Probably best known for its dramatic dancing fight scenes and iconic songs such as “I Feel Pretty,” West Side Story celebrated its 50th anniversary this past Wednesday. To celebrate the event, Turner Classic Movies and select theaters around the country held showings of the movie for one night.
Debuting in theaters in 1961, the movie was adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical written by Arthur Laurents. Featuring music from Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim and running for 732 performances, the play was a success both on Broadway and internationally. The movie was equally successful, winning 11 Oscar awards, including best supporting actor for George Chakiris, best supporting actress for Rita Moreno, and best director to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story features the heartbreaking tragedy of two young people from rival gangs falling in love and being torn apart by the hatred of others. However, unlike Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story offers a more real-world perspective; instead of two wealthy families, the rival sects are two gangs fighting for turf in New York City. The Jets, a group of white Americans, are fighting to keep their hard-won territory from being overtaken by the Sharks—a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants. The movie well represents racial tensions within the United States as the Sharks try to find their place in the world, but are constantly being forced out by the native Jets. Between the Sharks and the Jets’ bickering, Tony, a founding member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, fall deeply in love.
Overall, the movie is a must-see classic. Featuring truly artistic dancing as well as an amazing soundtrack, West Side Story combines the best features of ballet and orchestra into an epic musical that all should see. The difficult dance numbers and complicated music create an atmosphere of real professionalism. Those who love musicals will appreciate the catchy yet complex music and dazzling dance routines.
However, if musicals are not your thing, or you are looking for just a simple, fun movie-watching experience, West Side Story is not for you. Spanning two and half hours, the movie can get quite tedious to those not fully invested in the characters. The initial fight scene draws out the tension between the Jets and the Sharks for a good 10 minutes.
But the drawn-out nature of the movie that some may find tedious allows for the characters to develop fully; it allows the audience to relate to Tony and Maria’s struggles as well as the gang member mentality. The Jets’ “Officer Krupke” song, a frustrated yet joking romp about the diffculties faced by “juvenile deliquents” in the legal system, creates a happy atmosphere that brings the audience closer to understanding why the Jets choose to be in a gang.
Before the movie, TCM featured a discussion between Robert Osborne, the channel’s host; George Chakiris, the actor who played the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo; Marni Nixon, the actress who dubbed Maria’s singing; and Walter Mirsch, the movie’s producer. While the question and answer session was interesting for fans who have known the movie for a long time, it was quite dull for those who hadn’t. It also came very close to spoiling major plot points for those who hadn’t seen the movie before.
Also, the conversation was directionless. Osborne, a known and respected host of TCM, did a poor job directing answers from the group and many lost interest in the rambling answers. While it did give die-hard fans some interesting tidbits they may have not known of, the discussion was overall boring.
But seeing the movie on the big screen more than made up for the frustrating discussion portion. West Side Story was meant to be experienced via the full screen. As a long time fan of the movie, it gave me a renewed appreciation for the film.
I highly recommend seeing West Side Story at least once in your lifetime, especially if you like musicals. Its storyline, along with its complexity and beauty, makes it a true classic.