Despite the fact I’ve seen this movie a good half dozen times, I thought it would be a great jumping off point in my quest. Some quick background to the film: It is based on the stage show of the same name the opened on Broadway in 1957. The book was written by Arthur Laurents (The Way We Were), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (musical theater god), and music by Leonard Bernstein (prolific composer). The story is derived directly from that of Romeo & Juliet; two lovers from different sides of a rivalry fall in love and deal with the consequences of their choice. The musical was well received, but lost for Best Musical Tony Award to The Music Man. In a time when musicals were a large draw for audiences and huge profit makers for studios (“road shows” were pay dirt for studios), it made sense to bring the show to the screen.
Originally, they tapped Jerome Robbins to direct as he was the original choreographer of the stage show. After going way over budget, the studio fired him and replaced him with Robert Wise. However, Robbins’ hand is present throughout the whole film mostly in his choreography. Mr. Wise also insisted that Robbins’ get a Co-Directing credit as he felt he worked hard laying the groundwork for the film. This lead to the first Co-Directing win at the Oscars and has only been followed once by the Coen Brothers in 2007 for No Country for Old Men. The stage show went through a flurry of changes before hitting the screen. Notably Cool and Gee, Officer Krupke were switched due to the fact it seemed out of place for these characters to sing a bouncy tune after the rumble. The language and some references were also changed or deleted since the producers knew it wouldn’t get a Board Seal with such phrases as “Sperm to worm”. The movie went on to have a very profitable run and win 10 Academy Awards; more then any other music film to date.
I am always excited when I watch this movie. The music and dancing are so energetic that you can’t help but find your foot bouncing to the beat. What always sticks with me is the dancing and music more then the acting or even singing. There are some great vocal moments (most of them from Marni Nixon, who dubbed Wood and some pieces for Moreno) and the pain in Wood’s face at the end is truly heartbreaking. However, what I always find myself drawn to is watching the dancing and music work and tell a story. Maybe it’s the fact my sister is a classic music nerd or I’m a former theater brat, but I’m always in awe during the very difficult ‘Dance at the Gym’ scene. The complex melody floating across the room while the two gangs try to one up one another just always puts a smile on my face.
The visual look of the movie is pretty much in the same vein as other movie musicals of the time: bright and colorful to the point that it looks almost unreal at moments. I will give the movie credit that there are moments where they tried to give a more gritty realism. The Cool number is dark and has a washed out look about it. The costumes aren’t brightly technicolored and the lighting is more “real” in that it’s coming from headlights of the cars. One of the modern criticism the movie gets is it’s lack of actual ethnic actors to play the Puerto Rican characters, but you need to look at the film in the context of the time it was made. The Civil Right’s Movement was gaining more traction and Sidney Poitier hadn’t won his Oscar yet. There is no doubt to any viewer that Natalie Wood and George Chakiris are not of Hispanic decent, but really, who cares? They play their parts with great conviction and yes, their accents are a bit cliched, but I’m not here to focus on the lack of Political Correctness in these films.
Undoubtedly, when you ask people about the film, they will remember the music and dancing. The story is familiar, the singing ordinary, and acting good, but it’s the long dance numbers that seem to always cause a stir. Jerome Robbins’ choreography gave new look to the musical movie that would eventually be followed by Bob Fosse. Leonard Bernstein’s score added a level of complexity that made other composers up their games. You can see the effects of this movie musical throughout the 60s, but mostly the 70s. The hard work and pure dedication of the performers and producers was somehow engrained into the very print of the film. Forty plus years later we still watch it with complete respect and awe for the people on the screen. Even though the Romeo & Juliet story has been played to death, you can’t help but hurt in those last seconds when Tony and Maria are running toward each other, all to have it taken away. I truly feel this film will continue to shine and always connect with any audience and generation.