Two basketball teams, both alike in dignity / in fair Manhattan, where we lay our scene.
So doesn’t begin Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Set in New York City, 1957, this is the story of two warring gangs: Jets vs Sharks. Jets seem to have the advantage in a non-aquatic situation, unless it’s the type of shark that commandeers tornadoes for transportation.
In this case, the Jets are white Americans, while the Sharks are Puerto Rican. Despite their ties to the rival gangs, Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) fall madly in love. This is of course a retelling of the animated classic Gnomeo and Juliet.
While preserving Shakespeare’s enduring themes – of love transcending society’s barriers; that where you come from only matters as far as you want it to; the destructive cycle of tit-for-tat violence – West Side Story updates other ideas for modern America.
In fact it’s the song ‘America’ that stands out, with its Latin rhythms and witty lyrics about immigration, speaking to the nation’s flourishing multiculturalism. Other moments address the new youth culture, something that never really existed until the late 1950s, such as the exchange: “When I was your age…” “You was never my age!”
Not only does this social resonance counterbalance the film’s soppier moments and more cloying songs, particularly between Tony and Maria, it serves as a more interesting update of Romeo and Juliet than Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which adds guns, a pop soundtrack and little else.
From its finger-snapping choreography and rooftop settings to its colourful costumes and cultural themes, West Side Story is iconic. If you’ve ever watched Romeo and Juliet and thought, “it’s good, but it could use more mambo”, then this is the movie for you.