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Forum Home > General Discussion > West Side Story; The Classic That Never Grows Old:

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

'll start out by saying that my initial introduction to West Side Story was through the music of the original Broadway stage production of this musical.   It came while I was attending day camp out west in the summer of 1962, prior to entering the sixth grade.  A girl in the group I was with, who'd just received an LP copy of the original Broadway soundtrack of WSS for her birthday, brought it to camp and played it for the rest of the group.  My love of West Side Story took off...instantly.  West Side Story-mania was in the air that summer.  Kids roamed the hallways, sometimes in groups, snapping their fingers, and the various songs from WSS rang through the bus to and from camp every day of the week, as the kids sang all the songs.  It was cool.   

I missed seeing the film version of West Side Story  during the heyday of its popularity, partly due to my relative isolation from most of the other kids, and partly because my parents refused to  take my sister and I to see it, at least in part because they didn't think (and my mom still doesn't think) that West Side Story was a kids' movie.  Having seen this great, golden oldie but keeper of a Classic movie/musical more times than I'm able or willing to count at this point, the more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with my mom on this point.  

Since my parents also had an LP copy of the soundtrack of the original Broadway stage version of WSS, I played it on my parents' Hi-Fi whenever I had the opportunity to do so, because I'd come to so love the music and the story of West Side Story itself.  I would not get to see the movie until seven years later, as my high school years were coming to a close, and WSS, although there was a big national re-release of it, had passed the heyday of its popularity, freshness and newness.

I finally did get to see it for the first time, at around Christmastime of 1968, as a high school Senior, at a now-defunct cinema that was roughly 45 minutes north of Boston, and fell in love with this film the minute I saw it.  Little did I, or my family know, that this was the start of my own love affair with the film West SIde Story that would last all the way up until the present, much to their amusement, chagrin and resigned acceptence of this particular idiosyncrasy of mine.  

Now for the real crux of my essay:

West Side Story, as everybody knows, began as a famous late-1950's Broadway stage musical, which played in NYC's Winter Garden for roughly two years before embarking on a national tour, and then an international tour, as well, becoming a hit national and internationally, as well.  The concept of West Side Story had actually been started around WWII, when the conflict between Jews and Catholics here in the United States was still fresh.  The two gangs were to be Jewish and Irish/Italian Catholic, while Maria was to be Jewish and Tony and Irish/Italian Catholic.   There were also afew name changes to this musical along the way as well;  It was originally named Gangway, then East Side Story, and, finally, West Side Story. Loosely based on  Shakespeare's renowned Romeo and Juliet, the very concept of West Side Story didn't get really get off the ground until well after WWII, when the conflict between Jews and Catholics here in the United States was not nearly as new and fresh as it had previously been.  The large influx of Puerto Ricans into NYC and the Continental United States generally was now the catalyst of conflict, which was between the PR's and the White European Ethnic Americans.  Tony was a Polish-American and a former White European Ethnic American Jets leader,  while Maria, who became Tony's love interest, was  the sister of the newly-arrived Puerto Rican Shark gangleader, Bernardo.

After Walter Mirisch bought the rights to the movie version, West Side Story not only became a big hit on stage, both nationally and worldwide, but it became a big  hit as a spectacular film, which won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, after its initial release in late October 1961.  

Since I was still a teenager in high school the first time that I saw the movie West Side Story, I was able to identify with the Jets, the Sharks and their girls, regarding kids being kids and so on.  When I got to be a little older, however, and began watching West Side Story every time it came around to an independent, repertory movie theatre, however, I still loved and appreciated this film, although I had a somewhat different viewpoint of it than I had as a  high school kid.  I was able to appreciate West Side Story as a dynamic work of art and cinematic technology, as well as the intense scenery, the brilliant Bernstein musical store, the wonderfully-choreographed dancing by  the late Jerome Robbins, and the very story behind it, as well as everything else.  

With the exception of Richard Beymer (who I've always regarded as sort of a weak, lacklustre Tony),   I thought that WSS had a very strong cast, and was a very strong film overall.  West Side  Story, to me, carries a certain message;  It succinctly points out the destructive consequences of racial/ethnic prejudice and the violence that often ensues as a result, but there's also a detectable ray of hope in the end, when several Jets and Sharks come together to carry Tony's body off after he was shot to death by Chino in retaliation for Tony's having stabbed Bernardo to death.  The scene where Maria comes between the Jets and Sharks as they seem ready to clash once more, seems to have been the catalyst for that ray of hope to have arrived, or perhaps it would've arrived anyway.  No one knows.  

Truthfully, I'm a devout fan of the film West Side Story (it's my all time favorite movie, hands down!), who's also seen several very good stage productions of this musical, including the newer, more up to date Broadway stage revival of West Side Story, which, although was enjoyable, I looked at with a harder, more critical eye than my sister in law and my then 8-year-niece, neither of whom had ever seen WSS on stage before.

The film West Side Story is a film that I never get tired of seeing over and over again, whether it be in a real movie theatre, on a great big, wide screen with the lights down low, or on TV, and i've seen it more times than I'm able and willing to count, at this point.  Regardless of how many people claim that seeing it on a great home theatre system on TV is fantastic, absolutely nothing beats seeing West Side Story in a real movie theatre.  In fact, WSS cries for a great big, wide movie theatre screen.  

Although West Side Story is a strong movie overall (which is why I have a tough time picking out favorite characters and/or scenes and songs from it), the Dance at the Gym, The prologue/Jets song, Cool, America, the pre-Rumble quartet and the Rumble itself, as well as Ofcr Krupke are pillar scenes.

Regarding the cast, they're all strong, imho.  Not long ago, however, I learned something about the relationship between Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer off-screen that made me more willing to give Richard Beymer the benefit of the doubt.  Natalie Wood had a lot of hostility and resentment towards Richard Beymer (she was dating Warren Beatty at the time), and it showed, plus Richard Beyner was clearly pained by it.  Natalie Wood had, in fact, tried to get Richard Beymer kicked off the set on several occasions, as well, although they made up a number of years later, when they met in a California restaurant.  I believe that had Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer gotten along better during the filming of West Side Story, that Richard Beymer might've played a much stronger role as Tony, despite the way the original script both on stage and for screen, had been written.

Since West Side Story was filmed in Hell's Kitchen, where Lincoln Center now stands, the crew members and cast alike were regularly harassed by street toughs, who showered rocks and bottles, etc., from the rooftops at them.  The crew ended up hiring out an actual street gang for security and protection during the filming.  Oh, the irony in it..especially since West Side Story is about two warring NYC street gangs, as well as love and romance that develops admidst that conflict, only to go up in smoke due to the gangs' hatred for each other.  

I have attended virtually every screening of West Side Story in our area (the one exception being in mid-March of 2001, when an afternoon screening of WSS conflicted directly with my late dad's memorial, so I didn't go that afternoon!), which have been well-attended.  Boston-area audiences, while more reserved than NY audiences, enjoy it about as much as New Yorkers, and West Side Story is especially wonderful in a real movie theatre, on a great big, wide screen, with the lights down low, and with a slew of other people whether one knows them or not.

I can't wait for the next screening of West Side Story, which I've even made road trips to the opposite end of the Bay State as well as to neighboring states to see, over the years.  I attended the 40th year anniversary screening of WSS at NYC's Radio City Music hall with friends, a special event of the one-night 50th-year anniversary re-release of West Side Story, and a number of other screenings of WSS in our area.  Five years later, I also attended a screening of West Side Story with a cousin of mine who lives on NYC's Upper West Side, at the Clearview/Ziegfeld Cinema in NYC, and had a great time!  West Side Story is a hard film for me to resist, and I'm looking forward to the next movie theatre screening, which I  hope will come in the near future.  

I also might add, however, that West Side Story takes on a magical, almost-3-dimensional quality to it when shown on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre!  The scenery seems more expansive and one can see all of everything!  The intensely brilliant Bernstein musical score seems brighter, and the beautifully-choreographed dancing, the richly colored costumes and photography, as well as the fantastic cinematography seem even more intense, and the sound-stage settings are smartly designed so that they look uncannily like the real thing regarding a rough-and run-down urban area.   From the warring Jets and Sharks to the romancing Tony and Maria, the various characters in West Side Story seem to move much more fluidly and freely, and in a much wider, more open space.  Even Richard Beymer (who I've always regarded as a weak, lacklustre Tony) comes off as being even more vital and alive when West Side Story is shown on a great big, wide theatre screen.  

Whether one is a devout fan of this film like me who has seen West Side Story enough times that I've lost count, have only seen it  on television, DVD or video, or has never seen this great golden oldie but keeper of a classic movie/musical at all, the next time West Side Story comes to a real movie theatre, I say..jump at the chance!  It's an enriching experience that you'll never, ever forget.  

West Side Story earned every one of those ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, that it won on the year that it came out.

To paraphrase the MGM phrase :  "Unlike Other Classics, West Side Story grows younger".  It's so true, imo!


August 23, 2012 at 10:41 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Susan aka Jet Goddess
Site Owner
Posts: 9

If only we could grow  y ounger as well.  Thank you so much for your lovely tribute

September 17, 2012 at 8:11 PM Flag Quote & Reply

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

Hi, Susan!

You're welcome!  Thanks you for your heartwarming compliments.  Even before I began posting on this website that I was going to feel right at home here.  Thanks for putting it up!


September 17, 2012 at 8:54 PM Flag Quote & Reply

kat
Member
Posts: 5

West Side Story is a classic, in every sense of the word - classical dancing, singing, acting. The actors had such ability in every aspect, as well as acting.  I don't know what it is about this movie that just lives on. 

Kat

October 2, 2012 at 2:36 AM Flag Quote & Reply

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

kat at October 2, 2012 at 2:36 AM

West Side Story is a classic, in every sense of the word - classical dancing, singing, acting. The actors had such ability in every aspect, as well as acting.  I don't know what it is about this movie that just lives on. 

Kat

You are so right, Kat!  As much as I love to write/talk about my love for West Side Story, and everything I love about it,  I, too have a hard time putting a finger on why this great, golden oldie-but-keeper of a classic movie lives on.  West Side Story is not only a hard film for me to resist, but it's the one film that I never, ever get tired of seeing over and over and over again.  

I can identify with what you're saying, Kat, because West Side Story speaks to both you and me in some way or other that can be hard to grasp.

Welcome to the board, btw!:)



October 2, 2012 at 12:10 PM Flag Quote & Reply

kat
Member
Posts: 5

So glad I am not alone in my somewhat unusual interest in WSS - my teenage sons are convinced it  is a form of OCD;  um,I know it is but there could be worse obsessions!

Unfortunately I agree that Richard was not the most convincing or passionate Tony, and was a bit of a disappointment when it came to his portrayal of what should have been a more intense personality.  Tony Mordente commented in 'Then and Now' that he seemed to get very little in the form of direction which could have added to it - I think he was just possibly the wrong person for the part as the rest of the cast were so believable in their parts.

My favourite Jet was definitely Action, and he was amazing as the humorous psychologist in Officer Krupke!

Kat


October 2, 2012 at 7:24 PM Flag Quote & Reply

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

Thank you for your input, Kat.  Have your teenaged sons ever seen West Side Story?  Perhaps their seeing this great classic movie would change their minds about  your unusual interest in WSS being a form of OCD.  I, too have an unusual interest in West Side Story, and the reactions of various people, from family to friends and just plain acquaintences vary;  Amusement,  totally acceptance and encouragement, resignation to this particular idiosyncracy of mine,  and sometimes, even being openly mocked by  people who're social workers, mental health counselors, or in other helping professions, or whatever.  But...hey...I take it all with a grain of salt.. people are people, and they'll react in different ways.  Some affectionate ribbing does come from my friends and family, which I don't mind, and it's part of our knowing each other, and our closeness.

As for Richard Beymer not being a particularly strong Tony in the film version of WSS,  I believe that there are afew reasons for that:

A)  There were certain constraints placed on him by Robert Wise, the director of West Side Story;  that he was supposed to be a reformed gang member, and therefore less tough and more gentle.

B)  Unfortunately, Natalie Wood was openly hostile towards Richard Beymer for whatever reasons (although there's speculation that the fact that Natalie Wood was dating Warren Beatty at the time may have had something to do with it.), which Richard Beymer was clearly pained by, and it showed.   Moreover, Natalie Wood had actually tried to get Richard Beymer kicked off the set on several occasions. That being said, having learned that, I've been somewhat more willing to give Richard Beymer the benefit of the doubt and say that, had he and Natalie Wood gotten along better off-screen, he might've played a stronger role as Tony.  

Elvis Presley, believe it or not, was the first person that Robert Wise approached for the part of Tony in West Side Story, but Elvis was forced to turn it down by an overly controlling manager, who didn't want him playing the part of a "juvenile delinquent" in a movie.  Elvis Presley also regretted having turned down the part of West Side Story's Tony when WSS became a hit on the screen.

I agree that Action was a great Jet, and Tony Mordente was quite suited for the role of Action.  Due to my intense love for the film West Side Story, however, I'm hard-pressed to find any favorite scenes/songs and/or characters in this great classic.'

Btw, Kat, it's good to know that neither of us are alone in our unusual interest in this great classic.




October 2, 2012 at 11:36 PM Flag Quote & Reply

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

kat at October 2, 2012 at 7:24 PM

So glad I am not alone in my somewhat unusual interest in WSS - my teenage sons are convinced it  is a form of OCD;  um,I know it is but there could be worse obsessions!

Unfortunately I agree that Richard was not the most convincing or passionate Tony, and was a bit of a disappointment when it came to his portrayal of what should have been a more intense personality.  Tony Mordente commented in 'Then and Now' that he seemed to get very little in the form of direction which could have added to it - I think he was just possibly the wrong person for the part as the rest of the cast were so believable in their parts.

My favourite Jet was definitely Action, and he was amazing as the humorous psychologist in Officer Krupke!

Kat


Again, you're absolutely right, Kat!  There are worse obsessions than being "obsessed" with the film West Side Story!

October 2, 2012 at 11:44 PM Flag Quote & Reply

kat
Member
Posts: 5

Thanks for the response. I did not mean it as a criticism of  Richard Beymer, only that out of an excellent cast he appeared less confident than the others.  However, your explanation makes it clearer - who would feel happy acting with a co-star who tried to get him 'replaced'!?

And yes, they were all great actors - Action remains my favorite!! Kat

PS Why was Chita Rivera not in the film version of WSS? Any ideas?? 

A

October 3, 2012 at 3:25 AM Flag Quote & Reply

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

Hi again, Kat.  You're welcome!  Glad I was able to be of some help here.  I realize that you didn't mean what you said as a cricitism of Richard Beymer.  Your observation of Richard Beymer seeming less confident than the other cast members of WSS is spot-on...and correct.  

I have a tough time picking out favorites, although Action, Ice, A-Rab, Riff, Bernardo and Anita, as well as the bitter, bigoted Schrank, were very, very strong characters.

As for Chita Rivera not being in the film version of West Side Story, I  did read/hear that she'd already been chosen to play a part in the movie Bye Bye Birdie, although I'm not 100% positive about this.

October 3, 2012 at 8:35 AM Flag Quote & Reply

kat
Member
Posts: 5

'i wonder if the actors of WSS had much recognition from the public at the time of filming? Nowdays every single incident on set is recorded in some way but I guess it was different at the time of filming this classic?   

October 5, 2012 at 2:51 AM Flag Quote & Reply

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

kat at October 5, 2012 at 2:51 AM

'i wonder if the actors of WSS had much recognition from the public at the time of filming? Nowdays every single incident on set is recorded in some way but I guess it was different at the time of filming this classic?   

Hi, Kat.  That's an interesting question that I never considered, but now that I think about it, I wonder about the same thing.  I know that Natalie Wood did play in some other movies in addition to West Side Story, such as Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, and Gypsy, but those are the only other movies that she played in that I know.  

in addition to playing Riff in West Side Story, Russ Tamblyn also played in Tom Thumb and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but that's all I remember about him.

I think, although I'm not positive, that Tucker Smith may have also played in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

Tony Mordente played in The Longest Day.

All of the above having been said,  while some of the actors/actresses in the film West Side Story did get a little bit of recognition, they didn't become overly famous and/or gain a ton of recognition and fame from the public, on the whole.  

I also might add that Rita Moreno also played in the film Singin' in the Rain,  when she was considerably younger, and before she played in West Side Story.


October 5, 2012 at 11:46 PM Flag Quote & Reply

kat
Member
Posts: 5

Some of the WSS cast chose not to participate in the Jets and Sharks story - any idea why? 

October 7, 2012 at 5:26 PM Flag Quote & Reply

mplo
Member
Posts: 38

kat at October 7, 2012 at 5:26 PM

Some of the WSS cast chose not to participate in the Jets and Sharks story - any idea why? 

I honestly don't know, kat.  I do know, however, that some of the Jets and Sharks actors of West Side Story are no longer alive, but that's all I know.  

October 9, 2012 at 12:27 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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