Romeo and Juliet has been remade countless times. However, no adaptation is as gritty or powerful as that of beloved musical classic West Side Story. The tale of two young lovers embracing one another despite being members of opposing rival gangs, the 1961 smash hit is considered one of the best films of all time.
What is West Side Story All About?
As already pointed out, Westside Story is essentially Romeo & Juliet with a 50’s twist. The Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the Jets and the Sharks. However, in Shakespeare’s work, the reason for the two families’ war is vaguely described as an “ancient grudge”. For their warring tribes, Westside Story expands a little.
You see, the Jets hate the Sharks because they’re taking their land. In return, the Sharks, a Puerto-Rican gang, dislike the Jets because of their racism and bigotry. This is depicted in the song ‘America’ when the girls sing “Life is all right in America” and the boys respond “If you’re all-white in America.”
In other words, the message of Westside Story is as relevant today as it was at the time of its release. “That kind of bigotry and prejudice was very much in the air,” says the original play’s author Arthur Laurents in a 2009 NPR interview, “It’s really, ‘How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?’ That’s what it’s about.”
And so, we come to our Romeo and Juliet. In this case, it’s Tony and Maria, played by Richard Breymer and Natalie Wood respectively. They fall in love at first sight at a Shark’s party and declare one another soulmates. Of course, as you might expect, their romance is ill-fated.
How Was West Side Story Conceived?
The 1961 film is based on a 50’s play by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents. Jerome Robbins, who would go on to direct and choreograph the 1957 production, approached Bernstein and Laurent in 1947 about doing a contemporary Romeo & Juliet. While this idea evolved into what we have today, there were some initial differences.
You see, Robbins proposed that the love story center on an Irish Catholic girl and Jewish boy. The story would then explore the conflicts and hatreds brought on by clan differences. As in the traditional R&J vein, their love would be brought to grief thanks to said differences. This version of the play was called East Side Story.
However, disagreements over whether the play’s musical style should be opera or, as Robbins described it, “lyric theatre” led to him jumping ship. His collaborators, Bernstein and Laurents, followed. Five years later, however, a fateful reunion between Bernstein and Laurents sparked a conversation about juvenile delinquent gangs, a contemporary phenomenon. This conversation led to the Irish-Polish and Peurto Rican rivalry of the final version of the play.
From Stage to Screen
Enlisting the talents of Stephen Sondheim for lyrics, Bernstein and Laurents created a timeless masterpiece. With Jerome Robbins taking the director’s chair, the show managed to boast slick choreography, becoming a critical hit. Given this, it was only a matter of time before West Side Story made the jump to film.
So successful was the stage show that Robbins was hired to direct the film as well. Well, to be precise, he would co-direct. While the dancing and singing sections were under his watchful eye, Robert Wise directed the dramatic parts of the adaptation. After all, Robbins had no prior film experience and Wise was known for tackling gritty subject matter on-screen.
That said, the film’s transition from stage to screen wasn’t smooth. You see, Robbins was known for his rigorous approach to directing, allegedly forcing Natalie Wood (Maria) to practice singing and dancing simultaneously for 16 hours. For the cast as a whole, Robbins had them rehearse for eight weeks, far beyond the common four-week rehearsals. Considering these rumors, it’s no surprise he was fired for taking too long and going over budget. While Robbins won an Oscar for the finished movie, he wouldn’t work on another film production for the rest of his life.
Why is the film so revered?
1961’s West Side Story is oft-thought to be one of the greatest musical films ever made. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther dubbed it “a cinematic masterpiece”. Meanwhile, Variety‘s Whitney Williams noted how “its use of color is dazzling, camera work often is thrilling, editing fast with dramatic punch, production design catches mood as well as action itself”.
Heck, in many ways, Williams said it all. West Side Story is a revered classic because of its beautiful camera work, painstakingly detailed sets but also, of course, the music and choreography. Dance styles differ depending on the characters’ personalities (Maria’s graceful dancing and the rough-and-tumble dancing of Riff and the Jet boys are noticeably distinct, for example). The songs range from chirpy to sweet to mischievous, perfectly accommodating the movie’s solemn themes while expressing the souls of the characters.
What’s more, beneath the music, West Side Story has an important message to tell us. That violence only begets violence – and we must co-operate with each other no matter our differences in race and class. At the end of the film, Tony and Maria’s love falls victim to this tense division. Had the Jets and Sharks looked past their physical differences like Tony and Maria did, perhaps things might’ve been different.
The Spielberg Treatment
“I’ve always wanted to make a musical[…]Like West Side Story or Singin’ in the Rain. Yeah, I want to make a musical. I’ve been looking for one for 20 years. I just need something that excites me.” In this 2004 TotalFilm interview with Steven Spielberg, it’s already clear the famed director was keen to do the iconic musical. After further expression of interest in 2014, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights for a remake.
Spielberg’s version keeps the original music intact, basing itself off the original stage musical as opposed to the 1961 film. That said, Spielberg intends to pay some dues to the 60’s version. Rita Morena, who plays Anita in that film, plays Valentina and acts as executive producer.
Regardless, the latest trailer shows much promise. It seems to exude the magic and themes that made previous versions of the story so iconic. Perhaps Spielberg will do justice to the musical he loved so much as a kid.
Do you think West Side Story is a classic or just overrated? Are you hyped for the Steven Spielberg version? Be sure to let us know!