Release Year: 1961
Genre: Drama, Musical
Director: Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Writer: Ernest Lehman (stage script by Arthur Laurents)
Bust out the Kleenex, Shmoopers.
You know that play by William Shakespeare about two crazy kids on opposite sides of a blood feud, who fall in love and end up dying tragically because their respective families couldn't stop their feuding?
The creators of West Side Story sure did.
Luckily for us, they found an entirely new way to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet. Instead of fair Verona, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean, it's the mean streets of 1950s New York City, where young gangs rumble over the right to walk down the street.
Into this hotbed of juvenile delinquency (that's what they used to call youthful offenders) come Tony (Richard Beymer), former gangbanger turned starry-eyed good guy, and the beautiful and innocent Maria (Natalie Wood), sister of the leader of a rival gang. They meet and fall in love just as their respective sides are gearing up for total war. Before these kids have even got their bearings, Tony's killed, and their budding romance becomes a doomed victim of the very hatred they both were desperately trying to escape.
West Side Story started out as a long-running, Tony-winning stage musical, and while there were plenty of previous efforts to update Shakespeare for more modern times (ever hear of Orson Welles' voodoo version of Macbeth?), none of them had the kind of talent that this one did.
From rock-star composer Leonard Bernstein came the music: a combination of classic orchestra and hip jazz that found the beating heart of those New York streets. From boy wonder (just 25 when he started work on the film) Stephen Sondheim came the lyrics: the kind of stunning, amazing works of poetry that made him a living legend. (You may have heard them in movies like Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Dick Tracy.)
From choreography legend Jerome Robbins came the idea for the play, and the dance moves that left the performers with permanent knee damage but blew the world away with their sheer unadulterated snazz. And from director Robert Wise, you had the setting moved convincingly away from the stage and into the actual streets of the city.
Put all those geniuses together and how could you not have one of the greatest movie musicals of all time?
West Side Story was a massive commercial hit. Adjust the figures for inflation, and it beats a number of movies with words like "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "The Hunger Games" and "The Avengers" in the title. It also cleaned up at the Oscars, winning ten, including Best Picture, Best Director and a passel of acting awards (source). They should have just handed over all of them and the Oscar television audience could have been in bed by 10:30.
The Oscar rumble wasn't a totally fair fight, though. After all, the film already had Bernstein's music, Sondheim's lyrics, and Robbins' dance sequences from the wildly successful Broadway musical. Still, the adaptation wowed the Academy, edging out worthy competitors like Judgment at Nuremberg and The Hustler for Best Picture.
The picture was an international smash as well. It ran at one theater in Paris for four years. That made history in a country with plenty of cinematic history (source). The soundtrack was the hottest selling album of the 1960s; it sat at the top of the Billboard charts for more than a year.
Legions of baby-boomer teen girls sobbed by the Hi-Fi listening to that soundtrack for the hundredth time as Tony lay dying in Maria's arms. We couldn't bring him back; we couldn't even binge-watch the movie because VCRs hadn't been invented yet. All we could do was thank Bill Shakespeare and Jerome Robbins for the greatest love story of the millennium, and grab another box of Kleenex. You should, too.
Uh, yeah…you're gonna need a bigger box.
Shakespeare can be tough to get into sometimes.
We'll tell you the same thing your English teacher does: once you've figured out the rhythm and meter of his language, his plays are going to open up like a rose. But until that happens… yeah, it can be a slog.
One of the great things about Shakespeare, though, is that his stories can fit any time, any place, and any characters. How about turning Macbeth into a Japanese samurai story? Been there. The Taming of the Shrew set in a modern American high school? Done that. There's The Tempest moved to an alien planet in the far future, and King Lear planted firmly in cowboy country. These stories are so universal you can make them work anywhere, and some of the best adaptations of the Bard capture his mojo without using a single word of his dialogue.
Enter West Side Story, a jumped-up version of Romeo and Juliet taking place between rival gangs on the streets of New York. It follows the same basic path of the Shakespeare plot: two lovers on opposite sides of a bloody divide who try to make it work but are undone by their respective teams who just can't seem to put down their grudges.
The story's pretty much the same, but the setting is modern, the characters come from a world closer to our own (remember, it was considered 100% in the here-and-now when it came out), and the songs are full of 20th century energy: jazz, Latin rhythm, and the kind of funky beats that could only come from the good old U.S. of A.
These changes remind people of how generally awesome Shakespeare is, and hopefully encourages them to check the man out in the original. Plus, it demonstrates that Shakespeare was talking about things that didn't only matter in the days of hose and couplets. Heartbreaking romances, people who can't get past their hate—we've got more than our share of that in today's world, too.
That's why we still read Shakespeare (well, that and OMG it's poetry), but it's also why we reinterpret his work and find new ways to explore it. It will always have something to tell us, whether we're Montagues, Capulets, Sharks, or Jets.
Back in the days before computer magic could make anyone sound like a super-star singer, you needed to get an actual singer to cover for actors who couldn't sing well enough. Maria's singing parts in the film were performed by Marni Nixon, a legendary performer known for providing the singing voice for a number of leading ladies.
Besides Wood, she also dubbed in two other blockbusters: Deborah Kerr's voice in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn's voice in My Fair Lady. Wood didn't realize all her singing would be dubbed until after the filming was over, and she wasn't happy about it. (Source)
Plenty of people have been unhappy about the lack of minority actors in minority roles, Natalie Wood and George Chakiris being famous examples of that. West Side Story actually helped break one barrier for minority actors: Rita Moreno became the first Latina actress to ever win an Oscar. Chakiris, who won an Oscar for playing Bernardo, has Greek ancestry. (Source)
It you pay close attention, the first words of dialogue in West Side Story are "beat it." Fans of the Michael Jackson should recognize those words: they're the title to one of his most famous songs of all time, from his signature 1982 album Thriller. The King of Pop was supposedly a big fan of West Side Story, and a rumor started that the song is basically his homage to all things Jets and Sharks. Great story, right? Unfortunately, the music video's director shot it down. (Source)
Robert Wise's first choice to play Tony was Elvis, but his manager turned the offer down. Elvis had already played street kids in Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, and they wanted him to stick to some nice-guy roles. (Source)
Leonard Bernstein hinted that the famous three-note Jets theme (you can hear it at the 5:07 mark here), which becomes a musical motif throughout the score, was influenced, maybe unconsciously, by the shofar blast—the shofar being the ram's-horn instrument blown in a synagogue on certain Jewish holidays. In Biblical times, the shofar was used to announce holidays, and also to signal the beginning of a war. It's a kind of wake-up call. Check it out and see what you think. (Source)
The Official Website
The official website, in all its glory.
The critics love it. In other news, the sun rises in the east.
If you need a bit of West Side magic, here's the Pinterest link.
The Original Musical Play
There's not a lot of book or TV adaptations of this one – and let's be honest, the movie is kind of hard to top – but it was based on one of the most successful musicals of all time.
Everything you always wanted to know about the Real Doomed Lovers of Verona.
New York Times on New York Life
The paper of record liked the movie back in 1961.
Here's the usual helping of insight from the late, great king of the critics, Roger Ebert. He loves it, but he has some caveats.
50th Anniversary Interviews
Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris reminisced for the film's 50th anniversary in 2011.
There's some serious dirt on how this movie—and the play before it—came together. If you're interested in the nitty gritty, NPR's got it.
The lyricist sounds off on his own work. He hates it. He's wrong.
The Ernest Lehman Collection
West Side Story's screenwriter has his own collection down Longhorn way, and we've got the link.
An academic look at racist themes in West Side Story.
Here's the original trailer for the film.
Ms. Wood talks about the role of her career.
Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris talk about their experience on the film in this interview from 2011.
Russ Tamblyn expounds upon all things Riff.
Best Supporting Actor
George Chakiris wins the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Best Supporting Actress
Another Oscar for the gang, this one for Rita Moreno. And seriously, how can you not love this woman after that speech?
Wise and Robbins nail the1-2 punch at the Oscars.
Hey we can't include all those other wins without including the big one too!
Not Quite Vocals
It's an open secret that some members of the cast—notably Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn—had their voices dubbed for the singing parts. Here they are performing with their own voices.
We got a whole raft of Leonard Bernstein footage, watching the master conduct various folks through the songs.
Robert Wise Interview
Robert Wise talks West Side Story a couple of years after it came out.
Older and Wiser
Wise talks West Side Story much, much, much later.
Nixon Speaks (No, Not That Nixon)
A week after Marni Nixon died on July 24, 2016, Terry Gross re-broadcast a 2001 "Fresh Air" interview with Nixon and Rita Moreno (Anita) about what it was like to dub the voice of Natalie Wood, who btw wasn't aware that her entire singing performance would be dubbed. As you'll hear, she wasn't amused.
West Side Raps
It's not hard to update this material to the 21st century… or even the late 20th, as the case may be. Here's a quick who's who of mid-90s rap stars bringing a decidedly hip-hop feeling to "Gee, Officer Krupke."
One of the original posters for the movie.
Another poster which, frankly, we love a lot more than the first.
Jerome and Natalie
The co-director works with his star.
You Talkin' to Me?
Riff and the boys, at the dance.
Someone hunted down one of the actual street locations for the film.
Before starting a gang war, it's important to properly warm up.
Here's a shot of the world premiere.
And the Winner Is…
Chakiris, Robbins, Wise, and Moreno with their hardware.