by Doug Shearer
West Side Story, which won ten Academy Awards in 1961, is nearly, as I noted above, as unlike The Sound of Music as it’s possible to be. The most striking difference, aside from the settings, the documentary sweep and natural grandeur of The Sound of Music versus West Side Story’s unrelenting inner-city grit, is in the music: Richard Rodgers’ score for The Sound of Music is pit-band friendly, all easy keys and simple counterpoint. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for West Side Story, and he couldn’t have given less of a damn about the comfort of the show’s accompanists. He was a brilliant composer and conductor; as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was accustomed to working with the best of the world’s best musicians. Time signatures that don’t occur in nature, blinding flurries of thirty-second (and sixty-fourth!) notes, syncopations that can throw your back out if you’re not careful: his score for West Side Story is full of them.
But the effect is electrifying.
It’s a story of violence, violence in itself and the tender violence of doomed love. Here, in terms of drama, is where West Side Story and The Sound of Music briefly cross paths (and where West Side Story in turn crosses paths with Moulin Rouge): love. Love that damns us, saves us, transforms us and our lives. Love that can kill.
West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet updated for the gang wars of New York in the 1950s and 1960s. We could say the gangs could be any gangs, in any city, in any decade; here, they’re the homegrown Jets, Caucasian– Italians, Irish, Poles, Germans– and the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants. They speak in the street slang of the sixties, and at first those “Daddy-O”s sound strange, until you remind yourself that all gangspeak is automatically insular, just as automatically quaint and dated. At a gym dance, Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet and best friend of the Jets’ current leader, Riff, meets and falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. They fall, of course, with movie-style immediacy, but Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood play the scene with believable, dreamy incredulity; in the film, as in the stage play, the world around them fades away as they shyly approach one another across the floor of the gym.
Critics have said that brown-haired, brown-eyed Natalie Wood doesn’t look sufficiently Puerto Rican as Maria; I’ll argue it against them. She looks fine. If nothing else, Wood brings a workable combination of spine, spark, and wide-eyed innocence to the part. She’s beautiful. Maria tells Tony he must stop an impending fight between the Sharks and the Jets, and stop it absolutely, even though he’s already worked to downgrade the battle from a general melee to a match-fight between Bernardo, the best of the Sharks, and Ice (lean, angular Tucker Smith), who’s to represent the Jets. In short, Tony gets himself trapped between the gangs, Riff is stabbed and killed, and then Tony himself, in anger and confusion, stabs and kills Bernardo. As in Romeo and Juliet, best intentions lead to tragedy.
And, as in Shakespeare’s version, the tragedy doesn’t stop there. In the end, Tony lies dying in an empty playground, gunned down by Chino, Bernardo’s faithful right-hand man. Tony, believing that Chino in fact killed Maria, is shot right as he and Maria spot each other across said empty playground; in the best tragic tradition, he dies in her arms while she does her best to keep him focused on the future they’ll have together (a reprise of the beautiful “One Hand, One Heart”: “Even death won’t part us now,” she whispers, as he dies– and if you’re not crying at this point, your heart is made of solid stone.).
A film has never blended dance, music, and raw emotion as perfectly as West Side Story. Maria, rising from Tony’s side, demands the gun from Chino; crestfallen, stunned, he meekly gives it to her. She points it at him, then at the Sharks and the Jets, who have gathered to watch; they step back in wide-eyed fear. “How many bullets are left, Chino?” she asks. “How many can I kill– and still have one bullet left for me?” Unlike Romeo and Juliet, though, West Side Story doesn’t present us with a lesson learned from the deaths of all its protagonists. Rather, it ends with a somber message of hope: members of the Sharks step in to help the Jets who are trying to lift Tony and bear him away; a Jet gently settles Maria’s shawl over her head like a veil, and she walks with dignity behind those who carry Tony, a symbol of newfound peace between the gangs. She and the gangs ignore Lieutenant Schrank (burly Simon Oakland) and kindly but weak Doc (Ned Glass), the owner of the soda shop where Tony worked. Chino is arrested, but the other teens leave: the adults in the film have provided them with little else than brutality or indecision, and they’ve found the path to maturity on their own. Maria explains it for them, for the Jets and the Sharks alike: Guns don’t kill. Knives don’t kill. Hatred kills. Now, at least for the time being, the gangs know enough to put their hatred aside.
It shouldn’t work. Never mind that dated gang dialogue: the producers expect us to buy into a story featuring gangs who dance and sing. But the grime of the settings grounds the movie; it takes only seconds to realize that what we’re seeing isn’t dance as such but a form of martial arts, beautiful and graceful, yes, but proud, athletic, and violent, too (especially in the person of Russ Tamblyn, who brings charm and acrobatic prowess in equal measure to the part of Riff); and Bernstein’s score is difficult, jolting, playful, and gorgeous. In terms of setting, West Side Story couldn’t be less like The Sound of Music if it tried, but they’re both masterpieces in the purest sense of the word.