Leaving aside the pliés and pirouettes, West Side Story is a street tuff take on Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet that feels as contemporary now as it did on its initial release in 1961. Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of a New York turf war in what remains one of the boldest and most breathlessly dynamic musicals ever made. It went on to score ten Oscars, including Best Directing for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
Manhattan is the battleground for rival street gangs: The Jets, a bunch of second generation immigrants headed by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and The Sharks, a group of Puerto Ricans fresh off the boat and fronted by Bernardo (a brooding George Chakiris). Their violent run-ins are staged in creeping, cat-like dance that builds to a thumping crescendo as Bernardo’s sister Maria (Wood) becomes entangled with Riff’s old cohort Tony (Beymer). Amid vibrant set pieces, a shadow of portent looms large.
It’s the groundbreaking combination of toe tapping tunes and wailing pathos, which makes this a truly arresting musical. Even thorny social issues inspire song-and-dance routines like a memorable performance of America by the Puerto Ricans. Set against Leonard Bernstein’s rousing instrumentals are unabashedly scathing lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (“Lots of new housing with more space, lots of doors slamming in our face!”). On the downside, Beymer gives a bland portrayal of the angst-ridden Tony and fails to generate any chemistry with Wood. Ultimately the film belongs to Chakiris and Rita Moreno (as his girlfriend) who poignantly define the downside of the American Dream.