Another big reason that West Side Story is in a special class by itself is because, due to its subject matter, the way in which it's dealt with, and despite its being fiction, it's not only closer to reality, but is as relevant today as it was when it first came out. Racism, sexism and classism are still prevalent and strong, even today, despite a certain amount of progress having been made, not only here in the United States, but throughout the world, generally. So are anti-immigrant attitudes, especially against people from the third world, who are emigrating here to the United States. Due to the fact that racism and sexism are displayed throughout this musical, both on state and on screen, West Side Story also speaks loudly against racism, sexism and classism, as well as gang violence, as well.
Gangsterism and gang violence still occurs here in the United States and throughout the world, but it's become even more dangerous, due to the fact that the use of high-tech, high-powered automatic weapons and handguns are all too often employed, rather than switchblade knives, chains, brass knuckles and fisticuffs. Tribal and ethnic loyalties and friendships are still at play, and gangs have often served as family or extended family to many people, especially those in very poor areas, where ethnic/cultural loyalties and the sense of turf, and constant vying for turf is frequently quite strong. That was the case in West Side Story, and it's often the case in real life, not only here in the United States, but throughout the world, as well. (Witness the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian debacle, which has claimed lives on both sides since day one, for example.)
Yet, at the same time, especially since the United States, which always has had a very diverse population, which has become even moreso today despite lingering prejudices, has also resulted in the formations of even more friendships across the lines of race, class, religion, ethnicity, race and color. People often cross those given barriers, not only to form friendships, but to date, fall in love, and even marry and raise up families.
In West Side Story, such ethnic loyalties, jealousies, are what ultimately resulted in the deadly show-down (i. e. the Rumble), which claimed three lives. This, too, is something that still occurs throughout the world; people fight, over religion, ethnicity, turf, and all too often, lives are claimed or severely and adversely compromised as a result.
Many people claim, both rightly and wrongly, that in real life, disapproval on one or both sides due to tribal, ethnic and cultural loyalties, as well as the strong sense of turf, tends to bring people from different religious, ethnic, racial and cultural groups together, as they did with Tony and Maria in West Side Story. Yet, at the same time, these same tribal, cultural and ethnic loyalties, jealousies, tensions and hostilities can and often enough do cause such relationships to go up in smoke, as well, which also ended up happening with Tony and Maria's romance.
Yet, at the same time, I'm aware that, in real life, gangs don't go dancing through the streets, or dancing through playground skirmishes and rumbles. Nor do relationships, especially between people who fall in love, even if they do fall in love at first sight, develop into something really big...and substantial when they first meet, as did Tony and Maria's romance presumably did. In real life, the kind of friendships and/or love that is based on mutual respect and trust, generally takes a long time to really grow and develop into something really substantial. Some people claim that love is friendship that has caught fire, and that people must be friends before they can be lovers. That is true, as well.
In real life, there are darker and lighter moments. People can and often do deal with the ups and downs of life with various types of humor, which also depends on ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic status, and even environmental upbringing. The same thing is true in West Side Story, when the Jets lampoon Officer Krupke when he leaves after visiting them and warning them not to cause trouble, for example, during the Officer Krupke song/scene.
Although sexism is still strong in our society and throughout the world, progress has been made there as well. More and more women run their own businesses, are breaking into the various trades (i. e. construction, crafts, etc), and in general, getting accepted as equals. West Side Story's Anybodys, for example, struggled to be accepted as an equal by the Jets, and ultimately succeeded. Sometimes, even in real life, it takes a tragedy or other downturn in life for people to come to some sort of understanding and coming together, or pulling closer together, presenting a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel. West Side Story displays that ray of hope, after three lives have been claimed during the Rumble, which results in at least a momentary understanding in tragedy, when several Sharks and Jets come together to carry Tony's body off after he's been shot and killed by an angry, jealous Chino.
Because West Side Story is as relevant today as it was when it first came out, it will always stand out as an extraordinary musical, both on stage and on screen, as it does now.