On Saturday night I was lucky enough to see West Side Story (1961) with all the music performed live by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Tremendous! The NZSO sounded amazing, unsurprisingly, although there were some slight issues with the film sound (the singing was great – quite a technical feat to get it all lined up with the music! – but for some reason the dialogue sound was sometimes a bit hollowed out and occasionally even a beat out of sync. Never mind, it didn’t spoil the fun!)
West Side Story is still as grand and affecting as ever, deservedly iconic. On this viewing I particularly appreciated how the whole plot tumbles out of the setup with such beautiful momentum, building speed as it closes in on the tragic inevitability of the rumble and then the conclusion.
Not sure how much of a hot take this is, but I think this 1961 film’s two big changes from the stage version are both solid improvements. First up, putting Bernardo in the ‘America’ song is fantastic – giving Bernardo some clear focus, foregrounding his relationship with Anita, and rewriting the lyrics to make the satire and critique of attitudes to Latino immigration even more pointed. Second, swapping the positions of the goofy ‘Officer Krupke’ number and the intense ‘Cool’ makes a huge amount of sense. You can kind of get away with ‘Krupke’ where it is on stage because disbelief is suspended just a shade further than screen, but tonally it makes so much more sense early on before shit goes down. Same with ‘Cool’ but in reverse.
There are lots of other minor changes for screen that also work well – beefing up Anybodys so they have more to do, creating a new character Ice (basically as an anchor for the Cool number) who gives Riff the stable support he was missing on stage, and giving the Jet girls a few crucial extra bits.
Unchanged from the stage: the dress shop pretend-marriage song, ‘One Hand One Heart’, remains a low-energy dull point that hurts the show. It’s slow and contemplative when the connection between the lovers should be running hot, and it’s a song without any dramatic mission – there’s no thrill or discovery in it, just a confirmation that, yup, they love each other now. It’s trying to sell the depth of their relationship but there’s not enough going on to do so, even though the song itself is lovely.
As Tony, Richard Beymer is a loveable lunk with a killer smile, but (like pretty much every other performer I’ve ever seen try this role) he doesn’t find a way to really make convincing the crucial turning point when Tony responds to Riff’s death by stabbing Bernardo. On this watch at least I could see some hints at rough edges I hadn’t noticed before, but that murder by our romantic leading man still takes some swallowing, especially as it commits even harder to the heightened reality of choreography fighting rather than breaking tone for a more realist note. (Compare for example the way the Jets abusing Anita underplays the choreographed style for most of that interaction, with much more satisfying results.) Still, you accept it because Shakespeare sold it in Romeo & Juliet.
It’s been cool to be mean about Natalie Wood for longer than I’ve been alive but I thought she was great in this, even though she didn’t sing and even though her accent was all over the place and even though she was playing out of her ethnicity. Crucially, she sells ‘love at first sight’, which is Maria’s narrative duty much more than Tony’s. (Tony mostly just has to turn up at her door smiling that smile.) Wood acts the hell out of the final moments too.
Anyway. Amazing flick. Looks great, wonderful stylised lighting, absolute control over each scene, dancing just delightful. Would watch again, even without a symphony orchestra.
Rita Moreno for queen of the world.