West Side Story is a great, golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic movie-musical, which achieved its rightfully earned claim to fame as a movie-musical due to its longevity on style as well as its longevity on substance. While it's loosely based on the renowned Shakespeare play, Romeo & Juliet, it is beautifully adapted to the pulsating, finger-snapping, exuberant, happy, sad, angry, peppy and uncomfortable, and poor but wealthy West Side of 1950's-1960's New York City, notably Manhattan.
West Side Story, a movie-musical about the constant urban gang warfare between the New York City-born white Ethnic-American Jets and the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Sharks here to the Continental United States, as well as love and romance that eventually develops between Tony, the founder and now ex-leader of the Jets, and Maria, the younger sister of Bernardo, the gang leader of the Sharks, despite disapproval on the part of both gangs and their girls, only to go up in smoke due to the same disapproval of their forbidden love that brought Tony and Maria together in the first place, and results in a showdown in the form of a rumble and three deaths, as well as the gangs' possibility of coming to their senses and forming some sort of a truce of unity, peace and friendship, is a good example of a fictional story that has often played itself out in real life, to both greater and lesser extents here in the United States and throughout the world.
This very story is what helps makes West Side Story so successful as a movie-musical, and was told in many different ways that not only melded everything into one very smoothly and creatively, but resulted in this great, golden oldie but keeper of a classic movie-musical winning 10 well-earned Academy Awards, including Best Picture, late in October of 1961, when it was first released into the movie theatres, becoming a hit, both nationally and worldwide.
Although West Side Story started out as a very famous late-1950's Broadway stage musical, which has also been played on stages throughout the United States, and the world, the story behind this great musical left tons of room for creativity on both stage and screen. The intensely brilliant Leonard Bernstein musical score, with its unusually up and down emotions of exuberance, harshness, roughness, gentleness and romantic feeling all at once, as well as predictions of what would eventually go down, helps to bind this story together beautifully. So does the cinematography so masterfully done by the late Daniel Fapp, the costume design by Irene Schraff, and the seamless blending of on-location areas of New York City's East and West Sides and the creative sets by the late Boris Leven that look uncannily like a rough-and-rundown part of a large American city.
One must also not forget, however, that West Side Story, while it also displays racism and sexism rather brashly, loudly and openly, also speaks volumes against racism and sexism as well, which is another beautiful aspect of West Side Story that made it so successful as a movie-musical that's still quite popular, even today.
Another wonderful asset of West Side Story that made it so successful as a movie-musical and elevated it to a golden oldie-but-keeper, Academy Award-winning classic movie-musical is due to the fact that the songs/scenes, from the Prologue/Jet song all the way to the Rumble (which is the climax of West Side Story), to the anticlax, Cool, the three deaths, and the ray of hope that shone through as a consequence of Maria's angry message to both the Jets and the Sharks, in themselves, were all such an integral part of the very story behind it.
Without the romance between Tony and Maria, West Side Story would be just an ordinary story about gang life in a big city, very much like The Outsiders, the latter of which, unlike West Side Story, tends to glorify gang violence. Yet, at the same time, without the gang warfare between the Jets and Sharks, and without the pulsating, finger-snapping urban background, West Side Story would just be a dull romance story, without much going on at all. It is the intense mixture of urban gang warfare, and resulting competition for turf, as well as the racism and hostility experienced by the latest immigrants (i. e. the latest immigrants back then being the Puerto Ricans' arrival into New York City and the Continental United States, generally.), combined and interspersed by the gentle romance of Tony and Maria, whose love developed during the Dance at the Gym scene, as well as the fact that the members of both gangs had girls/girlfriends, generally, and the great romance between Bernardo and his girlfriend, Anita, and the unusual musical score, the cast and everything else, that were combined to make West Side Story the dynamic little package of a movie-musical that it is.
I admittedly never saw the original Broadway stage production of West Side Story, which starred Larry Kept as Tony and Carol Lawrence as Maria. When I not only saw the movie (as I've seen it more times than I can count, now), and several very good stage plays that I liked a great deal (including the more up-to-date Broadway stage production that I largely enjoyed (West Side Story being West Side Story), but viewed with a harder, more critical eye than either my sister-in-law or my then-eight-year-old niece, both of who I saw this latter stage production of West Side Story with.), I began to realize why West Side Story proved to be such a success on both stage and screen.
The fact that West Side Story has got everything from urban gang warfare/racial and ethnic tensions and hatreds, racial, ethnic and cultural friendships and loyalties, to romance between a boy and a girl from the opposite sides that develops amid the conflict between the Jets and Sharks, only to go up in smoke due to that very same conflict, to the stark violence leading to the deaths of two gang leaders (i. e. Riff and Bernardo), and the ex-Jet gang leader (i. e. Tony), and the hint of a possible truce between the Jets and Sharks that arose after Maria's angry message of:
"You all killed him... (i. e. Tony), and my brother, and Riff! Not with bullets and guns! With hate! Well..I can kill too, because now I have hate!"
which proved to be the catalyst that resulted in the ray of hope in the form of several Jets and Sharks coming together to carry Tony's body off, in the end, as well as a number of the Jets and Sharks sort of coming together afterwards.
The original Broadway stage play of West Side Story, however, had a somewhat different ending and flavor, but both endings were great. In the original stage production, in the end, after the Rumble and the deaths of Tony, Bernardo and Riff, the Jets, the Sharks and their girls unite together for real.
The various emotions, ranging from harsh to gentle, from light to dark, and which go back and forth throughout West Side Story as a movie-musical, as well as the harsh urban background of the United States' largest city, New York, the pulsating music, and the believable characters, especially Bernardo, Anita, Riff, Lt. Schrank, Action, Ice and Baby-John, who's the youngest and least mature of the Jets, as well as Bernardo's right-hand man and friend, Chino, all with their varying and intense personalities, also contributed to why West Side Story, as a classic movie-musical, was as successful on screen, as it was/is on stage, as well.
Not withstanding everything else that made West Side Story such a success as a movie-musical and elevated it to classic film status, is the beautifully-choreographed dancing by the late Jerome Robbins, who, for both better and worse (because it was over schedule and over budget as a result of Robbins' demand for perfection), which is beautiful, exuberant, harsh, angry, and gentle, at the same time.
West Side Story, most likely due to everything that was mentioned, is a very theatrical musical, not only on stage, but on screen, as well. The fact that the very resources were on hand all along (i. e. the city streets, etc.), as well as all the events that took place in the story, the dancing, the pulsating, exuberant musical score, and the scenery that was so creatively interwoven between on-location urban areas and settings that looked so much like a run-down urban area, the colorful costumes, the tons of passionate colors like reds, etc., that were used in the cinematography, all helped make West Side Story the wonderful feast for the ears, the eyes, the heart, and the mind that it really is, and make it as popular as it was and still is, as well.
Another wonderful thing about West Side Story as a movie-musical, which I've pointed out on another posting here (but bears repeating) is the fact that when West Side Story was transferred from stage to screen, it was preserved as a larger than life-sized piece of theatre, which is just about as live as any stage production of it that I've seen. This, too, contributed a great deal to West Side Story's success as a movie-musical, and the fact that it cries to be viewed on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, in a real movie theatre, with the lights down low, and to be shared with a whole bunch of other people, whether one knows them or not.
There are times that I wonder if the fact that West Side Story, as a movie-musical, does have so much going on in it, and the fact that it is often quite intense, emotional, rough, violent and exuberant at the same time has a great deal to do with the fact that my parents never took either my sister or I to see this movie at the height of its popularity, when we were kids. I'll never really know, but I can speculate, and sometimes do.