My initial introduction to West Side Story was during the summer of 1962, prior to entering the sixth grade, while attending day camp out west, in Tucson, AZ, and staying with my grandparents. One of the girls in my group, who'd recently received a copy of the LP Album of the soundtrack to the original Broadway stage production of West Side Story for her birthday, brought it to camp one day, and played it for the rest of the group. My love of the music (and the story behind it) of West Side Story took off immediately.
West Side Story-mania was in the air that summer, as kids went around, sometimes in packs, snapping their fingers and singing all the WSS songs. The songs from West Side Story also rang through the bus to and from camp every day, as well.
Since my parents also had a copy of the LP Album of the WSS Broadway stage production soundtrack, I played it at home whenever I could, on my parents' Hi-Fi record player, and I also banged around with the songs from West Side Story on the piano a lot, much to my parents' dismay.
Due, in part to my relative social isolation, and to the fact that my parents didn't (and still don't) consider West Side Story as a kids' movie and refused to take my sister and I to see it, I did not get to see the movie during the heyday of its freshness, popularity and newness. I first saw the film version of West Side Story, at around Christmastime of 1968, as a high school Senior, during a huge national re-release of this film, at a now-defunct cinema 45 minutes north of Boston, and fell in love with it immediately. Having seen the film West Side Story more times than I can count at this point, I do agree with my mom that it's not really a kids' movie.
Little did I or my family know that this was the beginning of my own love affair with the film West Side Story that would last all the way up to the present, much to their amusement, chagrin, and resigned acceptance of this particular idiosyncrasy of mine.
Here's the real crux of my essay:
West Side Story, as everybody knows, began as a famous late-1950's Broadway stage musical that was based on the renowned Shakespeare tragedy, Romeo & Juliet, which played at NYC's now-defunct Winter Garden for roughly 2 years before embarking on a national and then an international tour as well, becoming a hit both nationally and internationally. The original concept of West Side Story was actually born around WWII, when conflict between Jews and Catholics here in the United States was still quite fresh--and intense. The two gangs were to be Jewish and Irish/Italian Catholic. Maria would be Jewish, while Tony would be Irish/Italian Catholic. There were also some name changes to this musical along the way as well; originally named Gangway, it was changed to East Side Story, and then, ultimately, West Side Story.
The very concept of West Side Story, however, didn't really get off the ground until well after WWII, when the conflict between Jews and Catholics here in the (continental) United States was not nearly as fresh, new or intense as it had previously been. The rather large influx of Puerto Ricans into NYC and into the continental United States generally, was now the catalyst of conflict, which was between the Puerto Ricans and the White European Ethnic Americans. Tony was a Polish-American and a former Jets leader/founder, while Maria, who became Tony's love interest, was the sister of the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Shark gang leader, Bernardo.
After Walter Mirisch bought the rights to the movie, West Side Story not only became a big hit on stage, nationally and internationally, but it became a big hit on screen and a spectacular film, which won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture of the year, after its release in late October of 1961.
Since I was still a teenager in high school the first time I saw the movie West Side Story, I was able to identify with the Jets, the Sharks and their girls, regarding kids being kids and so on. When I became a little older, however and began seeing West Side Story every time it came around to an independent movie theatre in our area, however, I still loved and appreciated this film, although I developed a somewhat different viewpoint of it than I'd had as a high school kid. I began to really appreciate West Side Story as a dynamic work of art and cinematic technology, as well as the intense scenery, the brilliant Bernstein musical score, the beautifully-choreographed dancing by the late Jerome Robbins, and the very story behind WSS, as well as everything else.
With the exception of Richard Beymer (who I regard as kind of a weak, lacklustre Tony), I think that WSS has a very strong cast, and is a very strong film overall. West Side Story, to me, carries a certain message; It succinctly points out the destructive consequences of racial/ethnic prejudices and its ensuing (gang) violence, but there's also a detectable ray of hope in the end, as several Jets and Sharks come together to carry Tony's body off after he was shot and killed by Chino, in retaliation for Tony's having stabbed Bernardo to death, indicating that, as difficult as reconciliation between people often is, it's still possible. The scene where Maria comes between the Jets and Sharks as they seem ready to clash once more, however, seems to have been the catalyst for that ray of hope to arrive, or perhaps it would've come anyway. Nobody really knows.
To be truthful, I'm a devout fan of the film West Side Story (it's my all time favorite film, hands down!), who's also seen several very good stage productions of this musical, including the more up-to-date Broadway stage revival of WSS, which, although enjoyable, I looked at with a harder, more critical eye than my sister-in-law and my then 8-year-old niece, neither of whom had ever seen a stage production of West Side Story before.
West Side Story is a film that I never get tired of seeing over and over again, whether it be in a real movie theatre, on a great big, wide screen, with the lights down low, or on TV, and I've seen it more times than I'm able and willing to count at this point. Regardless of how many people claim that seeing on a great big home theatre system on TV is fantastic, absolutely nothing beats seeing West Side Story on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, which, in fact, this great classic film cries for.
Because West Side Story is such a strong, intense movie, I have a tough time picking out favorite characters and scenes/songs from it. The Dance at the Gym, America, the Prologue-Jet Song, Cool, the pre-Rumble Quintet, and the Rumble itself, as well as Ofcr. Krupke, are pillar scenes.
West Side Story has a very strong cast. Fairly recently, however, I learned something about the relationship between Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, as well as certain directorial constraints put on Richard Beymer by Robert Wise, the film's director, from above, that has made me more willing to give Richard Beymer the benefit of the doubt. Natalie Wood had much hostility and resentment towards Richard Beymer, which she made no secret of. (She was dating Warren Beatty at the time, I think.) Richard Beymer was clearly pained by Natalie Wood's overt hostility and resentment towards him, and it showed. More to the point, Natalie Wood had, in fact, tried to get Richard Beymer kicked off the set on several occasions as well, although they made up sometime later when they met in a California restaurant. Had Natalie Wood gotten along better with Richard Beymer during the filming of West Side Story, Richard Beymer might've played a much stronger role as Tony, despite the way the script for both state and screen had been written.
Richard Beymer was also disappointed that Robert Wise hadn't allowed him to play the role of a Tony with a more of an "edge" to him, so to speak, and was said to have walked out of a premiere showing of the film West Side Story because of it. Had Richard Beymer been allowed to put a bit more "edge" into his role as Tony, he might've been a stronger Tony, as well.
Since a substantial part of West Side Story was filmed in NYC's Hell's Kitchen, where Lincoln Center now stands, the cast and crew members alike were regularly harassed by street toughs, who regularly showered rocks and bottles, etc., down at them from the tenement rooftops. The crew ended up hiring out an actual street gang for security and protection during the filming. Oh, the irony of this, especially since West Side Story is about two warring NYC street gangs, as well as love and romance that develops amidst that conflict, only to go up in flames due to the gangs' hatred for each other!
I've attended virtually every screening of West Side Story in our area, which have been well attended. Boston audiences, while more reserved than NY audiences, enjoy it as much as new yorkers, and West Side Story is especially magical when shown in a real movie theatre, on a great big, wide movie screen. I've actually made special road trips to neighboring states, as well as the opposite end of the state that I reside in for screening events of the film West Side STory. I attended both the 40th and 50th year anniversary screenings of WSS with friends, at both NYC's famed Radio City Music Hall, and here in Boston, other screenings here in the Bay State. I recently attended screenings of a beautifully (digitally) restored version of the film West Side Story at the Cinemarks Cinema out in Hadley, MA, and at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, and the fabulous Tanglewood Boston Symphony Orchestra/West Side Story (film) Concert, as well.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra played a fantastic live rendition of the musical score, and a beautifully-restored, Hi-Definition version of the film West Side Story version was played along with the BSO's live rendition of the score. WSS is a hard film for me to resist, and it never grows old. The MGM adage "Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger" is so true!