Perhaps more influential than "successful" during its initial run (it didn't win the Tony for Best Musical, nor did it have an exceptionally long run during its premiere engagement), I would suspect that when most people hear "West Side Story," they think of the film version that grossed millions and won ten Oscars, including Pest Picture. Based on the 1957 musical with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents (with an obvious assist from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet), the 1961 film version, co-directed by Robert Wise and the play's original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, stars Natalie Wood as Maria, a newly-arrived Puerto Rican girl who works in an upper West Side Manhattan dress shop with Anita (Rita Moreno), the girlfriend of Bernardo (George Chakiris), Maria's gangleader brother.
Battling Bernardo's encroaching Puerto Rican "Shark" gang are the established white "Jets," led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), who call the small section of streets and crumbling tenements where they live home turf. After tit-for-tat violence escalates between the rivals, Riff decides an all-out rumble is called for, to end once and for all the ambitions of the Puerto Rican gang. To aid his efforts, Riff calls on his old friend and former leader of the gang, Tony (Richard Beymer), who has forsaken membership in the gang because he realized the pointlessness of the petty back-and-forth squabbling inherent in the subculture. But Riff, playing on old loyalties, convinces Tony to at least show up at the dance, where Tony meets Maria, and it's love at first sight. Unfortunately, Bernardo's hatred for whites ("They only want one thing from a Puerto Rican girl."), well earned on the streets, blinds him to Tony's sincerity, and he sends Maria home. Riff and Bernardo agree to a war council, where later, Tony suggests a "fair fight" with no weapons. Maria, upon learning of the coming fight, pleads with Tony to intervene and stop it, setting into motion a series of tragic events that destroys the one ray of hope in the neighborhood's festering racial strife.
Having been lucky enough to see West Side Story a few years back in a restored 70mm print, I can attest to the fact that much of its impact is lessened on the small screen - even if that small screen is a big, fat, top-of-the-line plasma widescreen. The overpowering, geometrical visuals (first set in motion by the vertiginous overhead helicopter shots of Manhattan) aligned with the alternating bombastic/elegiac score, transforms the story, which is essentially trite and tired, into an overwhelming kinetic visual experience. The examination of racial and social injustices, however well grafted onto a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, may have been new to Broadway in 1957, but they certainly weren't groundbreaking to 1961 film audiences.
What was groundbreaking was the almost tectonic shift the film had marrying realistic - but stylized - location work with abstract, ballet-inspired dance numbers, creating an otherworldly, grimy, violent dreamland right in the heart of a condemned slum (which was razed immediately after filming to make room for Lincoln Center). No movie musical looked like West Side Story prior to 1961, and to this day, it's still a striking visual accomplishment.
That being said, West Side Story, separated from its powerful visual design (most notable during the first half of the film), is considerably weakened by the two main leads. There's been a recent positive re-evaluation of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer's contributions to the film, but the original contemporary critics of the film got it right when they called Wood and Beymer out for creating a vacuum in the otherwise high-voltage cast. It's not enough to say that Wood and Beymer come off as goody-goody and starry eyed because the characters are supposed to function that way. Properly cast stars can make a so-called "goody-goody" role equally palatable and dynamic, alongside more overtly vibrant characters, if the actor is up to the role. But Wood and Beymer simply aren't. Beymer, who looks as if he just stepped off a Pepsodent ad, has zero weight as the supposed tough ex-gang leader whom Riff confidently assures us has "credibility" on the street. Supposedly the very last, least likely choice for the role of Tony (after more suitable possibilities such as Warren Beatty and...Elvis (!) proved either unavailable or too old), Beymer's Tony is a non-entity on the screen, a Ken-doll dress form with dubbed-in singing (by Jimmy Bryant). It's not that the character is unbelievable, it's that Beymer brings nothing of substance to the role, no subtlety, no shading, no believable grit behind the gazing (his other high-profile performances during his brief arc of fame were equally whispering and faint, as well).
As for Wood, it was no secret that most of the supporting performers looked askance at the inclusion of the big-shot Hollywood starlet (it's been suggested that a little backstage wheeling and dealing was applied to get the star considered for the role), and rightful so, after seeing her performance here. Again, like Beymer, Wood can't manage to make Maria anything more than a poster for "Goodness," and "Youth," and "Victim," instead of a dimensional character we can get behind. Wood, always uncomfortably near the breaking point anytime she did "heavy" drama, was perhaps never used correctly on film, and again with West Side Story, her overemphatic thesping seems strained. It's not an interior performance, but a showy - and shallow - one. And as with her male co-star who had to be dubbed, every time she opens her mouth, the canned voice track of Marni Nixon utterly ruins the effect Wise and Robbins are going for in West Side Story.
Both of these miscast leads come into startling contrast when one looks at their nominal supporting players, particularly George Chakiris, Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn. Now these are actors that fit the design and tone of West Side Story. Chakiris, all dark good looks and a dancer's grace, has a submerged anger that makes him a believable gang member. The same with Russ Tamblyn, who's powerful, acrobatic body and initially smiling face, hides a mean, narrowed-eyed sullenness whenever pushed. They both may be jumping around the mean streets of New York in a manner that would make real gang members fall down laughing in hysterics, but there's an inner weight and violence to their performances that is just right. Moreno (who at least gets to sing two of her songs - Nixon filled in for another), although slotted to play the more vibrant, alive Anita, could easily have taken on the Maria role, with her combination of underlying strength and at-times little girl hurtfulness perfectly in keeping with the lead character. When viewed against the hollowness of Beymer and Wood, these three stars clearly raise West Side Story to the heights it could have achieved, with a full integrated cast.
The anamorphically enhanced, 2.20:1 widescreen image for West Side Story looks spectacular, with properly balanced colors and a razor-sharp image. I saw no compression artifacts.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround audio mix is equally impressive, with carefully separated channels and nicely modulated speaker action. There's a French and Spanish mono track, as well, along with close-captions. Subtitles in English, French and Spanish are also available.
The only extras included in this DVD of West Side Story is the option to view the film with the intermission intact.
Still dazzling to look at and hear, West Side Story is nonetheless lopsided by the miscasting of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer when viewed against the dynamism of terrific supporters George Chakiris, Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn.