West Side Story (1961)
Romeo & Juliet in America
Come in, come in! We won't bite you until we know you better - Anita
Whilst I wouldn't say I am a musical connoisseur I do enjoy watching musical extravaganzas and I've watched some which are brilliant others which are better forgotten but "West Side Story" pretty much tops everything. To explain, for me a musical should be about a story and then that story is told through a mix of acting and of course singing & dancing and that is what "West Side Story" delivers. It takes us on this journey through an update of "Romeo & Juliet" as we have Tony and Maria, the Jets and the Sharks and delivering one great scene after another. And whilst it features some brilliant dance sequences, some iconic songs it is the fact that it all flows together with sublime energy which makes it so impressive, superior to so many other very good musicals.
In the middle of New York's Upper West Side local gangs the Jets and the Sharks are at war and Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn - Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) wants to end it in a do or die rumble. And so Riff calls on his friend and former Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer) to accompany him in speaking to Bernado (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks to organize a rumble. But at the dance Tony meets Maria (Natalie Wood - Miracle on 34th Street), Bernado's younger sister and falls head over heals in love with her as she does with him. But when Maria learns that her brother is going to face off to the Jets she begs Tony to stop it but when things take an unhappy turn and puts their secret romance in jeopardy.
So at it's heart "West Side Story" is a version of "Romeo & Juliet" transferring the story to a contemporary setting, changing names and some events but keeps the essence of the story in tact. so that means that instead of the Monatgues and Capulets we have the Jets and the Sharks, instead of Verona we have New York's Upper West Side and instead of Romeo and Juliet we have Tony and Maria. But it is the same story of gang rivalry, fights, romance and heart break and for anyone who doesn't fancy reading Shakespeare's tale will find this update a good introduction.
Now what is partly so good about "West Side Story" is that despite some terrific songs and impressive choreography the storyline is central. Everything feeds off of the story and there is not a single musical scene which feels out of place, all contributing to tell the tale of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks as well as the love of Tony and Maria. It's because the storyline is central it flows, it doesn't stop to throw some extra musical scene in for the sake of it and because it flows that it draws you in, keeping you interested for every single second. In fact at 152 minutes "West Side Story" is by no means a short movie to watch yet time just slips past because it flows at such a perfect pace with an abundance of energy.
But of course "West Side Story" is a musical and one which features some iconic songs. It's impossible not to be spellbound when Tony sings "Maria" or get caught up in the energy of "America" and I could go on because every single song, even the occasional minor one is impressive. And many of these songs is accompanied by some spectacular choreography be it a proper dance sequence such as that which accompanies "America" or the opening series of sequences which establishes the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. What is so nice is that each movement when it comes to the choreography tells the story and there is not a single dance scene which feels like it is included just to highlights someone's dancing talents and there are some impressive dancers in the cast.
Now the single criticism I have is when it comes down to the casting because whilst for the most it is impressive with both Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno standing out you do get some shaky performances. And sadly I just didn't take to Natalie Wood as Maria because she doesn't have the fire or the look that you expect for someone who is supposed to be Peurto Rican. It's not a terrible performance but when you compare it to the passion which Rita Moreno or George Chakiris delivers in their characters it feels weak. But it is a minor criticism and one which doesn't spoil the overall enjoyment of "West Side Story".
What this all boils down to is that there are good musicals and then there are great musicals and "West Side Story" is near the top of the list when it comes to great musicals. It's a brilliant update on the story of Romeo and Juliet and features some iconic songs and musical scenes which are hard to forget. But its greatness is that it flows, every thing revolves around the story and skips along at a perfect pace so that never does it once feel boring or throws in scenes which are irrelevant to the story.
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