West Side Story (1961)


West Side Story is a 1961 musical film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The film is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was adapted from William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. It stars Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and David Winters, and it was photographed by Daniel L. Fapp, A.S.C., in Super Panavision 70. The film's opening sequence was shot on the streets of New York City, mainly in the area where the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts campus of Fordham University now stands. Veteran director Robert Wise was chosen as the director and producer because of his familiarity with urban New York dramas, such as Odds Against Tomorrow. Wise had never directed a musical before and when it was suggested that Jerome Robbins, who had directed the stage version, be brought in to handle all the music and dance sequences in the film, Wise agreed. After about one-third of the movie had been shot, the Mirisch Company, which had become increasingly concerned that the production was over-budget, fired Robbins, who, according to Saul Chaplin in his autobiography, nearly suffered a nervous breakdown during the time he worked on the film. The remaining dance numbers were handled by Robbins' assistants. However, because of his great creative contribution to the film, Wise agreed Robbins be given co-directing credit, even though Wise directed the majority of the film himself. The film was released on October 18, 1961, through United Artists. It received praise from critics and the public, and became the second highest grossing film of the year in the United States. The film won ten Academy Awards in its eleven nominated categories, including Best Picture, as well as a special award for Robbins. West Side Story holds the distinction of having won more Academy Awards than any other musical film (unless one counts the Honorary Award given to Maurice Chevalier in 1959, the year that Gigi won its nine Oscars. The soundtrack album sold more copies than any soundtrack album before it, and more than the original cast album did.


Although the plot summary here is divided into two acts, and the film was originally intended to have two acts, it was finally decided that it would work better without an intermission, in order to increase the tension in the plot. Act I The film opens in the streets of Manhattan in the late summer of 1957. There is a mounting tension set to music ("Prologue") between a white American gang, the Jets, led by Riff Lorton (Russ Tamblyn), and a rival gang of Puerto Rican immigrants, the Sharks, led by Bernardo Nunez (George Chakiris). The Jets harass the Sharks and vice versa, culminating in a free-for-all on the playground. They dance and eventually the Sharks grab one of the Jets, the youngest, named Baby John (Eliot Feld), and begin to "bloody" him. Soon, Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and Officer Krupke (William Bramley) arrive and break up the melee. Schrank orders the Sharks off the playground and the Jets "to make nice with them Puerto Ricans" or there'll be a price to pay. Once Schrank and Krupke are gone, the Jets discuss challenging the Sharks to an all out rumble that will decide who gets control of the streets. They decide to deliver the challenge to the Sharks at a dance later that night, because it is neutral territory. Riff decides that his best friend Tony Wycek (Richard Beymer), a co-founder of the Jets who has left the gang to work at a local candy/drug store, would be the best member to present the challenge to the Sharks because he has always come through for the Jets ("Jet Song"). Riff visits Tony at the store and asks him to come to the dance, but Tony is not interested. He tells Riff that he senses something very important is about to happen to him. After a little cajoling from Riff, Tony changes his mind and agrees to meet him and the Jets at the dance, in case it is there that he will discover that "something" ("Something's Coming"). Bernardo arrives to take his sister Maria (Natalie Wood) and his girfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) to the dance. At the dance, which is held at the gym, the Jets, Sharks, and girls are greatly enjoying themselves ("Dance at the Gym"). The host of the dance, social worker Glad Hand (John Astin), tries to get the members of the rival gangs to dance together. Even so, the rival gang members and their girlfriends remain apart. During a mambo, Tony and Maria see each other, become infatuated, going into a trance-like state, and begin to dance, oblivious to the rivalry between their ethnic groups. They eventually kiss, but Bernardo angrily interrupts them. He orders Maria home and tells Tony to stay away from his sister. It's at this point that Riff proposes a "war council" with Bernardo, who agrees to meet at Doc's drug store after the dance. Tony leaves in a happy daze, singing of his newfound love ("Maria"). Maria is sent home, and Anita argues with Bernardo that they are in America, not Puerto Rico. At the Sharks' apartment building, Anita and other girls from Puerto Rico engage in a spirited argument with Bernardo in defense of Maria's right to dance with whomever she pleases. They debate the advantages and disadvantages of their country ("America"). Eventually the women and the men disperse as Bernardo and his gang go to the war council. Tony discreetly visits Maria outside the fire escape at her home and they confirm their love ("Tonight"). They arrange to meet the next day at the bridal shop where Maria works. Meanwhile, the Jets gather outside of Doc's store to wait for the Sharks. They are visited by Officer Krupke, who warns them not to cause trouble on his beat. After he leaves, they lampoon him and the various theories of how to deal with juvenile delinquency ("Gee, Officer Krupke"). Doc (Ned Glass) is about to close the store, but the Jets convince him to stay open. The Sharks finally arrive and the war council begins. In the middle of this, Tony arrives and calls them chickens for having to fight with weapons. He demands that they have a fair one-on-one fist fight instead of an all-out rumble. The gang leaders agree, with Bernardo representing the Sharks and Ice (Tucker Smith) representing the Jets (much to Bernardo's disappointment, as he was hoping to face Tony). They are soon alerted of Lieutenant Schrank's arrival, so the gangs quickly intermix together and feign happiness and fun. Schrank pretends that it is a good thing that they are getting along and he might even get a promotion, but he knows what they are up to. Schrank orders the Puerto Ricans out (while they whistle "My Country, 'Tis of Thee"), then asks the Jets where the rumble is taking place, angering several members (especially Action) while doing so. Soon, the Jets disperse and Schrank leaves as well, leaving Tony and Doc alone in the store to clean up. Tony, who is in a good mood, surprises Doc and tells him about his love for Maria. The day comes to an end as a distressed Doc closes the store and Tony leaves. Act II The next day at Madam Lucia's bridal shop, Maria sings to her co-workers about how happy and excited she is ("I Feel Pretty"). After everyone except Maria and Anita leaves, Anita tells Maria about the impending rumble accidentally. Anita tells Maria to go home, but Maria insists that she wants to close the store by herself because she has work to do. Suddenly, Tony arrives to see Maria, leaving Anita in shock. Tony tells Anita of his and Maria's love, and Anita mocks Maria. Although Anita is initially shocked to see that Maria and Tony are having a romance, she shows some tolerance but worries about the consequences if Bernardo were to find out. Anita, who is also Maria's roommate, leaves to prepare for a planned date with Bernardo after the rumble. Maria pleads with Tony to prevent the rumble altogether, even if it is only a fist fight, and Tony promises to do so. Then Tony and Maria, using clothes in the bridal shop, fantasize about their wedding ("One Hand, One Heart"). They use the headless mannequins as their parents, best man (Riff) and Maid of Honor (Anita). They exchange wedding vows and kiss. A musical montage ("Quintet") intertwines the feelings of the Jets and Sharks in anticipation of the rumble, Tony and Maria's anticipation of meeting each other, and Anita preparing for her date with Bernardo. The Jets and Sharks arrive at their agreed location for the rumble, a fenced dead-end under a stretch of New York highway. As the "fair fight" begins between Bernardo and Ice, Tony arrives and tries to stop it, but is met with ridicule and mockery from Bernardo and the Sharks. Unable to stand by and watch his best friend be humiliated, Riff angrily lashes out and punches Bernardo ("The Rumble"). Drawing their knives, Riff and Bernardo fight each other. Once Riff gets the upper hand, Tony stops him. However, Riff breaks away and runs back into the fight, only to be stabbed by Bernardo. Riff collapses while handing the knife to Tony and Bernardo looks shocked at what he has done. Enraged, Tony kills Bernardo with Riff's knife, resulting in a full-fledged melee. Suddenly, police sirens blare out and the gang members flee, leaving behind the bodies of Riff and Bernardo. Blissfully unaware of what has happened, Maria is waiting for Tony on the roof of her apartment building. One of the Sharks, Chino (Jose DeVega), whom Maria has been promised to, arrives and angrily tells her that Tony killed her brother. Tony arrives, and initially Maria lashes out at him in anger, but Tony explains what happened and asks for her forgiveness before turning himself in to the police. Maria decides that she still loves Tony and begs him to stay with her. They reaffirm their love ("Somewhere"), kiss, and make love for the first time (offscreen). Meanwhile, the Jets (with Ice now in command and joined by the Jet girls) have reassembled outside a garage. Action demands revenge for Riff's death, but Baby John opposes it. Action yells at Baby John for being scared, then tensions flare amongst several Jets. Ice pulls them all into the garage and tells them they will have their revenge on the Sharks, but must do it carefully ("Cool"). Anybodys (Susan Oakes), a tomboy who is desperate to join the Jets, arrives after infiltrating the Sharks' turf and warns them that Chino is now after Tony with a gun. Ice sends the Jets to various locations to find Tony and warn him. Anybodys' persistence finally pays off as Ice asks her to search in and out of the shadows and commends her for her deed. In Maria's bedroom, she and Tony have just finished making love. The couple hear Anita arriving home, and Maria and Tony make quick, whispered arrangements to meet at Doc's drug store and run away together to marry. Anita hears through the door and knows that something is going on. Tony escapes through the bedroom window and flees, but Anita sees him running away. Anita chides Maria for the relationship ("A Boy Like That"). Anita says that a man who kills is bad, but she soon softens as Maria sings back. Maria's heartfelt love ("I Have a Love") wins over Anita, and despite her grief over Bernardo's death, Anita agrees to cooperate with a plan to help Maria and Tony run away and marry, because she is her friend. Anita quickly tells Maria that Chino is searching for Tony with a gun. Lieutenant Schrank arrives and questions Maria about the events leading up to the rumble, but Maria is protective of Tony and lies to cover for him. To deceive the policeman, Maria sends Anita to Doc's drugstore on the pretense that she is fetching medicine for her headache. She asks Anita to say she has been detained, explaining she would have gone herself otherwise. Anita's real purpose is to tell Tony (who is found by Anybodys outside Maria's apartment and takes refuge in the cellar of Doc's drugstore) that Maria is detained from meeting him. But when Anita enters the drugstore and asks for Tony, the Jets mock, harass, and mock rape her until Doc stops them. Infuriated by the attack, Anita gives the Jets a different message for Tony: Maria is dead, shot by Chino for loving Tony. Doc reproaches the Jets, then delivers the message to Tony. In shock and despair, Tony runs to find Chino, shouting "Come and get me, too!", and not knowing that Chino is actually secretly waiting for him. Now on the playground next to Doc's store, Tony suddenly sees Maria and they begin to run toward each other with joy. Suddenly, Chino appears and shoots Tony. As the Jets and Sharks arrive, Maria and a fatally wounded Tony reaffirm their love ("Somewhere"), but Tony dies in her arms. Maria takes the gun from Chino and blames the rival gang members for the deaths of Tony, Bernardo, and Riff with their hate, threatening to kill as many of them as she can, while still leaving one bullet for herself. However, she can't do it and drops the gun before sinking to the ground, crying. Three of the Jets start lifting his body and two Sharks join them to help carry him off. Maria and several Jets and Sharks walk behind them in a funeral procession and Chino is arrested for killing Tony.