West Side Story (1961).

Hello everyone. Welcome back to another #moviemonday. 

Today I am talking about West Side Story. I am talking about the 1961 version today and in a few weeks I will talk about the latest version that came out in 2021, and I will compare both versions and decide which one I prefer. 

I am starting with the 1961 version directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins because this version was the first version of West Side Story that I watched, so this is the version that introduced me to this story. It is a story that I am very familiar with, it’s one that I really enjoy. I was in a production of West Side Story when I was a teenager in drama classes so I think I’ll always love it just because I have so many lovely memories associated with this piece. 

Let’s dive into Movie Monday. 

Plot. 

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story follows the love story of Maria and Tony, two people who love each other but are forbidden to see each other because they belong to rival teenage gangs. The Jets and the Sharks are fighting for control of the Upper West Side. They have planned a rumble so whoever wins will get control of the territory once and for all. Despite all the hatred around them, Maria and Tony fall deeper in love and they don’t care who disapproves. They plan to get married and they also try to stop the rumble but alas, disaster ensues. 

Characters. 

I am going to talk about Maria, Tony, Bernardo, and Anita, because I believe these characters are the “core four” characters of this movie. The entire ensemble is incredible. 

Maria and Tony are the movie’s main protagonists. The star-crossed lovers are the movie’s Romeo and Juliet. 

Maria is sweet and kind, and a tad naive. She is portrayed as the innocent one because of how much her overbearing older brother Bernado worries about her. Maria really comes into her own as the story progresses. She does not hate Tony just because her brother and the Sharks tell her she should. She makes up her own mind, and despite the pressures that she faces, she refuses to blindly accept an arranged marriage, and she fights for the man she loves. Maria plans a life for herself with Tony, and she learns that she is capable of using her own voice to speak up for herself. 

Tony is the former leader of the Jets. Seeing as this is a movie that is inspired by the stage musical,  Tony really is the ideal male lead. He’s romantic, he’s kind, he’s cleaned himself up and he now lives a life that does not involve gangs but he still loves his friends and he is very loyal to them, so he does feel torn between his love for his friends and his growing love for Maria, but overall, he knows that all this hatred and violence is wrong and so he does genuinely try to make things right. He is a very sincere character and I can’t help but find him endearing. 

Bernardo is Maria’s older brother. He is the leader of the Sharks. He is fiercely proud, and he is extremely protective of Maria. He feels he knows what is best for her and I’d argue that he treats her as younger than she actually is. He is a kind character, but he has gotten swept up in all of the hatred and the violence. 

Anita is possibly my favourite character. She is Maria’s best friend, and she is Bernardo’s girlfriend. She is more mature than Maria, she’s spunky, she’s more confident. She has really come into her own before the movie begins, whereas we are watching Maria come into her own during the course of the story, which makes sense as this is Maria and Tony’s story, but it is brilliant seeing the strong, smart woman that is Anita. She really is the voice of reason sometimes and I think she is the character who sees things very clearly. She sees that all of the hatred won’t end just because Maria and Tony love each other, it’s gone on too long. She sees the danger in the world, and she wants Maria to be aware of that danger too. She knows that Maria and Tony being together is near impossible and so she tries to be a good friend to Maria by pointing this out. Anita is loyal to Bernardo, but she is also able to put her own views aside and listen to Maria. She is a true friend, and a fantastic singer, and I think that Rita Moreno did an incredible job of portraying her in this movie. Her songs are dynamic, and some of the scenes she does are quite intense. There is one moment in particular that always makes me tear up. There will be no spoilers here, but if you know the story then you should know what scene I am referring to, it is a scene where Anita’s strength is truly laid bare for all to see, and it is very powerful. 

Themes. 

West Side Story is a truly powerful piece as it deals with some very complex themes that still remain prevalent and universal today. As this piece is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the movie’s major theme is that love should conquer hatred. This is a movie about two people who have managed to put all of their perceived differences aside, and love each other despite all of the hatred and ignorance around them. Maria and Tony, like Romeo and Juliet, can see that all of this violence and feuding is pointless and it is dangerous, and they are striving for peace. Gang violence is an unavoidable theme of this movie as the entire plot is fuelled by this upcoming rumble for control of the territory. West Side Story adds an element that does not exist in Shakespeare’s text. Romeo and Juliet come from feuding families yes, but both are wealthy, upstanding families. West Side Story is set in New York. The Jets are American and the Sharks are immigrants from Puerto Rico so in this movie, the dangers of racism and ignorance are also key themes in this piece. The Jets and the Sharks hate each other because of preconceived prejudices and ignorant ideas about each other and this movie shows how destructive racism, poverty, and ignorance can be. It’s a very powerful message and unfortunately it is a message that some people still need to learn in 2022. The piece holds a mirror up to society as it really is a piece about morality. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has always been a piece about morality. It forces people to look at themselves and realise that they are part of the problem, they are forced to reflect upon the views that they hold and ask themselves why do they think this way? Can they overcome it? Can they overcome differences? Was all of the violence worth it? Were the lives that were lost worth it? In West Side Story all of these questions are explored. It is a moving, powerful piece that is only highlighted by a beautiful, dynamic score. 

Structure. 

When you go to see a show in the theatre, there is an act one and an act two, and I think that this movie does a good job of remaining faithful to the original stage musical as I would say that the movie plays out in two-acts instead of the more common three-act structure. 

There are three key events. The dance, the rumble, and after the rumble. 

The dance is where Maria and Tony meet and this is the event that truly kicks off the plot because now the star-crossed romance has begun. 

The rumble is important because this is the event that holds all the stakes. The entire movie has been leading us to this rumble. Maria and Tony have been trying to stop it, the others have been preparing for it. The audience knows that no good can come from this rumble. It’s senseless. We know violence will occur and all of the hatred between the two gangs will come to a head so there is no good outcome here. The stakes are high and it’s great because despite all of the important and complex themes, the plot itself is not overly difficult or complicated. It’s rival gangs who are going to violently fight, and this really straightforward premise allowed the movie to explore ideas of love, hatred, coming of age, racism, poverty, and violence. 

After the rumble is important because it is in the aftermath where all of the movie’s key themes really make their point. Are these people really that different? No. Should they be able to put their prejudice to one side because they are all human beings? Yes. Was all of this violence worth it? No. 

The aftermath of the rumble is quiet and poignant, and I think this is where the movie really shines. 

Yes it’s a musical, so there is wonderful music, colourful, elaborate dance routines, at times it is larger than life, it is funny, but at its core there is a great heart to this movie. It is a piece that explores really heavy topics in a very artistic yet impactful way. 

Final Thoughts. 

If you have seen the 2021 adaptation of West Side Story and you enjoyed it, go and watch the 1961 version if you haven’t seen it already. There is a reason why it is considered one of the greatest movie-musicals there is. I’m really looking forward to seeing the newest adaptation of this movie, and I will talk about it in time, but I am so glad that the 1961 version is the version that introduced me to this story. It is brilliant. I love the songs, I love the cast, the costumes are stunning, the ensemble numbers are fantastic. The emotions and themes that are explored are utterly compelling. There is a reason why this story is told again and again. I think it is a timeless piece. Go watch it if you don’t believe me. You’ll have a great time. 

This has been Movie Monday. Have you seen West Side Story? Do you have a favourite version? 

Let me know. 

Kate xo.

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