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West Side Story (1961) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

tony maria chino gangs

Principal social themes: violence/gangs, immigration

United Artists. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, Tucker Smith, David Winters, Tony Mordente, Jose de Vega, John Astin. Written by Ernest Lehman based on the musical play by Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein. Cinematography by Daniel Fapp. Edited by Thomas Stanford. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Produced by Saul Chaplin and Robert Wise. Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Color. 151 minutes.


West Side Story , one of the most remarkable and successful musicals in cinema history, is basically a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transferred to the rundown area of the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the feuding families replaced by rival street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Modern-day social issues permeate not only the plot but also the lyrics of the songs, making West Side Story unique in terms of the theme of this book. Critically acclaimed, West Side Story gained an impressive ten Academy Awards, including the Best Motion Picture of 1961.


Two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, confront each other over control of a small cluster of blocks on New York’s West Side. The Sharks consist of Puerto Ricans who have recently moved to the city. Riff (Russ Tamblyn), leader of the Jets, enlists his friend Tony (Richard Beymer), the original founder of the Jets, to challenge the Sharks to a rumble to settle their differences. They plan to extend the challenge that evening at a local dance. Bernardo (George Chakiris), leader of the Sharks, brings his sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), newly arrived in America, to the dance. He intends her to be a date for his pal Chino, but Maria has no interest in him. She spots Tony at the dance, and the two of them fall in love at first sight. Bernardo is angry when he catches Maria dancing with Tony. Angrily, he accepts Riff’s challenge for a rumble. Later, Tony and Maria meet on the fire escape outside her window, and they declare their love for one another, despite the fact they come from different cultures.

When Bernardo and Riff meet for a war council at Doc’s candy store, Tony intervenes and gets the leaders to agree to a fair fight—no weapons—between the best men from each gang. The next day, when Tony meets Maria at the bridal shop where she works, Anita (Rita Moreno), Bernardo’s girlfriend, learns of their liaison, but agrees to keep quiet. Maria asks Tony to try to stop the planned fight. Tony heads to the scene of the battle, and tries to get the fight called off, but Riff and Bernardo get into a knife fight. Tony interferes, and Riff is stabbed. Dying, he hands his knife to Tony, who kills Bernardo as a full-fledged rumble breaks out. Chino heads off to tell Maria of her brother’s death, but is stunned when she seems more concerned about Tony. Chino gets a gun and vows to kill Tony. Meanwhile, Maria hides Tony in her room, deciding to elope with him. When Tony goes to Doc’s candy store to borrow money from the owner, Maria packs her bags. Lt. Schrank (Simon Oakland), investigating Bernardo’s death, visits Maria to question her. Maria sends Anita to warn Tony that she will be delayed. Instead, Anita is terrorized by the Jets when they encounter her at the store. Angry, she leaves a message for Tony that Maria was shot by Chino and is dead. When Tony hears this, he despairs and heads out into the night, hoping that Chino will kill him as well. Calling for Chino, Tony is startled to see Maria walking past the playground. They rush to greet each other, but Chino interferes and shoots Tony. The members of the two gangs come running at the sound of the shot and watch Tony die in Maria’s arms. She cries out in anger at all of them. The police arrive and arrest Chino. Three members of the Jets pick up Tony’s body, but when they falter, two members of the Sharks help them carry him off.


West Side Story created a Broadway sensation as a stunning amalgamation of Shakespeare, musical theater, and the theme of street gangs and violence among modern youths. Not since The Cradle Will Rock did social concerns figure so prominently in a work of musical theater. Dancing was stressed in the original stage production, often including a dynamic stylization of street fighting. The film tried to preserve this element of the production, as choreographer Jerome Robbins was hired as a co-director to film the vibrant dance routines. Much of the film was shot in the streets of New York in the neighborhood where Lincoln Center was scheduled to be built. After the buildings were vacated, the film was shot on location shortly before the structures were to be razed. This setting provided the film with a unique background far more interesting than any soundstage production. The sequence of the songs was shifted in Ernest Lehman’s script. Stephen Sondheim provided a number of new lyrics, in some instances making them less suggestive than the stage version, but at other times, such as in “America,” altering the rationale of the song. In the stage version, “America” was sung by the Puerto Rican girls, mocking one member of their group who preferred her original island home to Manhattan. In the screen treatment, the Puerto Rican girls still sing of their preference for life in New York, but their boyfriends sing instead of the climate of racism they encounter in America. A number of songs, particularly “Officer Krupke,” have incredible lyrics that both illustrate and satirize the social issues of urban youth and the problems of juvenile delinquency, police harassment, drugs, alcoholism, prostitution, child abuse, spouse abuse, venereal disease, lack of education, unemployment, ghetto crime, and street violence.

Other points worth examining are the attitudes of the police. Both the Sharks and the Jets cover up for each other when questioned by Lt. Schrank. Both gangs it seems respect a code of the streets. Yet they also have a nihilism that foreshadows the gangs portrayed in Colors . The end of the film does not portray a reconciliation between the gangs as much as a temporary revulsion at the consequences of their violence. How long this truce will last remains an open question.

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