West Side Story Redux

I see that the musical, West Side Story, is coming back to Broadway, where it started over sixty years ago. Of course this isn’t exactly an earth-shaking event, since it has been revived several times before, but it got me to reminiscing.

No, I didn’t see the original stage show. In fact as a clueless Midwestern teenager I had probably not even heard of West Side Story, and the only thing I knew about Broadway was that it seemed to celebrate as stars people who were pretty much unknown to me.

But a couple of years later Hollywood got into the act, and it brought the rest of the country the story in spectacular wide-screen color. I went to see it because that’s what we did in those days – went to the big movies that people were talking about. (Not much different than now, I guess.)

Remember how I described myself as “clueless” earlier? That continued to be the case as I watched it. I had no idea it was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with an added complication — instead of two fueding families, it was the native New Yorkers against the Puerto Rican immigrant community. And I thought it really was Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer singing the leads. (Actually dubbed by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant.) Here’s their big show-stopper.

Kind of mushy for my buddies and me, but I think we still all fell for Natalie, playing a sheltered and chaste young teenager even though she was a worldly 22 at the time. (As was Beymer.) Their poignant love story was complicated by the conflict between their communities, one that included occasional battles between their gangs. The Jets, led by Russ Tamblyn as Riff, were always butting heads with the Sharks, led by Bernardo — George Chakiris in an Oscar-winning role. Chakiris, who is actually of Greek ancestry, was ultra cool and charismatic as the Puerto Rican leader. Here he is dancing and singing with Rita Moreno, who also won an Oscar. (As did the movie itself.) Pay special attention to the lyrics, some of which still seem relevant.

The award-winning music was written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and hopefully will remain intact for an even newer West Side Story, a remake of the movie that’s due to come out in 2020. It’s coming from Disney and Stephen Spielberg, so it’s hard to say what form it will take but they won’t spare the expense.

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