West Side Story


Day One of my own little Robert Wise Film Festival

It was just a coincidence that I had West Side Story in my DVD player the day that director Robert Wise passed away, but as long as I did, I thought it would be a good time to go through his films and include him in this diary. In the next few days, I’ll do The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Run Silent Run Deep, The Sand Pebbles, The Hindenburg, Citizen Kane and an update to my earlier review of The Andromeda Strain.

On with the review:

While I’m anything but a scholar on film musicals, it was instructive for me to watch West Side Story right after viewing Singin’ in the Rain earlier in the week. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. I use a computer program to track my DVD collection and it has the ability to spit out randomly picked titles that I haven’t watched recently. So, purely by coincidence, I watched the two most famous musicals in American movie history back to back (except for a few episodes of Lost in between).

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The contrast was apparent even to someone who has just four musicals in a 500-title collection. Despite both being classified as musicals and made only nine years apart, these are films from two very different schools of film making. Singin’ in the Rain represents the culmination of the earliest form of movie musical. When sound was introduced to motion pictures, musicals were most obvious way to showcase the new technology. The songs, dancing and spectacle, not the story, were the whole point of the exercise. The music was very much in the existing theatrical tradition of the times, which had as much to do with Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley as with Broadway. Singin’ in the Rain takes this tradition to its highest technical level.

West Side Story, on the other hand, represents the highest form the dominant form of the musical since the second half of the 20th Century, the adaptation of a stage musical. This sort of production has an actual story to tell and the music, lyrics and choreography are part of a cohesive whole.

If you have any appreciation of the movie musical, you probably don’t need to be told that West Side Story is Jerome Robbins‘ translation of the Romeo and Juliet story to the street gangs of New York City in the 1950s. Against the backdrop of modern gang problems, the gangs of West Side Story might seem sanitized, simplistic or just plain unsophisticated, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this as pure Broadway or Hollywood hokum. Jerome Robbins’ story was very aware of the problems that faced urban youths of the era. Drugs, alcohol, violence and absentee parents are all visible parts of the background of this play.


The white kids of the gang called the “Jets” are all descendents of the first wave of emigrants from Europe: Italians, Poles, Germans and Irish. The next wave of immigrants, from Puerto Rico, is starting to encroach on their territory. The Puerto Rican members of the “Sharks”, despite being played by largely Anglo actors like Natalie Wood and George Chakiris, are anything but caricatures. The women are uniformly optimistic about their new country. Away from the macho culture back home, their horizons in America are much broader than they were in Puerto Rico. Their men, on the other hand, are keenly away that they have gone from the middle rung of a short ladder to the bottom rung of a much taller one.

The film production of West Side Story expands the stage to the actual streets of New York and elaborate sound stage sets. Jerome Robbins adapted his own choreography for Robert Wise’s cameras. The dancing also points up another difference that marks the evolution from Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly’s dance routines had their roots in tap and Vaudeville. The dance style of West Side Story is balletic and modern.

The performances are universally fine, especially when you allow for the exaggerated, perhaps operatic, acting styles that are part and parcel of musical theater. It’s apparent, though, that they chose to cast the movie using actors who could also sing or dance. That side of the film lacks the sheer virtuosity that someone like Gene Kelly could bring to a movie, but generally speaking, it’s still good enough not to be a minus.

All and all, if you have one musical in your collection, West Side Story would be the obvious choice if it’s not Singin’ in the Rain. With either one, you’ve got the best of its breed.

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