonard Bernstein musical score to WSS seems to take on a new intensity, and the cinematic technology, as well as the beautifully-choreographed dancing, richly-colored costumes and photography, all seem to be taken to a whole new level on a great big, wide movie screen, as well.
The various characters, from the warring Jets and Sharks to the romancing Tony and Maria, seem to move much more fluidly and freely, and in a much wider, more open space. Even Richard Beymer’s Tony comes off as being much more vital when West Side Story is viewed on a great, big wide movie theatre screen.
Although West Side Story is a strong movie overall (which is why I have a tough time picking out favorite characters and/or scenes and songs from it), the Dance at the Gym, The prologue/Jets song, Cool, America, the pre-Rumble quartet and the Rumble itself, as well as Ofcr Krupke are pillar scenes.
Regarding the cast, they’re all strong, imho. Not thatlong ago, however, I learned a couple of things that made me more willing to give Richard Beymer the benefit of the doubt.
A) Natalie Wood had a lot of hostility and resentment towards Richard Beymer (she was dating Warren Beatty at the time), and it showed, plus Richard Beyner was clearly pained by it. Natalie Wood had, in fact, tried to get Richard Beymer kicked off the set on several occasions, as well, although they made up a number of years later, when they met in a California restaurant. I believe that had Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer gotten along better during the filming of West Side Story, that Richard Beymer might’ve played a much stronger role as Tony, despite the way the original script both on stage and for screen, had been written.
B) Richard Beymer also had certain directorial constraints placed on him by Director Robert Wise, who wanted Beymer to play a softer, gentler Tony, in order to make him look/seem more like a reformed gang-member. Richard Beymer, on the other hand, admittedly would’ve preferred to play the role of a Tony with a little more of an “edge” to him. It’s also told that Beymer walked out of the Premier of the film West Side Story due to being upset about not being able to play a somewhat stronger, edgier Tony.
Since West Side Story was filmed in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, where Lincoln Center now stands, the crew members and cast alike were regularly harassed by street toughs, who showered rocks and bottles, etc., from the rooftops at them. The crew ended up hiring out an actual street gang for security and protection during the filming. Oh, the irony in it..especially since West Side Story is about two warring NYC street gangs, as well as love and romance that develops admidst that conflict, only to go up in smoke due to the gangs’ hatred for each other.
I have attended virtually every screening of West Side Story in our area (the one exception being in mid-March of 2001, when an afternoon screening of WSS conflicted directly with my late dad’s memorial, so I didn’t go that afternoon!), which have been well-attended. Boston-area audiences, while more reserved than NY audiences, enjoy it about as much as New Yorkers, and West Side Story is especially wonderful in a real movie theatre, on a great big, wide screen, with the lights down low, and with a slew of other people whether one knows them or not.
I can’t wait for the next screening of West Side Story, which I’ve even made road trips to the opposite end of the Bay State as well as to neighboring states to see, over the years. I attended the 40th year anniversary screening of West Side Story at NYC’s Radio City Music hall with friends, a special event of the one-night 50th-year anniversary re-release of West Side Story, and a number of other screenings of WSS in our area. West Side Story is a hard film for me to resist, and I always look forward to other future screenings of this great, golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic film in movie theatres within driving distance of where I presently reside.