Movie Review: ‘West Side Story’ (1961)

Bernardo (George Chakiris) leads two of his fellow Sharks into a gang battle in West Side Story. Image Credit and (C) 1961 United Artists and The Mirisch Company

West Side Story (1961)

Directed by: Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Screenplay by: Ernest Lehman

Based on: The stage play West Side Story, conceived, choreographed, and directed by Jerome Robbins. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Produced for the stage by Robert L. Griffith and Harold Prince. West Side Story itself is based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.)

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Simon Oakland, William Bramley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From The Great White Way to the Silver Screen

Riff: We gotta stand up to them Doc; it’s important.

Doc: Fighting over a little piece of street is so important?

Action: To us it is!

Doc: To hoodlums it is!

Action: Who’re you callin’ a hoodlum?

Doc: War councils…

Action: Don’t start, Doc.

Doc: …Rumbles…

Action: D’you hear me, Doc?

Doc: Why, when I was your age…

Action: When you was my age? When my old man was my age, when my brother was my age… You was never my age, none of ya! And the sooner you creeps get hip to that, the sooner you’ll dig us!

Doc: I’ll dig you an early grave, that’s what I’ll dig.

On October 16, 1961, United Artists – which at the time was independent and not yet a division of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) – released West Side Story, a 152-minute, two act film adaptation of the eponymous 1957 Broadway musical drama that updates William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by setting it in the 1950s in New York City’s West Side. Instead of two feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – we have two street gangs – the American “Jets” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks” – who are fighting for control of their Upper West Side turf.

Anita: [sobbing bitterly] Bernardo was right, If one of you was lying in the street bleeding, I’d walk by and spit on you.

And standing in for Romeo and Juliet in this still-relevant parable about racism, juvenile crime, anti-immigrant prejudice, and adolescent angst are Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood), whose love is just as star-cross’d  as that of their Shakespearean counterparts in long-ago Verona.  

Like the original Broadway production, the film co-directed by Jerome Robbins (who was responsible for the dance and musical numbers) and Robert Wise (who was responsible for the “straight” dramatic sequences) is divided into two acts, with a brief intermission. And like the 1957 version, this West Side Story features 20 musical numbers, including a medley played during the Intermission between Acts I and II.

Musical Numbers in West Side Story (1961)

Act I

“Overture” – Orchestra

“Prologue” – Orchestra

“Jet Song” – Riff and Jets

“Something’s Coming” – Tony

“Dance at the Gym: (Blues, Promenade, Mambo, Cha-cha, and Jump)” – Orchestra

“Maria” – Tony

“America” – Anita, Bernardo, Sharks and Girls

“Tonight” – Tony and Maria

“Gee, Officer Krupke” – Riff and Jets

“Maria (violin)” – Orchestra

Intermission “Medley” – Orchestra

Act II

“I Feel Pretty” – Maria, Consuelo, Rosalia, and Francisca

“One Hand, One Heart” – Tony and Maria

“Tonight Quintet” – Maria, Tony, Anita, Riff, Bernardo, Jets, and Sharks

“The Rumble” – Orchestra

“Somewhere” – Tony and Maria

“Cool” – Ice and Jets

“A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” – Anita and Maria

“Somewhere” (reprise) – Maria

“Finale” – Orchestra

My Take

Tony: You heard – it’s gonna be a fair fight!

Doc: And that’s going to cure something?

Tony: From here on in, everythin’s gonna be all right! I got a feelin’!

Doc: What have you been taking tonight?

Tony: A trip to the moon! And I’ll tell ya a secret. It ain’t a man that’s up there, Doc. It’s a girl, lady. Buenas noches, Senor.

Doc: Buenas noches? So that’s why you made it a fair fight…

Tony: I’m gonna see her tomorrow an’ I can’t wait!

Doc: Tony… things aren’t tough enough?

Tony: Tough? Doc, I’m in love!

Doc: And you’re not frightened?

Tony: Should I be?

Doc: [after a pause] No. I’m frightened enough for the both of us.

Because West Side Story’s narrative is familiar and is encapsulated in the phrase “It’s Romeo and Juliet in 1950s Manhattan,” I am not going to delve into a rundown of the plot. Suffice it to say that the Academy Award-winning film (it won 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations) is essentially faithful to its stage progenitor, with a few changes made by its creators – especially lyricist Stephen Sondheim – to address issues raised by critics and audiences alike during the play’s long runs in Broadway and London.

Fans of the original stage production know that because censorship was still a “thing” in 1961, some of the songs (especially The Jet Song) and some of the dialogue had to be “cleaned up” lest the audience be shocked by some of the grittier language. (One example I noticed when I heard the soundtrack of this movie is that in the stage version, Riff and Tony say, “Womb to tomb, sperm to worm!” while in the movie they say, “Womb to tomb, birth to earth.”)

Other changes were made because Sondheim – who made his Broadway debut with the 1957 stage production – was not happy with some aspects of the musical numbers. Sometimes, as with the case of Gee, Officer Krupke, the placement of the song in the chronology of the story did not work. Krupke is a comedic song, yet it was sung in Act II, which is the play’s darker half. When Sondheim realized that the song was “misplaced” where it was, the show had been running for a while and it was too late to adjust it for Broadway and other venues. However, Robbins – whose creative baby West Side Story was, promised Sondheim that if a movie version was ever made , the song would be moved to Act I.

America is another song that Sondheim deconstructed and almost rewrote in toto. In the 1957 original, America is not only an all-girls affair that contrasts the feelings of a homesick new arrival from Puerto Rico and those of the more “Americanized” Anita, but it was considered to be a musical number that insulted the American-ruled Associated Free State and its people.

In the movie, America is still a snarky, fun song for an ensemble, but now it’s an argument between the more conservative and cynical Bernardo and the Americanized Anita. And instead of being a “slur” against Puerto Ricans and the island, it’s now a bitingly sarcastic – and still relevant – commentary about American nativists’ racism and anti-immigrant attitudes.

Of course, because the film was shot – mostly – on location in New York City (some interiors were shot either in a Hollywood studio set or in a parking garage in Los Angeles), the movie “opens up” the setting of West Side Story in the same way that Joshua Logan’s South Pacific (shot mostly in Hawaii) and Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (shot in Austria) open up their adaptations of other Broadway musicals.

There are some scenes that, due to the lighting or the camera angles, look abstract or stagey. For 21st Century viewers who are used to a certain aesthetic in their films, this might seem a bit too “old school” and less realistic. And, of course, the acrobatic, almost ballet-like aspects of Jerome Robbins’ choreography sometimes clash with the gritty urban reality of West Side Story and make the film a ripe target for spoofs or harsh criticism.

While I find those few but obvious “this was shot on a sound stage” bits jarring – which Is why I’m anxious to see Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story – the 1961 Academy Award champion clearly deserves its place in cinema history as one of the greatest movies ever made.

Sure, Richard Beymer’s Tony is much too nice and naïve to be believable as a former member of a juvenile street gang in New York City. Beymer complained, per interviews he has given to various media outlets, that Hollywood often wanted him to play the All-American “boy next door.” Thus, my criticism of Tony being too soft and vanilla in this version of West Side Story isn’t a slur on his acting, but more of a slam at the creatives who made his character less-than-credible.

And yes, many of the actors – including Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris, who played Tony and Riff in stage productions of West Side Story – were dubbed over by “professional song dub artists” in musical numbers. This was, unfortunately, standard operating procedure in the movie industry, and it was often because producers – in this case, Saul Chaplin – often hired their favorites, including Marni Nixon, who not only dubbed over Natalie Wood’s vocals, but also dubbed Rita Moreno in A Boy Like That/I Have a Love; the song has high notes that are above Moreno’s natural register, and Moreno’s voice double for most of that song, Betty Wand, was sick. So, Marni Nixon dubbed not one but two characters, a feat for which composer Leonard Bernstein generously gave Nixon a share of his royalties for the movie since the producers would not pay her more for her gig.

All quibbles aside, though, West Side Story is one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m particularly attached to it because when I was in my high school’s men’s chorus ensemble in 10th grade, we sang a medley of Broadway show tunes that included There is Nothing Like a Dame from South Pacific, Hello Dolly/It Only Takes a Moment from Hello Dolly, and Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story.

I had not seen West Side Story, which in 1981 was about to turn 20 years old.  I fell in love with Gee, Officer Krupke; it’s such a wonderful, witty satirical song, and that led me to buy the original Broadway cast album (on LP in 1981), then later (on cassette) the movie soundtrack. Later, I saw West Side Story on TV (I would not own a home media version till the 1990s, on VHS), and even though I saw its flaws, I still loved it.

On Home Media

The Girls: [singing] I like to be in America, OK by me in America, everything free in America…

Bernardo: [singing] For a small fee in America!

I bought the 2003 Special Edition DVD box set of West Side Story over a decade ago for my mother, several years before her health took a fatal downturn in 2010.  This box set includes the feature film on one DVD disc, and the bonus features on a second DVD. It also has a compact book that includes the screenplay by Ernest Lehman.

Mom never read the screenplay – the print was too tiny for her to read by the time this Collector’s Edition box set was made – but we watched the movie and its extras at least once when she was still alive.

When Mom died in 2015, I briefly considered handing West Side Story and Mom’s small stash of DVDs to my half-sister, but I changed my mind due to the long-delayed and stormy estrangement between Vicky and me. She had taken – without my consent – some of the things Mom had left for me, including family photos and other knick-knacks, so I was disinclined to let go of Mom’s handful of DVDs and Blu-rays.

The DVD is still in decent shape – it’s only been watched three times since I ordered it from Amazon – but even though the sound and video are decent, they were made for standard-definition television. We have high definition and 4K UHD TVs here, so this year, in advance of Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake, I decided to get the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray from 2011 for my video library.

 Here are the specifications for West Side Story – 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray:

Video
Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (23.23 Mbps)
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.20:1
Original aspect ratio: 2.20:1

Audio

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
English: Dolby Digital 4.0
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 kbps)
French: DTS 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
German: DTS 5.1


Subtitles

English SDH, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Mandarin (Simplified), Norwegian, Swedish


Discs
Blu-ray Disc
Three-disc set (2 BD-50, 1 DVD)
DVD copy

Packaging
Slipcover in original pressing

Playback
2K Blu-ray: Region free

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

5 thoughts on “Movie Review: ‘West Side Story’ (1961)

  1. I have that same Collector’s Edition DVD that includes the script, lol. Unlike yours, mine has been watched many, many times, as this movie is very high on my “favorite movies of all time” list.

    If you haven’t seen it on a big screen (that is, in a movie theater), I highly recommend it. As beautiful as the DVD is, it doesn’t hold a candle to seeing it in a theater. The set design cannot be properly shown off on a TV screen, even if it’s a large TV screen. Fathom Events does a one- or two-day release every few years or so, and it’s worth every penny of the ticket price.

    One bit of trivia: Natalie Wood was quite offended that her singing voice was dubbed, as she had been under the impression that they’d use her voice in the film. There’s a recording of her take on some of the songs (it might even be included on the special features of the DVD). And while it really isn’t bad at all, her voice just didn’t have the full range of Marni Nixon’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m looking forward to your review of the new movie. Loved the West Side Story movie of old, but could not get past the casting of Tony and Maria. Hope, hope the new version has corrected that

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From what I’ve seen in the “making of” book about West Side Story 2021, the casting is so much better, and all the actors recorded their songs. No “voice doubles” or “brown-makeup” for this crew.

      Like

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