Haven’t done a classic film review in some time and this one definitely fits the bill. Based on the 1957 musical and inspired by the famous Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, this 1961 musical is one of the most successful not just musicals but movies of all time; it still holds the record for most Academy Awards wins for a musical. If for some reason you haven’t watched West Side Story a spoiler alert is being issued. I DO NOT OWN THE PICTURE.
In 1957 Manhattan two gangs run the streets, the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The Jets leader Riff Lorton (Russ Tamblyn with Tucker Smith providing the singing voice for two songs) decides to challenge the Sharks leader Bernardo Nunez (George Chakiris who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this part) to a rumble at the upcoming dance. Riff insists his best friend Tony Wyzek (Richard Beymer with Jimmy Bryant as the singing voice) who left the Jets and has an honest job at a drug store join the Jets at the dance. Tony doesn’t want to, but after he says he feels something important will happen to him agrees to go. Meanwhile on the Sharks side Bernardo’s little sister Maria Nunez (Natalie Wood with Marni Nixon as the singing voice) talks with her best friend and the girlfriend of Bernardo Anita Palacio (Rita Moreno who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for this part) that she does not like the man Bernardo brought to America for her to marry Chino (Jose DeVega). At the dance the gangs refuse to dance with the other. Tony and Maria look at each other from across the dance floor and instantly fall in love. Bernardo warns Tony to stay away from his sister as he agrees to a rumble with Riff. Tony and Maria plan to run away together, but their respective gangs may tear the new couple apart. I probably shouldn’t say any more but considering the material this was inspired by I’m sure it is not hard to figure out.
This is without a doubt one amazing musical is many ways. From the acting, writing, cinematography, songs; OK basically all. Don’t believe me, check out this fact. West Side Story was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10. Two of them were for acting as already stated, the other eight were for best cinematography, sound, music, film editing, costume, art direction, director and of course the biggest of them all Best Picture (it was nominated for best adapted screenplay and I can’t argue with the one that won). While Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood were not nominated they were absolutely fantastic as the star crossed pair of Tony and Maria; they are often listed as one of the best couples of 1960 movies and musicals which shows how much chemistry they had as well as the incredible writing. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno are also adorable as Bernardo and Anita but they definitely earned their Oscars for their parts. The rest of the cast is just as good, but there is so much more than just the acting and writing. West Side Story has also been listed on five of the American Film Institute 100 Years lists: 100 movies, and the revived list, three songs on the 100 songs, 100 Passions and finally Greatest Movie Musicals.
The songs in West Side Story have gone down as not only some of the best Steven Sondheim numbers, but some of the best songs in musicals (film or Broadway). Here are some standouts: “Something’s Coming” by Tony before he goes to the dance, “Maria” by Tony shortly after he has met and fallen for Maria, “Tonight” by Maria and Tony confessing their love, and then later on a quintet with the Jets, Sharks, Anita, Maria and Tony as they get ready for the rumble, “America” by Anita, Bernardo and other members of the Sharks talking about the good and bad things about living in America for them, “I Feel Pretty” Maria’s number where she is happy to run off with Tony, “Somewhere” Tony and Maria’s somber duet planning to find their place where they can be together, “Cool” the Jets song after the rumble where talks of revenge begin to form and finally “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” Maria and Anita’s number after Anita catches Maria with Tony. There are more songs, but these are the ones any musical fan knows.
I have heard that Steven Spielberg is doing a remake of the movie and it is supposedly open casting. I won’t lie and say when I heard about this I was a little worried as I love this story (both the movie and the musical which I saw in 2009). However I know Spielberg has way more hits than misses so my concern is not as big, I just hope we have a great cast and writing; I do not know if it will be as good as this one, but I cannot wait to see it. Regardless if you are a musical fan, if you love great movies West Side Story has to be on your must watch list; I promise you will fall in love just as fast as Tony and Maria with West Side Story.