“West Side Story” won everything in sight when it was released in 1961, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Scoring, Best Film Editing, and even a special award for Robbins’ brilliant choreography. Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and updated to the 1950s, this Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim collaboration remains one of the most creative and energetic Broadway shows ever produced.
But one’s reaction to it today may depend upon just how much one likes musicals. After all, minor aberrations like “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” notwithstanding, the musical genre has fallen out of favor in Hollywood lately, and younger audiences might not understand or appreciate why two groups of teenage hoodlums are continually breaking out into song and dance. Nevertheless, for those who enjoy such things “West Side Story” remains among the best of Hollywood’s Broadway translations, and MGM’s newest two-disc Special Edition DVD set does a fine job reproducing its sound and picture, while providing the necessary bonus materials to justify its asking price.
As in the Bard’s play, “West Side Story” opens with the introduction of two rival, New York City street gangs–the youthful, white Sharks and their Puerto Rican counterparts, the Jets–as they swagger and jeer and face off at one another. Before long they break out into open hostility until the police break them up. These opening dance sequences have a poetic, balletic grace about them that is purposely at odds with the coarse postures of the participants.
“West Side Story” was a production the like of which Broadway (and Hollywood) had never seen before. It wasn’t in the tradition of the usual musical; this one was a romantic tragedy with an emphasis on realism, prejudice, and bloodshed, using actual location shots. Folks expecting a typically lighthearted musical-comedy were in for a shock.
Then we meet the principals. Richard Beymer stars as Tony, a Jet who doesn’t want trouble, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks. Naturally, Tony and Maria fall in love at a neighborhood dance, and the major conflict is underway. Oddly, I’ve never found Beymer or Wood especially notable in their parts. Beymer is somewhat stiff in his role, and Wood never quite persuades us to believe she’s a young Puerto Rican woman, despite the work she did on her accent. Like the rest of the actors and dancers in the cast, their singing voices are dubbed (Wood’s voice by Marni Nixon, who made a career of such things). However, no matter how you feel about the leads, the co-stars are brilliant. George Chakiris as Bernardo, head of the Sharks, and Rita Moreno as Anita, Maria’s friend, deserved their Supporting Oscars. They bring an exhilarating level of energy to the proceedings.
If you know the Shakespeare play, part of the fun in watching the film is noting how the screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, transforms each of the playwright’s famous scenes into modern dress. New York City fills in for Verona, Italy, for instance, and a police lieutenant steps in for the Prince who is fed up with the feuding factions.
Anyway, it’s the singing and dancing that are, in the end, the main items. Frankly, I’m not really keen on dancing myself, and it continues to make me a little uncomfortable watching the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie as a group of supposedly tough juvenile delinquents prance, frolic, and strut their stuff through the streets of New York. But it’s stylistically fascinating, especially the “Cool” number; and in any case, if you’re not up to the dancing, there’s always the wonderful Bernstein music and Sondheim lyrics. Some of the most popular numbers are the “Jet Song,” “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,” and, of course, the showstopping tunes, “Maria” and “Tonight.” I think I’ve heard them about a hundred times, and they’re just as appealing as ever.
This is MGM’s second DVD of “West Side Story” and again they have preserved the Super Panavision widescreen of the film’s original theatrical showing. The studio claims on the box a 2.20:1 ratio, but it actually measures about 2.02:1 across a normal television. Nevertheless, it’s wide enough to display the picture’s big-scale dance numbers and convey the sheer size of the Manhattan location shots. The picture quality is better this time out, at least in anamorphic playback, than in the original DVD transfer. There was in the older edition an unusually high incidence of wavering lines and fluttering pixels to contend with that are mostly absent here. Some few are still in evidence, but overall the moiré effects have been greatly tamed. The images are slightly sharper etched now, too, while the colors are as deep and vibrant as ever.
The film’s original two-channel theatrical stereo was remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 for the DVD’s first edition, and it continues to sound good, helping to clean up and invigorate the sonics; after all, it’s been a lot of years since 1961, and the soundtrack needed some touching up. I found the audio nicely spread out in the front channels, although there is relatively little information directed to the rear, mainly minor musical ambiance reinforcement. Still, the sound is well detailed, a little hard, perhaps, yet never overly bright. It comes across fairly naturally and certainly makes for easy understanding of the song lyrics. Some small background hiss is still noticeable in quieter passages, but it’s of minor importance.
Here, of course, is where any new Special Edition should shine, but there really aren’t as many individual extras as one might expect. Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of the film; its remastereded Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
Disc two contains a new, fifty-six-minute documentary, “West Side Memories,” which is a must for any “West Side Story” fan. In it everyone who’s still alive and had anything to do with the film is interviewed and allowed to reminisce, including co-director Robert Wise, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, writer Ernest Lehman, actors Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, and many more. It passes an enjoyable hour. Then, there’s a brief, four-minute storyboard-to-film montage; the original film intermission music; three photo galleries (production design, storyboard, and behind-the-scenes); thirty-two scene selections; four well-worn theatrical trailers (the best-looking being the animated one); and trailers for other MGM DVDs.
In addition to the bonus items on the discs themselves, the set includes a hefty print scrapbook, which contains a three-page introduction by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the entire screenplay for the film (complete with revisions), an original lobby brochure reproduction, the history of the Broadway show and its Hollywood translation, cast biographies, and numerous behind-the-scenes photos and memos. The book, the documentary, and the film’s improved video quality make the price of the Special Edition set seem reasonable, even if a person already owns the original DVD.
All in all, “West Side Story” holds up pretty well. Bernstein’s score is remarkably resilient, and the plot and characters are obviously timeless. It makes for an enjoyable and desirably repeatable two-and-a-half hours of entertainment. To cap it off, the extras are fun, particularly, as I’ve said, the complete screenplay that you can hold in your hands, allowing you to read and sing along, and the documentary you can watch later. It’s a good-looking package.