Almost as long as they’ve been able to talk, films have been able to sing and dance. Frequently high-style, often rapturously romantic, most musicals have nonetheless been content to remain light, sophisticated entertainment. Still, there has always been a minority tradition of musicals with more serious intentions. Of these dramatic musicals, West Side Story is among the most powerful.
It was Jerome Robbins who conceived the idea of a Broadway musical about New York street gangs, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In West Side Story, Montagues and Capulets are transformed into rival gangs, the Jets (local white youths) and Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants), thus broadening the territory of the musical to include the tragic. But where the conflict of Romeo and Juliet is situated in a fictional family feud, West Side Story derives its power from the blood and dirt of the streets. As Sharks and Jets battle through dance, they’re enacting an all too real social tragedy.
Rightly or wrongly, it was assumed that a musical inspired by Shakespeare and rooted in social conflict was more “mature” than the frivolous entertainments of Broadway and Hollywood. But the “realism” of the Broadway show was a matter of highly stylized evocation of an urban environment made up of painted, sparse backdrops. When the play was being adapted to the screen, such a sketchy suggestion of the surroundings was immediately recognized as insufficient to the material demands of the film image. To succeed as film it was necessary to sense the dance arising out of the sidewalks, that the city itself was giving birth to the music. And yet, despite the film’s realistic texture, as a further contradiction, virtually all of the film was shot on a soundstage—a credit to the heightened, theatrical realitycreated by Robbins, codirector Robert Wise and production designer Boris Leven.
There is a subtle abstraction of decor that extends the emotions of the characters into the surroundings. Stylization transforms an alley fire escape into an oppressive set of details -- laundry hanging on a line, vivid, glistening cobblestones and wan colors that press in on singing lovers by their sheer physicality. Or, a fight between the gangs under a freeway is as red-hot as the hatred of the gang members warring under it.
But it is in the film’s opening sequence that a nearly perfect integration of stylization and reality it achieved. The camera, in a bird’s eye view, moves ever closer to a city playground, finds a group of youths and swoops down as a brawl transforms into a dance. In the ensuing ballet, the film’s drama is complemented by a conflict of temporal, musical and visual rhythms. As the dancers move in sharp, occasionally tortured diagonals, the relationship between their bodies and the surrounding architecture visualizes the abrupt, jagged syncopations of Leonard Bernstein’s music.
The rhythms draw us relentlessly into the tragic love affair between Tony (Richard Beymer), an ex-Jet, trying to make a go at the straight life, and Maria (Natalie Wood), a girl fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico. Maria’s brother Bernardo (George Chakiris) is leader of the Sharks. While the dancing merges architecture and body, the love story is the film’s heart. Tony and Maria’s love is innocent, completely apart from the hatred swirling around them. But that very innocence dooms them: as much as they desire to transcend their surroundings, they are products of their environment—part of it. The more they try to ignore the violence around them, the more irrevocably they are drawn into it.
In this context, it’s hardly surprising that Tony and Maria are given virtually the only lyrical songs in the score by Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. But while the rest of the cast is denied the poignancy of a song like “One Hand, One Heart,” there are compensations. The Jets get raucous humor in “Officer Krupke” and acrid sensuality in “Cool.” The Puerto Rican characters strut with sassy good-spirits in the show-stopping “America.” And both sides get to explode in the energetic opening ballet and the dance at the gym.
The contrast between love songs and dance numbers also results from the film having been directed by two men. Jerome Robbins brought his dance expertise to the film. Robert Wise (a former editor, whose editing credits include Citizen Kane) brought his knowledge of the percussive form of film editing to enhance the musical experience. While most memorable musical numbers prior to West Side Story are notable for the fluidity of the dancing and camerawork, Wise and Robbins use editing as an extension of the choreography and music. A dancer will throw back her hand and kick out in medium shot, a trombone slides into a downbeat, and there’s a cut to a wider shot as the next verse begins. The cuts underline and punctuate, as much a part of the musical expression as the score and the dancing.
If West Side Story seems too idealistic in an age when gangs murder through the haze of Cracklined nightmare, that’s a perspective only thirty years of urban decline can provide. But it’s a testament to the film’s power that despite our hardened cynicism we can still be drawn into the conflict between Sharks and Jets and want it to be resolved. West Side Story continues to move precisely because of its faint insistence that hope remains possible.