Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
All I knew about West Side Story going in was that it was based on some dumb old play called Romeo and Juliet and that two rival gangs snap at each other. Now that I’ve seen it, I know where a bunch of songs I’ve heard before came from! Anyway, Tony (Richard Beymer) loves Maria (Natalie Wood) but he’s an airplane-themed gang member and her brother’s a fish-themed gang member! Uh oh!
What’s impressive about West Side Story is that even though you know exactly what happens in the source material, there’s enough variation in the setting and atmosphere that you constantly forget it’s totally that “wherefore art thou” play with Claire Danes in angel wings. This just became my favorite cinematic shake-up of the Bard since Forbidden Planet.
Winner, Best Shakespeare Adaptation Without a Robot.
For the record, almost every other Cinemanaut in the history of this blog is more qualified to talk about Romeo and Juliet than I am, so please please PLEASE shit down my throat for not knowing the intricate details of this play that even most Shakespeare fanatics say “meh” about, but I think West Side Story‘s success comes from how it modifies the story to connect it to today’s audiences. Moving it from old timey Verona to modern New York City is a perfect choice, and adding racial tension (the Sharks being Puerto Ricans at odds with the white Jets) explores the life of an immigrant in America, which is far more interesting to me than “two families don’t like each other.”
Please don’t read that as “racism is more sensible than a blood feud.”
Honestly, I don’t know if I can say much else about the story. They took a timeless tale and pumped it up with incredible cinematography and brilliant songs, neither of which get covered in this section of the article. The experience of West Side Story as a whole is greater than the events contained within it.
Kind of like love. (WOW, am I being a cheeseball right now.)
I’ll admit, the acting sort of fell by the wayside for me on this film. No one performance blew me away, but maybe that’s good because the entire movie blew me away. Our Romeo is Tony, played by Richard Beymer, the original founder of the Jets that now wants to go legit. Richard has an idealistic sweetness to him that makes him instantly relatable, and it only serves to make you cringe when it looks like he might be headed for trouble again.
Back away from the crime, you lovable optimist, you!
Natalie Wood is our Juliet stand-in Maria, and holy hell, what a sweetheart. She’s hopeful for better things in her life, and hey, she’d make a good match for that cheerful fella I was just talking about!
So adorable but look out for your brother I’m about to mention!
Maria’s brother that I’m mentioning right now is Bernardo, played by George Chakiris. He leads the Sharks and is just, like, the coolest motherfucker around? One snap and I’d follow him into any fight.
(Pause for fresh panties.)
Heading up the Jets is Russ Tamblyn as Riff, doing a somewhat whiny, somewhat New Yawk-y accent that just can’t top Bernardo’s coolness. Russ’s rowdy performance clashes well with the calmness of his best friend Tony to create tension among the Jets.
“Dese guys and dems guys, youse guys.”
Also noteworthy are Rita Moreno as Maria’s best friend and Bernardo’s best gal Anita, William Bramley as Officer Krupke, and John Astin as an energetic dance chaperone that I’m mentioning just because I shouted, “John Astin, cool!” when I spotted him.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
The numbers in West Side Story are unlike anything I’ve seen so far in my musical travels. It feels like some of the songs don’t ever truly “start,” like the whole thing is one big number, and the actors frequently move like dancers throughout the entire film. Also, this is the first musical I’ve hit where the songs aren’t afraid to get… weird. I don’t know a treble clef from a salad fork, so I tagged in Lab Rat Phil to explain to me why West Side Story sounds so different, and he said the score uses a lot of dissonant chords, compared with, say, South Pacific, which he called “extremely diatonic.” Okay! Thanks, Phil! Anyway, those unsavory sounds really add to the frenetic, uneasy feeling of gang life, even with all the happy snappin’ in the opening dances.
The nursery from Mary Poppins is going bonkers right now.
Our first big song is “Jet Song.” (Wait, that’s really the title?) Riff breaks down the importance of being a Jet and fires up the gang to get behind a rumble, and he does so by singing horribly. The song itself is great but yeesh, his voice is grating. It’s a bit jarring for our very first vocal performance.
Somebody shut that cat up!
Then Tony gets a lovely tune called “Something’s Coming” that sets up his optimistic nature extremely well. He doesn’t know what’s in store for him, but he’s ready for it! Yes, it’s a girl, we all know it’s a girl, we’ve seen movies before and we know it’s a girl. Still, it’s nice to have a song about aspirations rather than a typical “protagonist need love” ditty.
He could just be excited to finish the laundry, who knows?
After a kickass group mambo that turns into a slow dance, Tony belts out “Maria,” an infectious song about one of the other characters but I can’t remember for the life of me which one. It’s mostly about how he can’t stop saying the name of the woman he’s in love with, which is really doofishly sweet and awwwww and we’ve all been there, right?
Assuming she’s got a good amount of vowels and syllables.
But enough of that romance shit! The Sharks meet on the roof and argue about which was better, life in Puerto Rico or life in America. This dispute kicks off the song “America,” a ridiculously catchy, funny, vibrant number on the immigrant experience that absolutely will not leave my head.
“America.” Fuck yeah.
Then Tony and Maria duet “Tonight” and I’ve heard this song before but I don’t have much to say about it. It’s just a very nice tune about falling in love.
The hits keep coming with “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which may be my favorite number but it’s not done fistfighting with “America” yet. Riff’s harsh voice is put to better use in this comedic ode to figuring out what’s wrong with today’s troubled youth. It runs down all the various textbook reasons given for delinquency but is extremely funny because the actual delinquents singing it don’t believe any of this bullshit and are only spewing it to get the cops off of their asses. It’s a riot and the line last is so perfect that I started applauding wildly. In my own living room.
And was promptly carted away.
Hey, I know “I Feel Pretty” too! And it’s spectacular. I’m discovering through this musical experiment that my favorite love songs are the ones that acknowledge the cheese of romance while also saying, “I don’t give a damn.” (See “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” and “Isn’t It Kinda Fun?”) “I Feel Pretty” is all about how good you feel about yourself when you’re in love and I don’t have an ounce of cynicism for it right now.
If you miss Cynical Me, go read my Lord of the Rings articles.
Oh, then there’s a boring song about getting married. Eh.
God’s singing voice is nice, though.
And then… “Tonight” comes back with a vengeance. Where it was previously a sweet duet for two lovers, now it’s the multi-layered tale of what every character is up to tonight, and they all sing over each other and the whole thing builds up with a feverish tension and hot damn, you guys, this movie is amazing.
I should not be allowed to write about it. It’s too good.
Tony and Maria lament about their predicament in “Somewhere,” an tense duet about unfortunate circumstances and the hope of being together one day. I feel bad saying the melody was kind of forgettable because the scene itself is very passionate.
Filmed in Bed-O-Rama!
Of course, when you’re a rough-and-tumble street gang with pent-up aggression, sometimes you just gotta go full Kevin Bacon and dance that shit out. “Cool” is a song all about keeping calm and off your enemies’ radar when all you want to do is rage, and it’s a fantastic idea for a dance. The energy in this sequence is explosive, all while trying not to explode.
I surrender to the greatness that is West Side Story.
Let’s see… Maria and Anita have a double-song debate on true love in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” and we end on a reprise that’s nothing short of heart-wrenching. Good. Job. Movie.
You win. You are the best. None can top you. I love you.
- The cinematography in this film is gorgeous and I could talk about it for days. Please let me talk about it for days.
- As good as the song “Maria” is, my introduction to that melody was Tom Servo singing “I just met a fella named Torgo…” in the Manos: The Hands of Fate episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I had no idea that was a spoof of something and I still can’t unhear it.
- Hey, remember when I discovered that the gimmick of Moulin Rouge! was basically the same idea behind Singin’ in the Rain? I feel like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is just West Side Story without music or being good. Stop watching the best musicals and making worse versions, Baz!
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
Cards on the table, not a single line in all of West Side Story jumped out at me as being badly written, but here’s one from “Cool” that made me giggle because it sounds like a boner…
“Got a rocket in your pocket,
Keep cooly cool, boy…”
The Music Man (1962)