In honor of the 50th anniversary of this American classic there is a new Blu-Ray release of West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition. Modeled on “Romeo and Juliet,” this movie puts the star-crossed lovers in two warring gangs in the slums of New York. The opening dance number brings us up to date. The Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and and the Jets (Anglos) have blown up a series of petty insults and turf disputes into a war over who will rule the territory. The leader of the Jets, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), goes to see his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer), the former leader of the gang. Riff asks Tony to come to the dance that night to support him as he negotiates fight terms with Bernardo (George Chakiris), the leader of the Jets. Tony has outgrown the gang, and wants more from life, but he and Riff are friends “womb to tomb,” so he agrees to go. Moreno and Chakiris both won Oscars for their performances, two of the ten won by this movie, including Best Picture. The brilliant music and lyrics are by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Bernardo’s sister Maria, just arrived in the US, is getting ready for the dance, begging to have her dress cut just a little lower. Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Rita Moreno), watches over her protectively. At the dance, well-meaning Mr. Hand tries to get the teenagers to mix with each other, but tensions are high. As each side dances furiously, everything seems to stop for Tony and Maria, who see each other and are transformed.
Bernardo is furious when he sees them together, and he takes Maria home. But that night, Tony visits her, and they declare their love for each other. She asks him to make sure there is no fighting, and he agrees. At the “war council” he persuades them to make it a fist fight only, and he feels successful. But Maria wants him to make sure there is no fighting of any kind, so he agrees to try to stop them. Things get out of control, and Bernardo kills Riff with a knife. Tony, overcome with grief and guilt, grabs the knife and kills Bernardo.
Running from the police and the Jets, Tony finds Maria. They dream of a place where they could always be safe and together. Anita agrees to take a message to Tony, but when she is harassed by the Jets, she angrily tells them that Maria is dead. Blinded by grief, he stumbles out into the night, and is shot by one of the Sharks. Maria holds him as he dies, and together, the Sharks and Jets carry him away.
The story retains its power, but the gangs are endearingly tame to us now. Can it be that once there were gangs who fought with fists and knives? This is a good opportunity to explore the reasons that people fight. Anita says that the boys fight like they dance, “Like they have to get rid of something, quick.” According to her, they are getting rid of “too much feeling.” Kids understand that idea and may like to talk about what “too much feeling” feels like to them. The music and dances in this movie do as much to tell the story as the dialogue and plot, and they illustrate this idea especially well.
One important difference between this movie and “Romeo and Juliet,” is that in Shakespeare’s play, the older generation plays an important role. In “West Side Story,” the few adults who appear are ineffectual and tangential, like Mr. Hand (John Astin), who thinks he can get the kids to be friends by having them dance together. Listen to the lopsided music-box song he plays for them, and see what a good job it does of expressing both what he is trying to accomplish and how hopeless it is.
And, of course, this is an important movie to use in talking about prejudice. See if you can get kids to watch carefully enough to figure out why the Sharks and Jets resent and mistrust each other.
Family discussion: If you were going to adapt the story of “Romeo and Juliet” today, what groups would the boy and girl come from? Where do you see the most prejudice today? Listen to the song about “America,” with the Sharks and their girlfriends disagreeing about whether America has been good or bad to them. Which side do you agree with? Are they both right? Why? In the song “Tonight,” both sides sing, “Well they began it!” Have you ever seen people act that way? One of the boys tells Doc “You was never my age.” What does he mean? Do all teenagers feel like that at times? Have you ever dreamed of a special place where you could always be safe? What would it be like? Tony has to decide how he can be loyal to his friend and loyal to Maria. Why is that hard? Who else in the movie has to make a decision about loyalty? If you could talk to Tony and Maria, what would you tell them to do?
Connections: This is a great double-feature with “Romeo and Juliet” or the 1997 version, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” It is fun to see how much of the movie’s structure is taken from the play. In both, the lovers see each other at a party, and are immediately overcome. In both, the boy comes to see the girl later that night. Juliet speaks to Romeo from a balcony. Maria speaks to Tony from a fire escape. Romeo and Tony are both pulled back into the fight due to the deaths of their friends. In both movies, tragedy results from missed messages. There are some important differences, too. Juliet dies, but Maria does not.