West Side Story (Mirisch: United Artists), when it opened on Broadway in 1957, was greeted as "a major achievement of the American musical theater," a successful attempt to create a new theatrical form: a musical play in which the element of dance mattered more perhaps than either the music or the playa choreoperetta. Now, with the help of full color, stereophonic sound, and a wider-than-widescreen process called Panavision 70, the play has been transformed into a supercolossal $5,000,000 cinemusical. Unhappily, the film shares a serious flaw in the essential conception of the show; both are founded on a phony literary analogy and on some potentially vicious pseudo-sociology.
West Side Story is a resetting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the race-riotous slums of Manhattan's Upper West Side. Romeo (Richard Beymer) is a white boy, idol of a teen tong called The Jets. Juliet (Natalie Wood) is a Puerto Rican girl whose brother (George Chakiris) is the leader of a rival street gang called The Sharks. As in Shakespeare's poem, the star-crossed lovers meet and love and find their fate in the ugly shadow of suspicion that divides their kindred. Unhappily, the literary parallel, though it lends the piece a certain spurious redolence of tradition, proves a pathetic fallacy. Shakespeare's lovers seem silly in the gilded palazzi of romantic old Verona; in the rancid tenements of unremitting megalopolis, West Side Story's lovers seem simply unreal and finally uninteresting.
Sociologically, the film bids to be taken seriously: at a hundred points it sinks a daga of ridicule into the affluent society that has carelessly betrayed the people this movie portrays. A number called America! lets the hot air out of the norteamericano ideal of freedom:
Free to do anything you choose Free to wait tables and shine shoes. Gee, Officer Krupke is a touching, light-hearted tribute to those municipal marvelsmagistrates, civil service psychiatrists, social workers, policemen on the beatwho so often, without even trying, are able to develop a mere juvenile delinquent into a mature criminal. But West Side Story goes wildly, insufferably wrong when it insists that society is entirely guilty, that the teen-age hoodlums are ultimately innocent. Worse yet, the picture becomes wildly, immorally sentimental when it attempts the apotheosis of alley rats, broadly suggesting that they are the Patrick Henrys of the urban proletariat.
Nevertheless, by sheer theatrical intensity, the film transcends its specious materials. Under Robert Wise's driving direction, its set pieces are socko and incessant. Natalie Wood has the right dark glow as the Latin heroine; Richard Beymer is winsome as the hero, and as a tan teen Tybalt and a nubile Nurse of anything but the usual Shakespearance, George Chakiris and Rita Moreno are strikingly slummy. On-screen as onstage, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics sting like a tongueful of tamales. Leonard Bernstein's music, as usual spinelessly eclectic, fails (as the whole film fails) to merge the moods of sweetness and blight; but it is often swell strutty stuff.