A) The fact that the original composers of West Side Story managed to get together and create a rare but fantastic musical that radically differs from most other musicals in that it's about many things that happen in real life, throughout our society and throughout the world: Racial and Ethnic tensions, Urban gang warfare, people crossing the racial, color, ethnic and religious barriers to fall in love, date and even marry, often even in the midst of conflict between parties, and, in general, people fighting simply because they know no other way(s) to communicate with each other....
B) West Side Story is proof that films can be and sometimes are made that are not overly graphic, violent, or have explicit sex scenes in order for them to have substance, style and to have a meaningful story behind them. Even though the lyrics and words were censored in some parts of the film version and exchanged for words that didn't seem so "suggestive", the words in the film that took that took the place of the words in the Broadway stage production seemed to fit quite well. Stephen Sondheim smartly and cannily went out of his way to see to that. The scene where Tony says "Birth to Earth"
to his old buddy, Riff, in the film version, rather than "Sperm to Worm" while pledging the fact to each other that they're still good friends, is a great example of that. So is the scene where Anita, who's anticipating quality time that will be spent with Bernardo after the Rumble sings "No matter if he's tired, poor dear. No matter if he's tired, so long as he's here", rather than "No matter if he's tired, so what? No matter if he's tired, so long as he's hot".
C) West Side Story is also proof that, despite existing enmities between groups, and despite the fact that all the tensions and hostilities between the Jets, the Sharks and their girls, that will eventually lead to the destruction of a romance, gratuitous violence, conflict with the law, and, eventually a show-down (the Rumble) that ultimately leads to three deaths, it's possible to display a great deal of humor (a phenomenon that I've been rather forgetful about mentioning in other posts about WSS), as well as the fiery emotions such as love, passion, hatred and anger. The America and the Officer Krupke scenes are extremely good examples of that. Sure, the humor in Officer Krupke scene, in which the Jets lampoon Officer Krupke after he tells the Jets (who are now assembled outside Doc's Candy Store waiting for the Sharks' arrival for the War Council) not to cause trouble and then leaves is darker humor that is essentially sort of a black comedy, but it's humor, nonetheless.
The America scene, in which the Sharks and their girls get into a dispute about the immigrant experience here in the United States of America, despite differences, also has some humor in it, along with the seriousness, although it can be hard to know how much of the argument over the immigrant experience is serious, and how much of it is just playful but wry humor. The fact that it's left to the audience's imagination is another thing that makes West Side Story, both on stage and on screen, as dynamic as it is.
In the original Broadway stage production of West Side Story, the America scene has only the Shark's girls playing that particular scene out. In the film version, however, the America scene has both the Sharks guys and gals in it, and the guys and gals argus with each other about the immigrant experience. Some of the lyrics in America are changed in the film version, but that is another example where changes were made to cleverly fit in and balance things out, if one gets the drift.
The Cool scene also has some humor that follows death, which, in turn is followed by anger and then sadness. The humor in Cool, however, is seriousness mixed with humor and exuberance, when the Jets and their girls dance away their tensions and eventually get "cool", under the new leadership of Ice, who has now taken over the Jet gang leadership after Riff's death during the Rumble. Ice is perfectly serious when he warns "You wanna live in this lousy world? Play it cool! Man, you wanna get past the cops when they start asking about tonight? Play it cool!", and then eventually guides the Jets and their girls (even the incorrigible Action and A-Rab), into a state of relative calm, coolness and relaxation, despite everything that has just happened.
The fact that the Rumble, with the stabbings, and the part, towards the end of the film version, when Tony is ultimately gunned down by Chino as he (Tony) and Maria momentarily come together in a fond, heavy embrace, were not bloody, is also a good example of how people skillfully made violence and death not look bloody, but those were the days when there was more censorship, but less violence and gore on the movie screen overall than there is now, and much of the violence that was shown on screen had a point to make, and wasn't gratuitous like it is on many, if not most of today's films. Yet, it would realistically be too much to ask of Hollywood to go back to the olden days, since today's Hollywood is what it is.
The fact that during the film version of West Side Story, several Jets and several Sharks came together and carried Tony's body off after he'd been shot also hinted of a possible intergroup reconciliation, and yet it leaves a certain amount of the possibility to the audience's imagination: Will there or will there not be any true reconciliation between the Jets, the Sharks and their girls? In the original Broadway stage production of West Side Story, however, the ending is more cut and dried; The Jets, the Sharks and their girls definitely do unite and reconcile with each other after the Rumble and the deaths of Riff, Bernardo and Tony.
The fact that West Side Story carries a message that is a double-edged sword is what makes this movie/musical so great: That while gang warfare and racism and the gratuitous insults, violence and death that often ensue, aren't a good way to go, it also points out that intergroup reconciliation, as difficult as it can be, is still possible, though it can and does take a great deal of effort. This is one of the reasons the fact that the message of possible intergroup reconciliation was totally taken out of the more up-to-date Broadway stage revival of West Side Story bothers me..a lot, along with the removal of the finger-snapping, the Jet gang whistles, and the explicitly sexual scene of Tony and Maria in bed together.
The fantastically-choreographed dancing in both the film version and the original Broadway stage version of West Side Story, as well as the beautiful cinematology, the Stephen Sondheim lyrics, as well as the intensely brilliant Leonard Bernstein musical score, also serve to not only to help tell the story and give WSS its powerful punch, but to really propel this great movie/musical along, and to enhance it, especially in the film version. So does the scenery, both on location, and on the various sound-stage sets in this film.
Having said all of the above, West Side Story, as a movie/musical, is in a special class all by itself. Unlike most musicals, which tend to lose their "kick" when transferred from stage to screen, West Side Story has proven itself to be spectacular successful on both stage and screen, thereby earning the film version ten well-deserved Academy Awards, including Best Picture of the Year (1961). George Chakiris and Rita Moreno won well-earned Academy Awards for the Best Supporting Actor and Actress in this movie/musical, but it would've been cool if Russ Tamblyn, Tony Mordente, David Winters and the late Tucker Smith could've won awards for their acting, as well.
The fact that West Side Story, as a movie/musical, does deliver such a terrifically powerful punch is what makes it still tug at my heartstrings, after all these years.