As far as movie musicals go, West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, is a classic. West Side Story is a movie adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents, which was originally inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Star-crossed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) from different families, or in this case, New York City gangs, fall in love causing problems of loyalty, violence, and race.
The story centres around two gangs on the West Side of Manhattan: The Jets, a white American gang led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). As if these two gangs didn’t fight enough already, their problems only get worse when Bernardo’s sister Maria falls in love with Tony, who is one of the co-founders of The Jets. On the surface, these gangs don’t seem very threatening with all the singing and dancing they do (dance battles seem to be their preferred form of fighting, at least at the beginning) but there are serious issues that divide the two gangs who are both intent on ruling the West Side.
Of course, it’s a problem when members of rival gangs go and fall in love with each other, but it’s an even bigger problem when one of them is white and one of them is Puerto Rican. While the West Side Story is first and foremost a love story, themes of racism and immigration bubble below the surface. The white Jets don’t want to give up their turf to the Puerto Rican Sharks, who they view to be beneath them, and Bernardo doesn’t want his little sister to be with a leader of the Jets, leading to lots of animosity, violence, and revenge between the two gangs. A lyric that Anita (Rita Moreno) sings in “America” sums it up perfectly: “Life is all right in America / If you’re all white in America.”
The two gangs try to keep their hatred for each other on the down low, at least during daylight hours and out of view of the police. But when the sun goes down the weapons come out during a rumble that will settle once and for all who will get to control the West Side. Tony and Maria want nothing to do with the rumble that Riff and Bernardo arranged and try to prevent it from happening, they just want to take the money Tony has saved, but they don’t realize that the rumble is somewhat about their relationship, at least for the Sharks. It was supposed to be a fair fight, no weapons, but then Riff pulls out a knife. I won’t spoil what happens but if you’ve read Romeo and Juliet, you know how this ends.
West Side Story is one of Bernstein and Sondheim’s most celebrated musicals. The movie features songs including “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” and Jerome Robbins’ choreography is beautiful. The score, lyrics, and dance are a great melding of ballet, jazz, traditional Broadway, and Latin-American song and dance and all these elements make a richly complex and moving musical. The mix of love song duets, ensemble dance numbers, and character solos are classic musical theatre and gives everyone in the cast a chance to shine. West Side Story is a riveting mix of drama, story, music, song and dance, which is why even though this movie may be almost 60 years old, it still holds up in 2019.