“West Side Story,” produced by The Mirisch Corporation and Seven Arts Productions for United Artists, is a 1961 film adaptation of a 1957 Broadway musical conceived by Jerome Robbins and with a book by Arthur Laurents. Set in the West Side of New York in the late Fifties, the show is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
As in the Bard’s 16th Century tragedy, “West Side Story” focuses on a pair of “star-cross’d lovers” caught in the middle of a blood feud. Since the play takes place in post-World War II New York City, the two rivaling factions are two teen gangs: The Jets make up the “American” gang: the Sharks are Puerto Ricans. Tony, Laurents’ stand-in for Romeo, is a former Jet trying to go straight. “West Side Story’s” Juliet is Maria, the younger sister of Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader.
Featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story” was a big hit during its initial Broadway run. It won two Tony Awards (Best Choreographer – Robbins; Best Scenic Designer – Oliver Smith). Several of the musical’s songs (“Tonight,” “Somewhere,” and “Maria”) were popular hits when the show ran on Broadway and have become pop standards.
The success of the original stage version of “West Side Story” and its various revivals inspired Hollywood to adapt it into a movie. Acclaimed director Robert Wise, who later directed “The Sound of Music’ and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” was hired to make the movie version. Wise had directed various gritty dramas set in New York, but he had not done a musical before, so Robbins was brought in as co-director in charge of the complex choreography.
Finally, to bring Laurents’ play to the silver screen, Ernest Lehman adapted the show into a screenplay. Lehman’s script was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay; it was the only one of 11 Academy Award nominations that did not result in a statuette for “West Side Story.” The film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Score.
The Wise-Robbins version of “West Side Story” is set in New York City’s Lincoln Square area during the late 1950s. Two rival gangs, the “white” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, are mired in a long-standing feud for control of this West Side turf. The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), while the Sharks follow Bernardo (George Chakiris). Their long-standing rivalry is summarized in the “Prologue” dance sequence; directors Wise and Robbins, along with screenwriter Lehman, show various brawls and other acts of hostilities between the two gangs.
The film’s “Romeo and Juliet” plot centers on the unlikely romance between Riff’s best friend Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo’s younger sister. Tony co-founded the Jets with Riff several years ago, but he left the gang and now works at a drugstore owned by Doc (Ned Glass).
Although the local NYPD precinct’s Lt. Shrank (Simon Oakland) warns Riff to make nice with the Puerto Ricans or else, the Jets’ leader has other ideas. He plans to challenge the Sharks to a rumble (fight) that will determine which gang will control Lincoln Square. The place for this challenge: a city-organized dance at the local gym.
But the Jets are without their best fighter: Tony. Riff needs his best friend to be the gang’s champion, since Tony is the one guy capable of beating Bernardo. Riff begs Tony to be a pal and step up for his Jet brothers, but all Tony can promise is to be at the dance.
Bernardo, too, is eager for a fight, but he is also worried about his baby sister, Maria. Recently arrived from Puerto Rico and new to the ways of the U.S., Maria works at Madam Lucia’s (Penny Santon) bridal shop.
As in Shakespeare’s most famous romantic tragedy, love blooms between Tony and Maria when they meet at the dance, only to be overshadowed by the hate-fueled rivalry between the two gangs. Tony and Maria have only a few moments of peace, quiet, and happiness before their love is marred by the schemes of Riff and Bernardo.
“West Side Story” could have been just a predictable knock-off of “Romeo and Juliet” as a non-musical drama. But the brilliant score by composer Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim transformed Arthur Laurents’ book into one of Broadway’s greatest musicals. Here, viewers can hear slightly different versions of Bernstein and Sondheim’s “The Jet Song,” “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “Gee Officer Krupke,” and “A Boy Like That,” just to name a few.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists (MGM/UA) has issued “West Side Story” on DVD in several editions, but the best edition in this format is 2003’s Special Edition box set. This two-disc set includes the feature film (Disc 1), which features a remastered soundtrack done in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The movie also has an option that allows viewers to watch “West Side Story” with or without an intermission.
The second disc comes with a plethora of extras. These include the one-hour documentary “West Side Memories.” This behind-the-scenes look at the movie features interviews with director Robert Wise, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and many surviving cast and crew members. “West Side Memories” also showcases some of actress Natalie Wood’s vocal recordings for Maria’s musical numbers. Contrary to rumors that Wood was a bad singer and that she had to be replaced by the vocal performer Marni Nixon, the actress had a lovely singing voice. Marni Nixon’s voice was added in postproduction because she was one of the producer’s favorite singers, not because Natalie Wood could not carry a tune.
The box set also includes a collectible scrapbook which includes a copy of the film’s working script, a replica of the original 1961 lobby brochure, reproduced production memos, and contemporary reviews of “West Side Story.” This scrapbook is nicely done and will give fans of “West Side Story” an entertaining and enlightening look at the making of the legendary Academy Award-winning musical.
DVD Technical Specifications
- Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
- Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
- Dubbed: French, Spanish
- Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada)
- Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
- Number of discs: 2
- Rated: NR (Not Rated)
- Studio: MGM (Video & DVD)
- DVD Release Date: April 1, 2003
- Run Time: 152 minutes