The Sound of Musicals: West Side Story
Jets and Sharks. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The streets of New York City. The perfect setting, the perfect setup - all for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s iconic West Side Story. This Best Picture-winning 1961 musical has been a favourite of mine for the longest time already, and my own soft spot for Hollywood musicals has always suckered me up to the many wonders which come by in West Side Story. It goes more beyond than the many fantastic musical numbers, or beyond Romeo and Juliet. But what the hell, the general idea is I love this movie.
Our setup is simple; we have obvious influence from the story of Romeo and Juliet, updated to mid-1950s New York. Our Romeo and Juliet of this story is present within Maria and Tony. Maria’s brother is the leader of the Sharks, placing her amidst the house of the Capulets, and Tony leads the Jets together with Riff, working like the Montagues. The Jets and the Sharks are at feud with one another. Tony and Maria fall in love. Their tragic love for one another is an impossible one, if the gangs hate one another so vehemently.
My own love of West Side Story goes more than beyond what I’ve already mentioned in the first paragraph, for it could easily have come off like any other old Hollywood musical that we can wash off. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins take this old story and apply it within modern standards, which helps in giving it the timeless factor. But how exactly has this story grown to become timeless in that manner? From the relationships between the Jets and the Sharks, we have a discreet portrait of racial interactions that are still running within America. Parts of our city are still at war with others, maybe we don’t see it directly but we know it’s there. Where else could it get any better? Having actual Puerto Ricans playing the Sharks in order to make up for a few unconvincing accents?
West Side Story’s wonder never stops there. Every time when I watch it I always get an urge to smile when I witness all the life that is brought in - not just in the dance choreography or the liveliest of its musical numbers, but within the morals it presents. One such number that highlights said importance is the “I Feel Pretty” sequence, one that always elicits a smile from me on every listen or viewing. Some get an impression of narcissism out of Maria’s character when she bursts out into song about how she feels within herself, but I feel something more powerful is being acknowledged. With the film’s central core being within how differences should not set apart two star-crossed lovers, the “I Feel Pretty” musical number elevates this message by bringing out a sense of self-worth to Maria. A moment for her to highlight why she should live life the way she does, and maybe why we should also strive for more with what we have.
Maybe I’m rambling again, but I can’t help when I wish to talk of West Side Story for it has always held a special place within my own heart. Having grown up on Hollywood musicals of the sort, I can’t help but resist the charm it leaves behind from start to finish. For really, when talking about West Side Story, all of this wonder can just come out of anywhere. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, the wondrous choreography, or how it translates Romeo and Juliet into another world - it’s just as timeless now as it was back in its day. When I want to think back in regards to what I love most about musicals, something like West Side Story always serves itself a reminder for me. Optimistic, tragic, energetic, colorful, where can oneself go wrong?