Saturday, November 19, 2011

Film: West Side Story (1961)

Earlier this season on Glee, McKinley High School was mounting a production of West Side Story for the fictional-school's play. The auditions and show performances were used as a backdrop for ongoing storylines with the characters. Many of the play's songs (brilliant compositions by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) were featured on the show, sung by the talented cast.

Having not seen the film in decades, I decided to see if I could track down a copy. After all, this year was the fiftieth anniversary of the film's release. How hard would it be to track down a copy?

Turns out in the podunk town we live, impossible.

I checked the local Best Buy. No luck.

I looked at the local Target. They're DVD section is vastly shrinking, moving more to Blu-Ray (but they didn't have a copy in that format either).

I checked Netflix for streaming it. No go.

I looked at our On-Demand offerings. Uh uh.

Finally, I did a search by title in the cable listing - score! I found that Cinemax was running it at 6am on Wednesday. Two clicks and I had the DVR set to record.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down on the couch and prepared to watch.

Now, we all know that West Side Story is a modern day Broadway musical that adapts William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The film version of the story portrays the New York City gang rivalry in the late 1950's between the Jets (the white American gang led by Riff, played by Russ Tamblyn) and the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo, played by George Chakiris). Tension moves from the streets to a dance that night, where former Jet Tony (played by Richard Beymer) spies Bernardo's sister Maria (played by Natalie Wood). This couple from two different worlds fall in love at first sight and refuse to let any obstacles stand in their way to be together. The love story then plays out amidst the increased gang tension to its tragic ending.

The songs from this play/film are classics. From Tony's optimistic "Something's Coming" and love ode to "Maria" to the young lover's duets "Tonight", "One Hand One Heart" and "Somewhere" to Maria's giddy "I Feel Pretty", you would know the songs if you heard them (and I am certain you have). And of course there is the show-stopping group number lead by Anita (played by Rita Moreno) "America".

I mentioned that it had been decades since I had seen the film completely. I can remember growing up in the 70's that it would be shown every couple years on CBS, usually on a Saturday night where they could fit it all in during a three hour period that included commercials. I can remember sitting on the floor in my grandparent's family room, eyes glued to the television as these performers sang and did amazingly choreographed dance numbers. I knew it was a good show but I don't think I fully appreciated it at the time.

Watching it again this week, with the eyes of an adult who had since that childhood read the Shakespeare play too, I can appreciate the film even more. The dance numbers are incredible to watch. The set designs are simple yet highly effective. The costumes with their many colors pop. And looking back today, fifty years later, the little touches like Tony stacking cases of bottled Coca-Cola and the items in the window at Doc's candy store make me nostalgic to my years growing up as a kid. The only thing for me that was a bit less stellar was the singing. Maybe it is because I have heard so many great artists perform these songs over the decades that hearing the original film versions again felt a little less spectacular. Don't get me wrong - they performances in the film were very good; it is my memories and expectations of them that were built up perhaps too high.

All in all, I very much enjoyed seeing West Side Story again. It is nice to revisit classics such as this every now and again, to be reminded of wonderful stories and performances of generations before.

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