West Side Story (1961, Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer)

Winner of ten Academy Awards, West Side Story is an uplifting and exhilarating musical spin on Romeo and Juliet and a landmark in musical history that survives perfectly well its ’50s setting.

With superb choreography and a fast-paced score by Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story stars Natalie Wood as Maria, a beautiful and innocent Puerto Rican girl who falls for a white gang member, Tony (Richard Beymer), in a rough New York neighbourhood.

Two rival gangs, the Jets (first generation New Yorkers) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants), fight it out for control of the local turf, but the love affair between Maria and Tony sets sparks flying and the scene is set for tragedy and violence amongst much singing and dancing. And it’s the musical numbers that get the pulse racing with some of the best work done by second leads Rita Moreno as Anita, an angry, smouldering girl with attitude, and George Chakiris as Bernardo, her Shark leader boyfriend. Together with the versatile and athletic Russ Tamblyn as Riff, they perform a series of gravity-defying dance routines while still managing to appear menacing as gang members.

west side story

As in Shakespeare’s play, the two lovers struggle against convention to keep their love affair alive, but the film also explores themes of gang violence and prejudice against immigrants with sensitivity and panache, albeit covered in a beguiling cloak of bloodless naivety. Perhaps some of the dialogue may seem outmoded to today’s more street-wise viewer but, nonetheless, a powerful story is told within a blissful musical framework.

Natalie Wood was chosen to play Maria, even though she had to wear a hefty slap of makeup and carry a fake Puerto Rican accent, due to her huge box office appeal having just won an Oscar for Rebel Without a Cause. Her singing voice, however, didn’t cut the mustard and professional dubber Marni Nixon belted out the tunes as she had for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Deborah Kerr in The King and I.

USA / 1961

Directors: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Writers: Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents

Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, Tucker Smith

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