I’m frightened enough for the both of ya.
What started as an idea to contemporize William Shakepeare‘s Romeo and Juliet on the East Side of Manhattan with star-crossed lovers of Irish Catholic and Jewish descent eventually found itself reworked to the opposite side of the island with religion removed so ethnicity could take its place. Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents altered things to hew closer towards the 1950s’ rise of street violence by embroiling rival gangs (descendants of Polish immigrants versus newly arrived Puerto Ricans) into a turf war. With Leonard Bernstein composing the music and newcomer Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics (this would be his Broadway debut), West Side Story became a stage hit en route to winning two Tonys (on six nominations) before getting optioned for what would become a ten-time Oscar-winning cinematic adaptation.
The turnover was quick. The musical bowed in 1957, the film in 1961. Ernest Lehman adapted the script. Robbins handled the choreography and ultimately directed most of the dance numbers before being let go from the project for going over budget and behind schedule. It was Robert Wise (hired to handle the overall production because of his gritty realism and ability to save money) who championed Robbins and got him a co-directing credit since you cannot watch any of his extended dance sequences and pretend they weren’t the result of a singular vision. This was a joint effort between two artists working in tandem to bring a successful whole together. And it worked to earn critical praise, awards, and box office glory (it was that year’s highest-grossing film).
We enter the tale with an almost wordless prologue introducing the gangs as finger-snapping, jump-twirling New York City heavies enjoying a jazzy score. The sons of Polish immigrants go by The Jets. They’ve fought hard to control this neighborhood, spending years fending off incumbents and contenders alike thanks to the leadership of Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Tony (Richard Beymer)—the latter of which cut up his membership card to focus on his future by getting a job at Doc’s (Ned Glass) soda shop. The Puerto Ricans go by the moniker The Sharks and are led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). It’s not difficult to question the theory that he even wants to displace Riff. He wants equality. Like most empowered white populations, however, The Jets consider that a threat.
It’s a valuable message that’s sadly undercut upon considering Chakiris is Greek and his Bernardo’s younger sister Maria—the musical’s lead—a white, Russian Natalie Wood. I’m almost surprised they cast Rita Moreno as his girlfriend and her confidant respectively since she is of Puerto Rican descent. That’s the industry in 1960, though. Heck, that’s the industry now. If someone with Steven Spielberg‘s clout wasn’t in charge of the remake to ensure the same brown-face didn’t occur again, it probably would have (they did give him the job instead of a director with Latino descent after all). Today’s audiences must therefore watch the film with additional context. They must separate the good from the bad, acknowledging its historical place in cinematic history without forgetting its sins.
Because the former shouldn’t be disregarded. Wise and Robbins’ film is a stunning feat of movie magic with exquisite cinematography and editing. The wild stylistic flourishes on transitions. The hyper-specific vignetting to single out the moment Maria and Tony meet eyes from across the room. The unforgettable closing credit sequence designed by Saul and Elaine Bass. Even the theatrically over-the-top fights turning fisticuffs into ballet possess a memorable air of artistry that vaults the material into a sort of fantasy-world just beyond reality. Until, of course, the drama’s dark shadows rise to depict murder and attempted rape. This is a tale of hate holding teens hostage. It’s about scared kids who can’t recognize that their implicit peacocking and toxic masculinity is on an unavoidable collision course towards homicide.
It’s a film about reductive contrasts shielding Americans from more blatant similarities. Just look at the hypocrisy of the central dynamic. The Jets are born from parents and grandparents who immigrated from Europe. They became Americans. The Sharks’ did too, but without necessarily having a say in the matter. The US took control of the island in 1898 and Congress passed an act that declared all Puerto Ricans American citizens by 1940. Them moving to New York is therefore akin to someone from Pennsylvania doing the same. And maybe that’s where some of this malice was born. The white insecurity coursing through Riff’s blood pushes him to dismiss Bernardo as an “other” via appearance rather than law or logic, knowing his own status weakens the deeper he aims.
The musical doesn’t stop there, though. It adds a third party by way of policemen Schrank (Simon Oakland) and Krupke (William Bramley). As morally corrupted as The Jets as far as what side they hold higher, their brutality and threats do nothing to assuage the violence. If anything, they exacerbate the situation by feeding the flames with a combative mentality that forces these kids to double down on their loyalty to the gang and nobody else. That’s where The Jets and The Sharks find their strength. They look inward. They talk tough. They may even draw blood now and again. But neither can trust the cops—not to help them or leave them alone. And when you can’t trust your supposed protectors, who can you trust besides yourselves?
This truth is why the most enlightened characters amongst them, (Maria and Tony), are doomed despite their optimism. She has just arrived, so she hasn’t become jaded yet. He has been around long enough to know the gang didn’t help him where it mattered. They each see the future with hope rather than fear as a result. They see a way out while the others reinforce the walls keeping them chained to oblivion. Their love isn’t therefore solely based on attraction. A part of them also sees that kindred spirit able to move past petty differences and overblown rivalry. The question is thus whether they can make their friends and families see reason too. They cannot fathom failing because they’re blinded by a dream the others don’t share.
How can they not become secondary characters to their own story as a result? Everything Maria and Tony do to better themselves and those around them is exploited and cannibalized in ways that put them at risk. The more they attempt to diffuse the hate, the stronger that hate grows. It’s why Moreno and Chakiris won Oscars. They can’t afford that same luxury. These two have no illusions about their place in this world—fair or not—or the risks that come with daring to change their fate. The potential of Maria and Tony’s love mending this rift means needing to also double-down on the rage in anticipation of its failure. The whole becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you deny hope, the less chance it becomes possible.
That’s why West Side Story endures. Its tragedy takes that which Romeo and Juliet reveals about prejudice and projects it onto a very real social issue that still systemically controls America’s imbalanced machinery. To see someone as an enemy without ever getting to know them is to lose yourself in the process. Bernardo can’t see his sister as a woman in love because he cannot see how a Jet can be loved. The same goes for Riff. He can’t give up and admit defeat because he’s conflated superiority with honor. One domino falls and takes the next until change cements tragedy rather than prevent it. That’s the thing about words. They don’t hurt as much as fists, but they sow enough animosity to guarantee those fists inevitably fly.