West Side Story at 60: the dazzlingly modern musical that’ll be hard to beat

·6 min read

It’s the opening credits that do it right away. Following three eerie whistles over a black screen, West Side Story explodes into a full screen of poster-paint colour – shifting from orange to red to magenta to royal blue – as Leonard Bernstein’s four-minute overture brassily clatters into action. Over the colour, a stark design flourish: seemingly random brigades of parallel vertical black lines, only coalescing at the overture’s end into the tip of Manhattan, viewed from the air, cuing a vertiginous bird’s-eye montage of New York City in motion. That chipper yet chillingly disembodied whistle returns; by the time we finally see a human face, six coolly riveting minutes has passed.

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This whole title sequence – from the graphics to the aerial photography – was visualised by Saul Bass, the distinctive graphic designer then favoured by such aggressive stylists as Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. It still seems, perhaps even more than anything that follows in West Side Story, sleekly and breath-catchingly modern: a coup of expensive minimalism at the outset of a splashy Hollywood production. That was no accident: in 1961, United Artists set out for the film to be something bracing and new in the movie musical, an industry staple that was looking increasingly out of step with a youth culture turning toward rock’n’roll.

The previous two years had been rough ones for the genre. In 1958, South Pacific may have topped the annual box office while Gigi swept the Oscars, but since then, the only Hollywood song-and-dance films to prove even mild hits had been minor comedies, Disney cartoons or Elvis Presley vehicles. Hopes were high for West Side Story to put the gloss back on to the prestige musical – the 1957 Broadway musical had been a hit with critics and audiences alike – but the studio knew the usual style of overstuffed Technicolor spectacle wouldn’t cut it. The film had to be as propulsively dance-oriented as the stage show, yet expansive and kinetic as cinema. It had to honour the classically romantic roots of its source – this was a riff on Romeo and Juliet, after all – while Saying Something Significant about modern youth and urban society. It had to be family-friendly yet appealing to tearaway teens; it had to court Oscar voters and high-culture critics alike.

It was, in effect, strategised and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, down to the unusual compromise made on the directorial front. Genius choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose work had been so integral to the stage show’s success, was hired to direct the musical sequences, despite having zero film experience. Industry journeyman Robert Wise was enlisted for the straight dramatic scenes, not despite his lack of musical experience but because of that: best known for stolid black-and-white dramas on stern subjects (he had recently been Oscar-nominated for the grim death-row biopic I Want to Live!), he was intended to bring some grownup gravitas to the exercise. Not that the producers were above naked populism when casting the leads: whether or not there’s any truth to the enduring rumour that Elvis Presley was approached to be the film’s Tony, teen-idol potential took precedence over musical ability: 23-year-olds Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer didn’t sing a note in the film, but couldn’t have lip-synched more prettily.

All of which makes West Side Story sound like a desperately over-calculated, even cynical exercise. Yet as it plays out, from that Saul Bass aesthetic masterstroke onwards, the film remains a blinder: somehow checking off each of those aforementioned, contradictory boxes, it’s formally electric, musically alive and emotionally pummelling, even as its dubbed leads trade in borrowed feeling. West Side Story isn’t unflawed, in ways the show wasn’t either: its overwriting of Shakespeare to lend proceedings at least half a happy ending, with Maria alive and distraught, can’t quite touch the frenzied melodrama of Romeo and Juliet’s dual-death fiasco, and there’s no getting round the fact that its sweet, doe-eyed leads are given a lesson in musical magnetism every time their older counterparts Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are allowed to burn up the frame. (That West Side Story won 10 Oscars, including two for Moreno and Chakiris, while Wood and Beymer weren’t nominated was a harsh way to stress the point.)

And yet 60 years on, West Side Story is bigger, bolder and braver than any of its shortcomings. Robbins’s cinematic inexperience may have sent the production behind schedule and over budget, leading to his eventual dismissal, but he was worth every excess day and penny: from Astaire and Rogers and Gene Kelly, Hollywood was well-schooled in filming dance, but never had bodies in motion been used to shape and dictate a film’s own rhythm quite like this: take the ultra-stripped Cool number, filmed largely in long, roomy wide shots, in which every thrusting limb and snapping finger feels like an editor’s cut. Or the cantankerous chaos of America, the Latin characters’ pent-up exasperation spilling in a brash synthesis of swirling, confrontational choreo and the jangly, switching rhythms of Bernstein’s score, perfectly described by Moreno: “Then along comes Leonard Bernstein with his 5/4 time, his 6/8 time, his 25/6 time. It was just crazy. It’s very difficult to dance to that kind of music, because it doesn’t make dancer sense.” In the moment, of course, it does.

Six decades on, then, West Side Story still feels agile and athletic and crisply, fizzily modern, elegantly poised in tight trousers between the past of the Hollywood musical and its future, yet never quite surpassed or outdated on either side. In a matter of weeks, we’ll be able to judge the wisdom of Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner making their own new version of the musical, though I confess to some sight-unseen scepticism. A remake may right wrongs of casting or writing in the first film: in particular, expectations are high for the Colombian American teen Rachel Zegler to hew closer to the show’s vision of the romantically overwhelmed and culturally conflicted Maria than Wood ever could. But I’m curious to see how the film, in retaining the 1950s gangland setting that in the original was so sparsely and exhilaratingly contemporary, can avoid feeling like a nostalgia item, a painstakingly recreated period piece. Meanwhile, its predecessor hangs on to the shock of the new, the urgency of the now, the heated flush of youth. Even after 60 years have passed, that’s a hard act to follow.

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