Most musicals, when they're transferred from stage to screen, lose their energy, juice and their "kick", due to becoming diluted in the real outdoor scenery, and tend to seem far less real than when they're presented on stage, due to the realness of the people on stage, the effort that is required to maintain the wave of communication between the actors/actresses on stage due to a stage play having a much narrower focus, and the subtler scenery that requires the audience to use their imagination more.
West Side Story, however, is a very rare exception for the following reasons:
A) The fact that Jerome Robbins went to great lengths to choreograph beautiful dancing on both the stage and screen versions of West Side Story, the late set designer, Boris Leven, managed to seamlessly combine both on-location backgrounds and sound-stage backgrounds into a very realistic backdrop of a rough and run-down section of the United States' largest city, New York, on the pulsating Upper West Side.
B) Many of the cast members of the film version of West Side Story had also played in some of the Broadway stage productions of West Side Story, as well as in the film, which also helped strengthen the film version, by a great deal.
C) The very tale behind West Side Story and the subject matter also made West Side Story a musical that was very successful on both stage and screen, and so special. A love and romance that developed between two young people from different racial/ethnic/cultural groups amid conflict between two warring street gangs; the White European Ethnic American Jets, and the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Sharks, only to be destroyed by the ongoing racial/ethnic/cultural tensions, tribal loyalties and friendships, urban gang warfare, all of which resulted in violence and the deaths of the two gang leaders (i. e. Riff and Bernardo), and Tony, who was the Jets founder and ex-leader.
D) The very ways in which the already very special tale behind West Side Story is told on screen: Not only is West Side Story a fantastic example of how so many various emotions can be expressed through dance, but the beautiful cinematography, the richly-colored costumes, and the very strong cast, as well as the intensely brilliant Leonard Bernstein musical score, and the way in which both the on-location and sound stage film scenes were seamlessly and creatively melded together by the late Boris Leven. The coloring in the cinematic affects in West Side Story are fantastic also, especially the frequent use of reds, purples and blues that indicated various passions and emotions.
E) West Side Story, although it's fiction, is closer to reality in a number of ways than many, if not most musicals, on screen, as well as on stage. Hey! I'm fully aware of the fact that, in real life, street gangs don't go dancing through the streets, snapping their fingers, and whistling, nor do most people fall in love at first sight, or if they do, it takes time for it to grow and develop into something substantial that's based on mutual trust and respect.
Yet, at the same time, there are a number things in West Side Story that do take place in real life, as well, even today, as well as the time that West Side Story first came out, on both stage and screen; urban gang warfare, racia/ethnic and cultural tensions, people crossing the racial, ethnic, cultural and religious barriers to form friendships, date, fall in love, and even marry and raise up families.
Back in the day, as in other big cities, New York City/Manhattan's Upper West Side was an extremely rough, tough, and rundown area, with the street-tough gangs ruling the roost. Now, New york City's Upper West Side is all gentrified, and Lincoln Center now stands in its place. The playground, on East 110th street, where a good bit of the filming also took place, is still there, but the large water tower in the background has long been taken down.
Even today, however, there's still much conflict between racial, religious, cultural and ethnic groups, and even among people of the same group or groups, which is also quite heavy, and people get assaulted, seriously injured, or worse. It happens, not only in our society, but throughout the world, as well.
F) While it's true that the casts of actors/actresses of stage versions of musicals are generally more real and believable, and the focus is much narrower than movies (which generally demand one's attention due to looming up larger than life-size on the screen) thus requiring more effort on the part of the audience to maintain the wave of communication, the 1961 film version of West Side Story is also a rare exception in that respect, as well. Unlike many other movie-musicals, West Side Story's cast, especially the Jets and Sharks in conflict with each other, are quite believable, and so are the bitter, bigoted cynical Lt. Schrank, and the more quietly cynical Ofcr. Krupke, who are played by the late Simon Oakland and William Brawley.
"Glad Hand" the social worker who presides over the Dance at the Gym, and Doc, the owner of the Candy Store, where the Jets frequently hang out, and hold their pre-Rumble War Council. The characters in the film West Side Story who are especially believable, however, are as follows: Riff the arrogant, exuberant and cocky Jets gang leader, played coolly by Russ Tamblyn, Action, the hot-tempered, instigator-troublemaker of the Jets, played greatly by Tony Mordente, Ice, the cool, calm, collected and handsome Jet who takes over their leadership after Riff's death during the Rumble, is played beautifully by (the late) Tucker Smith, Baby-John, the youngest, least mature and most frightened and emotional of the Jets, who is played wonderfully by Eliot Feld, as well as his buddy, A-Rab, who's played by David Winters in the film.
Bernardo, the fiery but sardonic Shark gang leader is also very believable, and is fantastically played by George Chakiris, and so is his very outspoken, fiery girlfriend, Anita, who is fantastically played by Rita Moreno. Chino, who's a Shark gang member, and Bernardo's right-hand man, is played beautifully by the late Jose De Vegas (who tragically, died of AIDS), is also very believable, as well. So are the other Shark gang members and their girlfriends, as well. While I'm at it, Susan Oakes, the woman who played Anybodys, the tomboy and Jets wannabe, who gets herself accepted as an equal and gang member by the Jets through persistence, determination and emotional strength and fortitude, is also quite believable, and well played.
G) Some people even claim that the film version of West Side Story is plastic Hollywood at its worst, but I tend to disagree with that opinion, as well as the opinions of it's being racist, sexist, too sanitized, and even too "white-bread", or that the movie version of West Side Story is too formalized.
On the contrary, West Side Story, as a film, as well as a stage play, although fiction, is very believable, as well, due to all of the above-mentioned factors. Imho, it's anything but plastic in its quality, and it does reflect the times in which it was made. Many, if not most people these days, prefer to watch West Side Story and other classic films at home, on DVD, home video, Blu Ray, or on a huge, elaborate and expensive home-theatre system.
As for myself, I believe that West Side Story, although a very strong movie-musical, is best viewed on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre with the lights down low, the way it's really and truly meant to be seen, while sharing the experience with other people, whether one knows them or not. West Side Story, as a classic movie-musical is enjoyable on TV, DVD, Home video, or Blu-Ray, but viewing this great, golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic movie-musical is much, much more of a treat.
The people who claimed that there would never, ever be a film like West Side Story again were right on their money. No matter who re-makes this film, whether it's Steve Spielberg, or anybody else, from the truly emotional, intellectual and moral point of view, will ever, ever take the place of the original film of West Side Story, contrary to what many people may say or think.
H) The 1961 film version of West Side Story is also very, very special in other ways, as well. For starters, unlike many, if not most movies that are coming out nowadays, West Side Story is neither too graphic, nor is it riddled with the constant use of "blue language". While a certain amount of "blue" language is appropriate in certain movies, West Side Story does not fit that category of films. Again, that's probably a reflection of the times in which it was made, but I welcome it for a film like West Side Story, nonetheless.
Nor is the 1961 film version of West Side Story overly graphic and bloody, and the romances between Tony and Maria, as well as Bernardo and Anita, and the Jets and Sharks and their girls explicitly sexual either. Part of the beauty of West Side Story as the current film is that not only were special affects created without the use of computers or expensive gadgets, but that when it was transferred from stage to screen, it was preserved as a larger-than-life-sized piece of theatre.
Here's yet another special thing about the film West Side Story that I've posted on other threads, but bears repeating here: When the 1961 film West Side Story is shown on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre, with the lights down low, the various characters in West Side Story, from the warring Jets and Sharks to the romance between Tony and Maria, seem to be even more vital and alive, and to move much more fluidly and easily, and in a much more open space. One can also view the scenery in full, and the Leonard Bernstein musical score seems even more intensely brilliant. I also had the good fortune of seeing the film West Side Story in 70mm, two years ago, in a movie theatre not far from where I live, along with family and friends, and we all had a wonderful time. This was the most intense viewing of the film West Side Story that I'd seen in quite awhile. However, seeing West Side Story on a great big, wide movie theatre screen, generally, is the best way to go, and the biggest treat.
I) I have to admit that not only is the 1961 film version of West Side Story my all time favorite movie, hands down, but if it's not playing in my general area, and I want to go and see it, I will go pretty much anywhere within driving distance just to see West Side Story on a very large movie theatre screen. In fact, I've even made special road trips to neighboring states, and to the opposite end of the Bay State just to see it, and it's been great fun.
J) I have to admit, too, that I am squeamish about the idea of a re-make of West Side Story for yet another reason; that the old, original film will be relegated to the dust-bin(s) of history, never to be available again at all, even for occasional showings at repertory movie theatres, but only available on home video, DVD, or for a home-theatre-sized Blu-Ray DVD copy. That would not be such a good idea, imho. I do not like the idea of already-great movies such as West Side Story to be re-made, and I sincerely believe that Steve Spielberg and Tony Kushner should leave West Side Story alone and go on to something else.