On New York’s West Side, two gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, fight over turf. At a dance, the tensions are palpable, but Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the little sister of Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, fall in love at first sight. While they meet secretly, the Jets and the Sharks agree on a rumble under the highway. Tony gets them to agree not to use weapons, but Maria asks him to prevent the rumble altogether. Things go bad, Bernardo kills Riff, the Jets’ leader, and Tony kills Bernardo. Maria and Tony want to run a way, and Anita wants to help but stops doing so when she is humiliated and aggressed by the Jets. In the end, Maria is left to grieve over Tony’s dead body.
Based on the successful Broadway musical first staged in 1957, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the musical expressed a number of ambivalences, about youth culture, social and urban change, high and low culture. Critics were divided about the film, some hailing it as a masterpiece lauding its choreography and pulsating rhythm, while others deplored the film’s romanticisation of the heterosexual couple and of the street gangs as well as the tensions between stylisation and realism. In many ways, the stage musical and the film picked up on a subversive trend in the fifties, on an emerging youth culture, and, with its unhappy ending, anticipated the edgier films of the late 60s. At the same time, however, it remained committed to utopian (and romantic) thinking so typical of musicals.
West Side Story is an urban musical, a form that puts it in the context of films such as 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933), On the Town (Stanley Donen/ Gene Kelly, 1949), The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953) and Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955), and which may be distinguished from more rural, folkloristic musicals such as Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955) and The Music Man (Morton DaCosta, 1962). The urban context for West Side Story, however, was very specific, referencing post-war urban renewal. After the overture, the film opens with a sequence shot on location in Manhattan, and we see the gangs run through a 590 West Side Story (1961) number of non-continuous spaces, including a heap of construction rubble. The latter is an indication that the film commemorates what was about to be destroyed: the tenements in the San Juan Hill neighbourhood, which were about to be razed to make way for the construction of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (among others home of the Metropolitan Opera). This replacement of working-class, ethnic neighbourhoods with a monument to high art – what was generally understood as slum clearance – was part of Robert Moses’ plan for New York City. It was controversial not least because of the number of people it displaced. Another gesture towards a changing New York can be found in the rumble taking place under a highway overpass (represented by a set). Moses was also famous for razing blocks of apartments in order to make space for highways, in a misguided attempt to adapt New York City for the automobile. While the film is hardly a critique of Moses’ policies, it nonetheless suggests that the restructuring of New York City created a number of deadly spaces.
Likewise, the film’s take on New York City urban culture and its Puerto Rican inhabitants is ambivalent at best. The original idea for the musical had a different ethnic cast: located on New York City’s East Side, the story was to be about Catholics and Jews feuding at Passover time. (A trace of Jewishness can be discerned in the Doc’s Yiddish-inflected English, which casts the film’s most reasonable character as a former immigrant.) During a stay in Hollywood, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents read about gang fights between Mexican immigrants and native-born Americans, and decided to relocate the story into New York City’s Puerto Rican context (Garebian 1995: 30, 35). Immigration from Puerto Rico, which had been invaded by the United States during the Spanish–American War of 1898, whose inhabitants have US citizenship, but not the right to vote, surged in the 1950s. Since its release the film has often been criticised for its stereotypical depiction of Puerto Ricans, which was not helped by the fact that apart from Rita Moreno as Anita (who was made to assume an over-exaggerated accent), the cast was mostly non-Puerto Rican, a fact the producers were trying to make up for with hair dye and make-up. Puerto Ricans protested early on, though the objections to the original stage musical had to do less with the depiction of Puerto Rican juvenile delinquents (or of Puerto Ricans as delinquents) than with the characterisation of Puerto Rico in the song ‘America’ (Garebian 1995: 138). Part of the ambivalent response to the film may have to do with the film’s own ambivalence. Casting a conflict between ethnic strife and romantic love, the film’s choreography of urban space is simultaneously celebratory and martial, as becomes visible, for instance, in the opening encounter between the Jets and the Sharks.
West Side Story combined these urban and ethnic contexts with a theme that had proven profitable for Hollywood in the 1950s: youth culture, more specifically juvenile delinquency. The 1950s in general saw an increased targeting of younger movie audiences, in part because cinema was now locked into a competition with television, which turned out to be more family oriented. By contrast, cinema now sought out niche markets (such as teenagers in drive-ins). Movie stars tapping into a newly emerging youth culture, such as James Dean or Elvis Presley, proved incredibly popular. Rebel without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) had definitely established juvenile delinquency as a sellable product. To some extent, West Side Story can be understood as the transposition of this issue into a more working-class, ethnic context. Coming several years after Rebel, and after a wave of popularising the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud in Hollywood, West Side Story is very aware of the psychological contexts of juvenile delinquency. The most hilarious moment in this regard may be ‘Officer Krupke’, a musical number in which the Jets make fun of police officers, judges, psychotherapists and social workers. ‘See them cops, they believe everything they read in the papers about us JDs. So that’s what we give ‘em, somethin’ to believe in’, Riff says. These self-consciously ironic moments provide a comic counterpart to the film’s more romantic longings, and place the film in-between the melodramatic earnestness of films such as Rebel without a Cause and the more nihilistic scepticism of youth-culture films from the late 1960s, such as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969).
West Side Story (1961) 591 West Side Story may thus be seen as a transitional film, originating in the 1950s and pointing toward a more youth-oriented film culture. This liminal status – and the ambivalences it entails – is crucially connected to its status as a musical. Rick Altman has argued that musicals are ‘dual-focus’ narratives, playing things against but also alongside each other. The most obvious version of such a dual focus may be the heterosexual couple – in West Side Story Tony and Maria – who get solos as well as duets. In a related issue, within musical criticism, the relationship between the musical numbers and the rest of the narrative has always been considered important. There are many different kinds of musicals – from the revue (which essentially strung together a series of musical numbers with little plot connecting them), to the backstage musical (where the stage setting justifies the inclusion of musical numbers), to the integrated musical (in which songs and dances advance plot and develop characters). Though not the first integrated musical, the original stage version of West Side Story was hailed as a landmark show, conceived around movement, with dances advancing plotlines even as the choreography allowed for interruptions, asymmetries and youthful freedom (Garebian 1995: 13).
West Side Story thus seemed to develop a musical form that was particularly good at staging and choreographing conflicts. One of these conflicts may well be the one between comedy and tragedy, irony and sincerity already mentioned in the discussion of the ‘Officer Krupke’ number. But other tensions abound, for instance between realism (the location shots) and fantasy (the fantastically coloured and stylised sets). Indeed, part of the film’s conflict is brought out through subtle uses of colour, as the gangs are colour-coded, with the Jets wearing clothes ranging from yellow to brown while the Sharks’ clothing ranges from purple to red. In this context, Maria’s clothing is particularly interesting to watch, because she goes back and forth between the two groups. The film’s gorgeous colours, however, also gesture toward another conflict. On the one hand, by the 1950s, the film industry was invested in colour movies and widescreen formats, so as to offer something more spectacular than the new televisual medium. On the other hand, the colour play during the overture also suggests another ambition. The film’s solemn beginning reveals the high aspirations of film at the time – the attempt to become a highbrow art. The show’s composer, Leonard Bernstein, son of Jewish immigrants, who had written a BA thesis titled ‘The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music’, was well known for his enthusiasm for American music, especially jazz, his eclecticism, and for mixing high and low, the classical and the vernacular (Garebian 1995: 24). The film’s overture, though, clashes with its lowly subject as well as with the graffiti at the end of the film.
At the same time, however, the musical’s impulse often is to try to transcend and resolve such conflicts. Richard Dyer has argued that musical entertainment has a profoundly utopian dimension. Musical numbers, through representational and non-representational signs (such as colour, movement, etc.), seek to overcome limitations, for instance replacing scarcity with abundance, exhaustion with energy, dreariness with intensity, fragmentation with community. In West Side Story, Tony’s and Maria’s romance – and duets – are part of the utopia – in ‘Somewhere’ Tony dreams of a ‘place for us’, ‘peace and quiet and open air’, and later he tells Doc about his fantasy of having ‘lots of kids’ with Maria in the country. But this place seems to play on the original meaning of utopia, a ‘non-place’. This seems fairly conventional – conceiving of the nuclear family as utopian – and yet it is interesting that it does not exist in the film. One of the more intriguing minor characters is ‘Anybodys’, the girl who rejects conventional gender norms. She is thoroughly ridiculed, according to dominant sentiments of the time, but it is nonetheless worth asking to what extent the film registers, negotiates and responds to unstable or changing gender and sexual roles. (‘My sister wears a mustache, my brother wears a dress’, Riff sings in ‘Officer Krupke’.) In addition to the question of gender utopia, the issue of national utopia may be most prevalent, staged as a disagreement between Puerto Rican men and women in ‘America’. The song does not only comment on the comparative merits of the two ‘islands’ – Puerto Rico and Manhattan – but registers profound ambivalence about US consumerism – and capitalism more generally – because of how racism and 592 West Side Story (1961) unequal access are structured into the system. Because utopia always seems elsewhere in West Side Story, it becomes easier to read social issues against the grain – the film proposing the critique of gender or national norms as utopian. It is this ability to play both sides – to champion simultaneously critique and affirmation – that makes it one of the greatest American musicals.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation/Beta Productions/Seven Arts Productions. Directors: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise. Screenwriter: Ernest Lehman (based on the play by Arthur Laurents). Producer: Robert Wise. Music: Leonard Bernstein. Cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp. Editor: Thomas Stanford. Choreographer: Jerome Robbins. Cast: Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Rita Moreno (Anita), Russ Tamblin (Riff), Jose de Vega (Chino), Eliot Feld (Baby John), Susan Oakes (Anybodys), Gina Trikonis (Graziella), Carole D’Andrea (Velma), Ned Glass (Doc), Simon Oakland (Lieutenant Schrank), William Bramely (Officer Krupke).]
Richard Altman, The American Film Musical, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987.
Hillary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson (eds), Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, New York, Norton, 2007.
Thomas Patrick Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2002.
Richard Dyer, ‘Entertainment and Utopia’, in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods, Vol. II, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 220–32.
Keith Garebian, The Making of West Side Story, Toronto, ECW Press, 1995.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.