West Side Story ★★★★★

I had never been a fan of the stage musical, so I was surprised by how much I loved the movie.  Then, while reading the book, “Robert Wise On His Films: From Editing Room To Director’s Chair” by Sergio Leemann, I discovered that Wise and Screenwriter Ernest Lehman had performed a restructuring of songs and events.  Now, the story had a much better flow for me.  I was transported.
It is often mentioned that WEST SIDE STORY was a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  However, that is only a part of it.  Shakespeare’s play involved two feuding families.  WEST SIDE STORY is centered around a literal clash of cultures.  (And when we dig even deeper, we find that the White American Jets are an ethnic mix of their own.)  There’s also the story of alienated youth of the 1950’s.  Some pretty hard-edged societal issues are mentioned here ... definitely not what was seen on television in episodes of “Leave It To Beaver” or “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
Fans of the later film, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, will recognize the Robert Wise opening.  This time, instead of grass-covered mountain ranges, we are shown New York City.  It is a busy landscape filled with skyscrapers and teeming with automobiles.  But, in a small patch on the West Side, it is a dead-end warren that houses poverty and broken dreams.  It also houses the youth of different cultures that fight for the only thing they know ... “ownership” of a tiny paved territory.
There are so many elements of excellence in this show:
* The choreography by Jerome Robbins bristles with energy and dazzling leaps;
* The music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim work through all of the Viewer’s emotions;
* Is it just me, or could you take any single frame from Cinematographer David L. Fapp’s work in this show, blow it up, frame it, and hang it on the wall as Art?;
* There are just so many memorable songs from this show.  I was already humming three before I even started the film.  The “America” production number is one of my favorites from any musical;
* For TWIN PEAKS fanatics, Richard Beamer and Russ Tamblyn are a treat;
* And speaking of performances, Rita Moreno dazzles, George Chakiris is electric, and I found myself falling in love with Natalie Wood all over again;
* The final scene delivers a message with no holds barred, yet doesn’t preach.  Wow!
All of the musicals that have won the Best Picture Academy Award have been amazing.  WEST SIDE STORY deserves its place among them.  It does not tell a “safe” story, yet it causes a person to stop and reflect on what was just seen ... even while humming “Maria,” “Tonight,” or “I Feel Pretty.”  It is a remarkable achievement.

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