Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
West Side Story (1961)
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West Side Story (1961) is an energetic, widely-acclaimed, melodramatic musical - a modern-day, loose re-telling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet tragedy of feuding families, although the setting is the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1950s with conflict between rival street gangs rather than families. West Side Story is still one of the best film adaptations of a musical ever created, and the finest musical film of the 60s. It arrived at a time when the silver screen was realizing tremendous competition from TV and other genres of cinematic entertainment.

Like many other musicals of its time, Hollywood again looked to a successful Broadway stage play (first starring Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert) for its source material (e.g., in earlier years, South Pacific (1958), Oklahoma! (1955), and Carousel (1956) were chosen, among others) and it was no different for this film. An almost completely new cast was assembled, except for actor George Chakiris (who played Riff, NOT Bernardo, in the London production). After her success in Spendor in the Grass (1961), Natalie Wood was chosen for the lead female role after Barbara Luna was considered. And Richard Beymer, known for his performance as Peter Van Daan in George Stevens' The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), took the lead male role which was also considered for Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley. Chita Rivera, the Broadway actress who played the part of the tempestuous Anita, was replaced by Rita Moreno, known for her role as Tuptim in The King and I (1956). Supporting actor Russ Tamblyn, known for many roles in films such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Peyton Place (1957), played the role of Riff.

The same Romeo & Juliet tale has been told numerous times in past (and recent) cinematic history, including:

  • Romeo and Juliet (1916) with vampish Theda Bara as Juliet
  • Romeo and Juliet (1916) with Francis X. Bushman as Romeo
  • George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet (1936) with elderly 'teen' lovers Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, John Barrymore as Mercutio, Edna May Oliver as the Nurse, and Basil Rathbone as Tybalt
  • Renato Castellani's Romeo and Juliet (1954) with Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall in the leads
  • Paul Czinner's Romeo and Juliet (1966), with ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn
  • Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), with appropriately-aged star-crossed lovers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey
  • Baz Luhrmann's hip and updated William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996) with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes
  • sixty years since the 1961 production, director Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the original 1957 Broadway musical production (it was his first musical), West Side Story (2021), with Ansel Elgort (as Tony) and Rachel Zegler (as Maria)

The ground-breaking, dynamic film of 1961 was based on the successful Broadway hit - a staged musical play (opening in 1957) by writer Arthur Laurents and directed/choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The play reworked the traditional love story material (of lovers that crossed racial/ethnic barriers) and translated it, in a radical, novel and revolutionary style for a musical, to include racial strife between rival New York street gangs (newly-arrived Puerto Ricans and second-generation Americans from white European immigrant families), juvenile delinquency and inner-city problems of the mid-twentieth century - in exhilarating musical and dance form. To capture the realism of the social tragedy and its urban environment, some of the film was shot on location in Manhattan (in abandoned West Side tenements around 110th St., and other settings), but most of it was actually filmed on sound stages with stylized, artificial studio sets.

[Note: From Shakespearean Play to Screen: The Montagues became the Anglo Jets street gang, while the Capulets were transformed into rival Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rican Maria, played by Natalie Wood, and white Tony, played by Richard Beymer, were the two lovers. The killing of Riff by Maria's brother Bernardo paralleled the killing of Romeo's friend Mercutio by Juliet's cousin Tybalt, and the retaliatory murder of Bernardo by Tony was identified with Romeo's killing of Tybalt. Secondary characters were also modified - the Nurse became Anita, Juliet's friend and confidante, and Friar Lawrence became Doc, the neighborhood drugstore owner. (However, there wasn't a climactic double-suicide in the musical.)]

The stage book was rewritten and adapted for the screen by Ernest Lehman, and the film retained the beautiful and electrifying musical score, songs and lyrics of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It was co-directed by two clashing individuals from the start - veteran director Robert Wise and exciting choreographer Jerome Robbins. Both shared credit for the film's direction although Robbins was removed after a few months due to schedule delays, the over-budget production, disagreements with Wise over the film's degree of faithfulness to the stage production, and Robbins' potentially-expensive demands for perfection. The four kinetic dance sequences that Robbins choreographed ("Prologue," "America," "Cool," and "Something's Comin'") and the jazzy, interpretative score of Bernstein rhythmically communicate the passionate intensity, frustration and tough violence of the streets.

The singing of both leads was dubbed: Jimmy Bryant for former child actor Richard Beymer, and Marni Nixon for Natalie Wood, and the vocals by Rita Moreno were enhanced by Betty Wand for "A Boy Like That". [Note: Marni Nixon also dubbed Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964).] (Visit the official West Side Story website at:

The much-praised, box-office blockbuster for United Artists received eleven Academy Award nominations and won all but one - Best Adapted Screenplay. Its achievement as a ten Oscar winner has only been surpassed by three films (all with eleven Oscars): Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997), and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003). West Side Story's Oscar awards include: Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and Robbins - the first time that awards went to co-directors), Best Supporting Actor and Actress (George Chakiris in his first major film role and Rita Moreno), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Color Costume Design. Robbins was also awarded a special statuette for "his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film." Robbins was the only Best Director Oscar winner to win for the only film he ever directed. Robert Wise won his second directorial Oscar for The Sound of Music (1965). Natalie Wood was un-nominated for West Side Story, but she was competing for a Best Actress Oscar (that she lost to Sophia Loren for Two Women) for her role in Spendor in the Grass (1961).

[Note: The Oscar-winning short film West Bank Story (2006) parodied the film, with Israeli and Palestinian gangs replacing the second generation Americans and Puerto Rican gangs - fighting over falafel stands.]

Plot Synopsis

During the opening prologue, a breathtaking aerial shot of Manhattan from a bird's eye view captures the city with its bridge traffic and highway ramps, its waterfront docks, parks and skyscrapers. The camera passes over recognizable landmarks as it moves steadily to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and then speedily zooms down and plunges into a concrete playground. A gang of 'cool' white youths are posed together in one corner of a basketball court, clicking their fingers to the syncopated rhythm of the musical score. The aggressive gang members leave the fenced-in playground and cross the tenement street.

In the famous, dazzling opening sequence, they gradually break into a highly-stylized dance and then burst into a daring, high-stepping sequence - an exhilarating, inventive, visual ballet of pirouettes, vigorous athletic moves, and running jumps that symbolizes their dominance and energy - they are readying themselves for a gang brawl.

They are members of the Jets composed of white teens, led by brown-haired, All-American type Riff (Russ Tamblyn). [They represent one side of the racial rivalry, similar to Shakespeare's tense and feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets.] Two of the gang members face off against one member of a rival gang, Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris), a darker-skinned, black-haired Puerto Rican immigrant. He is joined by his gang members, and they pick up the beat by clicking their fingers. The gangs both are vying for control of the streets, alternating between dominance and submission. Two of the members provoke each other, and after an extended confrontation, a full-scale brawl breaks out when the Jets come to rescue Baby John (Eliot Feld), the youngest member of their gang, from an assault by the Sharks.

The conflict is broken up by the arrival of a precinct patrol car, carrying uniformed Officer Krupke (William Bramley) and bigoted, plainclothes policeman Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) who have stopped similar fights between the "punks" many times before:

Schrank: You hoodlums don't own these streets. And I've had all the rough-house I can put up with around here. You want to kill each other? Kill each other, but you ain't gonna do it on my beat. Are there any questions?
Bernardo: Yes, sir. Would you mind translating that into Spanish?
Schrank: Get your friends out of here, Bernardo - and stay out - please.
Bernardo: (to his gang) OK Sharks, vaminos.
Schrank: Boy, as if this neighborhood wasn't crummy enough. (to the Jets) Now look, fellas. Fellas? Look, let's be reasonable, huh? If I don't get a little law and order around here, I get busted down to a traffic corner. And your friend don't like traffic corners. So that means you're gonna start makin' nice with the PRs [Puerto Ricans] from now on. I said nice - GET IT! 'Cause if you don't, and I catch any of ya doing any more brawlin' in my territory, I'm gonna personally beat the living crud out of each and every one of yas and see that you go to the can and rot there. Say goodbye to the nice boys, Krupke.
Krupke: Goodbye boys.

Riff speaks to his gang members and arouses their immature gang mentality. He directs his hatred toward the Puerto Ricans and their turf-encroachment. Convinced of the Jets' own strength and invincibility, he is adamant about checking the Sharks' expansion and influence in the neighborhood while still avoiding a life-threatening rumble with blades or zip guns. However, Riff would consider battling the rivals with weapons if challenged:

Riff: Now we fought hard for this turf and we ain't just gonna give it up...The Emeralds claimed it. We shut 'em out. The Hawks, remember, they tried to take it away, and we knocked 'em down to the cellar.
Members: Yeah, but these PRs are different. They multiply. They keep comin'. Like cockroaches. Close the windows. Shut the doors. They're eatin' our food. They're breathin' all the air. The end to free enterprise...
Riff: Hey, you heard what that Lieutenant Schrank said, eh? We gotta make nice with 'em Puerto Ricans or else. We gotta let 'em move in right under our noses and take it all away from us, or else.
Gang: No!
Riff: You're damned right NO. So what are we gonna do buddy-boys? I'll tell ya what we're gonna do. We're gonna speed fast. We're gonna move like lightnin'. And we're gonna clean them Sharks up once and for all so they ain't never gonna set foot on our turf again. And we're gonna do it in one, all-out fight...The Sharks want a piece of this world too. And they're real down boys. They might ask for blades, zip guns...I say this turf is small, but it's all we got, huh? Now I want to hold it like we always held it, with skin. But if they say blades, I say blades. If they say guns, I say guns. I say I want that just to be the number one - to sail, to hold the sky...OK cats, we rumble. Now, protocality calls for a war council between us and the Sharks, to set the whole thing up. So I would personally give the bad news to Bernardo.

Riff proposes getting help from Tony, a young Polish boy and ex-leader of the Jets who has grown away from them and taken a respectable job: "We need Tony. He's got a rep that's bigger than the whole West Side...He always came through for us and he always will." Tony could serve as the Jets' lieutenant for the impending showdown.

The Jet Song:
(Sung by Riff and others)

(Riff) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette to your last dyin' day!
When you're a Jet, let 'em do what they can
You've got brothers around, you're a family man!
You're never alone, you're never disconnected, you're home with your own
When company's expected, you're well-protected!
Then you are set with a capital J
Which you'll never forget till they cart you away
When you're a Jet you stay a Jet

Riff suggests persuading Tony, who founded the gang but has since moved on, to "stand up" with him and the Jets at the local dance and challenge rival gang-leader Bernardo to a rumble:

Riff: Now I know Tony like I know me and I guarantee you can count him in.
Action: (Tony Mordente) In, out, let's get crackin'.
Gee-Tar: (Tommy Abbott) Where you gonna find Bernardo?
Baby John: It ain't safe to go and be in our territory.
Riff: He'll be at the dance tonight at the gym.
A-rab: (David Winters) Yeah, but the gym's neutral territory.
Riff: A-rab. I'm gonna make nice with him! I'm only gonna challenge him.
Ice: (Tucker Smith) Great, Daddy-o!
Riff: So listen, everybody dress up sweet and sharp. Meet Tony and me at the dance at ten. And walk tall!
A-rab: We always walk tall!
Baby John: We're Jets!
Another member: The greatest!

The Jets Song (continued):

(Snowboy) When you're a Jet, you're a top cat in town
You're a gold medal kid with the heavyweight crown!
(Ice) When you're a Jet, you're the swingin'est thing
Little boy, you're a man, little man, you're a king.
(All Jets) The Jets are in gear, our cylinders are clickin'
The Sharks'll steer clear, 'cause every Puerto Rican's a lousy chicken
Here come the Jets, like a bat out of hell
Someone gets in our way, someone don't feel so well
Here come the Jets, little world, step aside
Better go underground, better run, better hide
We're drawin' the line, so keep your noses hidden
We're hangin' a sign, says: 'Visitors Forbidden'
And we ain't kiddin'
Here come the Jets, Yeah, and we're gonna beat
Every last buggin' gang on the whole buggin' street
On the whole...Buggin'...Ever...Lovin'...Street...Yeah

Tony, an ambitious, level-headed young man who is responsibly employed and works for a living at Doc's, the neighborhood drug and candy store, resists Riff's invitation to the dance, to confront the Sharks that "walk bad" and "fight hard" on neutral turf. Riff pleads for one last favor from his idealistic best friend who has left his past behind and dreams of moving on to something "just around the corner":

Tony: Every single night for the last month, I wake up. And I'm reachin' out.
Riff: For what?
Tony: I don't know.
Riff: A dame?
Tony: It's right outside the door. Just around the corner. But it's comin'.
Riff: What is?
Tony: I don't know. It's like the kick I used to get from bein' a Jet, you know?
Riff: Oh, well now you're talkin'. Oh man, without a gang, you're an orphan. With a gang, you walk in twos, threes, fours. And when your crew is the best, when you're a Jet, you're out in the sun, buddy-boy. You're home free home.
Tony: Riff, I've had it.
Riff: Tony, Tony, look at me, will ya? Come on, look at me...Now, I never asked the time of day from a clock, did I? I never asked nothin' from nobody. But I'm askin' you: 'Come to the dance tonight.'
Tony: I promised Doc I'd clean up the store tonight.
Riff: Then do it after the dance. Tony, I already told the guys you'd be there. If you don't show up, I'll be marked lousy.
Tony: What time'd ya tell 'em?
Riff: Ten. For me Tony, for Riff!
Tony: Ten it is. (They shake)
Riff: Womb to tomb!
Tony: Birth to Earth. And I'll live to regret this.
Riff: Who knows? Maybe what you're waitin' for will be twitchin' at the dance tonight?

Tony sings: "Something's Coming," a song of expectancy about the coming night:

Something's Coming:

Could be, who knows? There's something due any day.
I will know right away, soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballin' down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose!
Who knows? It's only just out of reach, down the block, on a beach, under a tree.
I got a feeling there's a miracle due, gonna come true, coming to me.
Could it be? Yes it could, something's coming, something good.
If I can wait, something's coming, I don't know what it is, but it is gonna be great...

His dance under many clotheslines heaped with laundry transitions with a match-cut to a scene in the back of Madame Lucia's Bridal Shop where fabric hangs. There, a young, newly-arrived (a month earlier), innocent-looking Puerto Rican girl, Maria (Natalie Wood in her second adult film role), speaks in a heavy accent to Anita (Rita Moreno) while she makes alterations to Maria's dress for the evening's dance. Maria begs her to lower the neckline one more inch on her dress, as she slightly pulls down on her own bodice ("How much can one little inch do?"). However, Maria's over-protective brother Bernardo (and Anita's boyfriend), who wants to prevent her from growing up too fast, has already forbidden it: "Bernardo made me promise." Maria's older brother has brought her over to marry Chino (Jose de Vega), but she feels no romantic attraction to him:

Maria: When I look at Chino, nothing happens.
Anita: Well, what do you expect to happen?
Maria: I don't know. Something. What happens when you look at Bernard?
Anita: It's when I don't look that it happens.

When Maria tries on the plain white dress with a wide red belt, she complains: "White is for babies," but after trying it on, she becomes ecstatic: "It is a beautiful dress!"

Bernardo (regarded as a "watchdog" by Maria) views his sister as "a precious jewel."

Maria: My brother is a silly watchdog.
Bernardo: Ah, my sister is a precious jewel.
Anita: What am I, cut glass?

Maria is thrilled and excited about her 'coming out' that evening: "It is most important that I have a wonderful time at the dancing tonight...because tonight is the real beginning of my life as a young lady of America." She spins backwards, and a rainbow of colors envelopes her - the background behind her turns black, and becomes the spinning shapes at the gym dance.

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