By M. (USA)
Okay, folks…I have to admit this openly; West Side Story is my all time favorite film, hands down! I rarely ever pass up the opportunity to see it, whether it be on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, with the lights down low, and a whole bunch of other people, whether I know them or not, or even on TV, although nothing beats experiencing West Side Story on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, in a darkened movie theatre.
It was in the summer of 1962, prior to entering the sixth grade, while attending day camp out in the Western part of the United States, that I was first introduced to West Side Story through the music to the original Broadway stage production of this dynamite musical. A girl in my group who’d received a copy of the LP of the original Broadway soundtrack of West Side Story as a birthday present brought it to camp and played it for the rest of the group. My love of West Side Story took off instantly. The whole camp seemed to take on a festive air due to the West Side Story-mania that was in the air. Kids roamed the halls, often in packs, finger-snapping, whistling and singing the songs. The various songs of West Side Story rang through the buses to and from camp every day of the week.
My parents also had an LP copy of the original Broadway production soundtrack of West Side Story, which I played whenever possible, on their Hi-FI set. I also liked playing the songs on the piano, as well. Due to the fact that my parents didn’t think that West Side Story was a kid’s movie, and my relative social isolation from most other kids, I would not get to see the film version of West Side Story until six years later, around Christmastime of 1968, as a high school senior, at a now-defunct cinema roughly 45 minutes north of the Boston area. I fell in love with the film West Side Story instantly.
Since I was still a high school teen when I first saw the film West Side Story, I was able to identify with the Jets, the Sharks and their girls, regarding kids being kids and so forth, but when I got a little older, and began seeing WSS every time it came to an independent movie theatre in my area, or even on TV, my appreciation for West Side Story not only deepened, but I have been able to look at this film and appreciate it for what it was/is from a whole different, much wider perspective. Not only did I continue to love everything about West Side Story, but I have also continued to appreciate it for the true work of art that it really is.
With the exception of one afternoon screening in mid-March of 2001 that conflicted directly with my (late) dad’s memorial, I’ve continued to see West Side Story every time it comes to an independent movie theatre in my area, and I’ve even made special road trips to neighboring states to for screenings of this great, golden oldie but keeper of a classic film.
West Side Story has an excellent cast, but the ones who seem to stand out the most are Rita Moreno, who plays the role of the fiery Anita beautifully, and George Chakiris, who does an equally fabulous job of playing the role of the equally fiery but sardonic Shark gangleader, Bernardo, who’s also Anita’s love interest. Natalie Wood does an okay job of playing Bernardo’s sister, Maria, and Tucker Smith, another cast member who really stood out, does an excellent job of playing Jet member, Ice, who takes over the Jet gang leadership after Riff’s death during the Rumble. Russ Tamblyn is excellent as the acrobatic, exuberant, somewhat cocky and arrogant Riff, while Elliot Feld is great as the immature, scared Baby-John, the youngest Jet gang member, as does David Winter, who plays Baby-John’s buddy, A-Rab. Simon Oakland is fabulous as the bitter, bigoted Lt. Schrank, and Bill Bramley is also great as the quieter, but equally cynical Ofcr. Krupke.
Richard Beymer is somewhat weak and lacklustre as Tony, but is offset by the rest of the cast. Had it not been for Natalie Wood’s overt hostility towards Richard Beymer off-screen, however (Natalie Wood had actually tried to get Richard Beymer kicked off the set on several occasions!), Richard Beymer might’ve played a much stronger role as Tony, despite the way the script, both for the original Broadway stage version and the film version of West Side Story had been written.
West Side Story seems to take on a magical, almost 3-dimensional quality when shown on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, in a real movie theatre, with a whole bunch of people around, whether one knows them or not. The brilliant Bernstein musical score seems even more brilliant. The scenery seems more expansive and one can see all of everything. The richly-colored costumes and photography, and overall cinematography seems even more intense, and the beautifully-choreographed dancing by the late Jerome Robbins even more beautiful. From the warring Jets and Sharks to the romancing Tony and Maria, the various characters in West Side Story seem to move much more fluidly and freely, and in a much wider, more open space. Richard Beymer, too, comes off as being even more vital and alive in his role as Tony.
West Side Story, imo, not only cries to be shown on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, but it’s cool to see from the balcony of any of the few balconied movie theatres that are left here in the United States. I was fortunate enough to attend the special 40th-year anniversary screening of West Side Story at NYC’s renowned Radio City Music Hall, with some old friends of mine down in NYC. I drove down to the Big Apple that Saturday morning in early October to see my old friends and relatives, as well as the film West Side Story.
What a beautiful print of this film there was at Radio City Music Hall that terrific Saturday night! Radio City Music Hall was packed with an exuberant crowd, with much applause and finger snapping from the audience. Five years later, once again, I drove down to NYC and took in a screening of the film West Side Story with a cousin of mine on the Upper West Side, at another great NYC movie theatre, and we both had a wonderful time! I’ve continued to see the film West Side Story every time it comes to an independent movie theatre, as well as on TV, and I never get tired of seeing this great classic over and over again.
The MGM quotation “Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger” is so true, imho.