A time when whistling dance routines and blackface meet the bard

Daniel J. Rowe

Whistling, snapping, switchblade fights, pastel sweaters, slacks, gelled hair, soda pop shops, black faced Puerto Ricans and a bunch of teenage thugs singing. Yep. We must be talking about the most famous adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: West Side Story (insert whistle riff).

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s 1961 film version of the musical is full of colour (Technicolor even), long panning shots, clean and arm-swingy choreography, bright blue eyes, and everyone’s favourite feature of 60s era film with racially specific characters: face paint.

No, not this face paint.

It’s the kind of makeup choice that just makes you want to ask, ‘why oh why didn’t you just hire an actual Puerto Rican actor?’

So it goes. It was 1961. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Face paint aside, we brawlers have to ask: is West Side Story a well done adaptation of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood love story? That being done, you have have to ask if this movie is very good, and if it is something that sustains the test of time.

Does it?

It is actually a very fun movie, and the directors are clever with their choices of shots, colours, characters, sets and style. The deep zooms, pans, close ups, and trick where one character is in focus while everything else is blurry are all very nice. The movie is colourful and crisp and clean and always nice to look at.

Now, if you do not like musicals, you will not like this movie. I go through times where I really don’t like the Leonard Bernstein scores, and then I hear a tune in the car on the radio, and can’t help but turn it up. In the end, I think I will submit, suck it up, and say that I do like the songs.

The acting is overall pretty good. Richard Beymer (Tony) is the… Wait a second. Is that Benjamin Horn from Twin Peaks? Yes it is. And is Riff Dr. Lawrence Jacoby? Indeed he is.

Allow me to indulge for a second.

Man that show’s fun.

I wonder if Shakespeare would like Twin Peaks? I wonder if he would like West Side Story?

I want to say yes and maybe.

The thing that hurts the musical is the romantic and idealized love story – that is in R&J – with no hints at the irresponsibility of the teenaged characters. As discussed in some legendary Bard Brawl podcasts, Romeo and Juliet is full of lines and situations that suggest the romance is nothing but an irresponsible romp by two hearts that are bigger than brains of teens who fall hard and fast with tragic consequences.

Ok. Rant done.

I will say those Tony – Maria songs are borderline unwatchable. You know that’s not even Benjamin Horne singing? Weird. It hurts me to say that Maria (the lovely and late Natalie Wood) is my least favourite pieces to the film.

As for the rest of the ladies, I d0 like Anita (Rita Morena). Hey! An actual Puerto Rican! And if you’re asking if that’s Sister Peter Marie Reimondo from Oz, you are correct. I wonder if Shakespeare would like Oz. I have to say a definitive yes on that one. Tobias Beecher. Classic Shakespearean character if I’ve seen one.

One more thing.

How the H did George Chakiris (who’s Greek by the way) win the Best Supporting Actor oscar over George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason in the Hustler? I don’t want to say Bernardo deserved that knife in the gut, but come on! Never trust awards shows.

Now was this a good adaptation? I’m going to go with a reserved yes. Is is a good film? yes. Does it hold up over time? Reserved yes.

In the end, there are problems with West Side Story. But I can’t say I hate it. I appreciate the adaptation of Shakespeare in such an interesting way, but wish it were a touch tougher.

Oh, and there’s no way people should be playing basketball in jeans!


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