I am a big fan of musicals. If you ask anybody I have ever lived with, they will tell you that I love to sing in the shower, and more often than not, it will be a song from a musical. And if it is, there’s a high chance it is from this 1961 musical, West Side Story.
Originally written as a stage production about Catholics and Jews called East Side Story (literally the truth) but deemed too similar to previous work, the play was eventually picked up again many years later and adapted for the current times. The story became a tale of two gangs, the Sharks against the Jets, Puerto Ricans vs Whites, mixed with a version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (this is my favourite Shakespearean adaptation actually, sorry The Lion King). Our two main characters are Tony and Maria, played by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, who are on opposite sides of a gang war and, as the story always goes, they end up falling in love.
The story is a very good adaptation of such a famous tale. They do not particularly deviate from the original source material apart from one obvious exception which I shall not mention to avoid spoilers but caught me pleasantly by surprise the first time I saw it. The acting is good too, especially by the sometimes kitsch scale of the sixties. The main pairing are great but the real stars are Maria’s brother and his girlfriend, played by George Chakiris and Rita Moreno (the third person and first Latino to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award- often considered the pinnacle of entertainment) who steal almost every scene they are in, particularly the catchiest of the songs, America.
And that leads us neatly onto the score musical numbers by Bernstein and Sondheim which are absolutely fantastic. It would be difficult to be completely unfamiliar with a song from this because it contains amazing classics such as Somewhere, Maria, America, Tonight and I Feel Pretty. They are all amazingly sung and performed with iconic set design and choreography to make them distinctive and memorable. The choreography is unique from almost every other musical I have ever seen, sometimes straying close to a ballet, which may put modern viewers off but I personally enjoyed. It stuck me the first time I saw it and has ever since! And THAT CLICKING! So… damn… addictive…
This film is a certified classic. It has won the most Oscars of any musical ever with a total of 10 (despite La La Land, Chicago, Les Miserables and numerous others trying) and it is thoroughly deserving of all its praise. Perhaps it is a little dated now but I personally think it is the finest adaptation of Shakespeare and the story and songs remain timeless and always will. One of my favourite movie musicals. Get watching!