What I’m Watching: West Side Story


Sorry I’ve been away for so long, I was really quite sick and it was all I could do to lay on the couch and watch dreadful TV.  I couldn’t even watch much of anything that challenged me to think, what with the vicious coughing fits and all, and it’s been a week already and I’m tired of this…have you come to my pity party yet?  Anyway, I’m feeling much better and so, am back in the game.

As I am feeling better, the other night my boyfriend brought me to the one night only, 50th anniversary, big screen showing of West Side Story.  For those who live in a cave, West Side Story is a movie musical based on a stage musical set on the west side of New York City, and that is based on Romeo and Juliet.  For those who live in an even more remote cave, that’s a play, by William Shakespeare. You know, Shakespeare, Elizabethan England, sported a neck ruffle, look it up.

Gentlemen: When a tie simply won't do, consider a neck ruffle to meet your fashion needs.

It’s an extraordinarily well done adaptation, with the Sharks and the Jets standing in for the Montagues and the Capulets.  I’m not looking to explain the plot because frankly, the good people of Wikipedia have done that already and I feel no need to reinvent the wheel.  Besides, if you’re not familiar with either R&J or WSS, then it’s high time to get yourself out of that cave, already.  You can get back to me once you’ve dived into the 21st-century pool of cultural knowledge.  As for me, I’ll be over here, carrying on about my observations.

I grew up watching this movie; it was on ALL. THE. TIME.  Of course when I was a kid I was more interested in “I Feel Pretty“…largely for the line, “And I pity/Any girl who isn’t me, today.”  Because that?  Is how I roll.  But anyway.  As a kid I knew this was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and never really stopped to consider the broader social commentary going on in this picture–what more did I need?  R&J, star-crossed lovers, breaks bad for them all around, nobody’s happy at the end.  And West Side Story seemed to stick fairly well to this plot line by substituting “Romeo” and “Juliet” for “Tony” and “Maria”, so…all good?  All good.  But I haven’t seen this movie in a long time and so, seeing this movie as an adult with adult sensibilities and an interest in social issues I have to say, this movie is contextually so different from Romeo and Juliet, I almost marvel that they’re considered related at all.

One of the major differences lies in the social demographics of the family systems in the two stories; in R&J, they are wealthy families who hate each other.  Their hatred for one another is somewhat akin to the rivalry between Microsoft and Apple, if Microsoft and Apple execs forgot what even started their animosity toward one another and engaged in open warfare in the middle of the street, which would make for a much more interesting time in Silicon Valley, but I digress. Instead, in WSS, they are gangs and as such, are poor.  They’re painfully aware of the reasons for their hatred, as the Sharks are moving into their territory and trying to take away the only thing the Jets consider their own–control of their local streets.  So the Jets hate the Sharks simply because they exist, and the Sharks hate the Jets because the Jets hate them.  It’s plain old racism, though that was never hidden in the storyline…it’s just different from R&J.  Still, the WSS writers didn’t shy away from a discussion of the gangs’ social issues, especially those of the Jets.  Take a look at the song “Gee, Office Krupke“.

“Our mothers all are junkies/Our fathers all are drunks/Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!”  Or, “Dear kindly Judge, your Honor/My parents treat me rough/With all their marijuana/They won’t give me a puff/They didn’t wanna have me/But somehow I was had/Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!”

And so on.

I know this was written for a performance, and I know WSS isn’t a documentary.  However, this is a song written about social problems, showing in the performance how this kid gets passed around from agency to agency, from “helper” to “helper”, until he’s back where he

The Jets. All the way.

started with no help at all.  This song is a moment of comic relief–the actors are wonderful in their mockery of the social safety net and how readily it can undergo breakdown–and yet, it manages to speak directly about problems like drug abuse, physical abuse, unwanted pregnancies and neglectful parenting.  We tend to nostalgize the era in which this was written; the Broadway play was first produced in 1957 and the movie was released in 1961.  People didn’t DO things like that then, right?  Times were simpler, people were nicer, nobody did drugs and everybody respected their elders, yeah?  Or maybe, no.  Discussing these things so directly indicates a (at the very least) tacit understanding that these concerns were very real, very present, and not just things that people of color did.

Because the Puerto Rican Sharks’ biggest problem, other than the color of their skin and the attendant systemic racism (see “America“), seems to

The Sharks' biggest problems: 1) Skin color. 2) The Jets. 3) Excessive use of jazz hands.

have been the Jets.   While it is a common understanding that a gang becomes its members’

family, the Sharks have family units in place.  They have parents who are present, who worry about Maria and call for her when they think she should be safely inside.  Maria and Bernardo are brother and sister who engage in traditional, protective, loving relationships with each other.  There are functional family units in Sharkworld, as opposed to the Jets, who are left to their own devices and only have each other.

Also, in modernizing the story, it makes its impact more tangible to the viewer.  Romeo and Juliet is an undeniable classic, one of those timeless stories of heartbreak and love and loss and the tragic result of unfettered, pointless, malevolent will.  But it is Shakespeare and at times, can be a little opaque.  (To my Shakes professor sister…sorry.)  It’s much more difficult to identify with someone dressed like the daughter of a 16th century, wealthy Italian family, who speaks in airy, poetic, antiquated English, than it is to relate to a 20th century woman in a dress I wouldn’t mind trying on and a cute pair of heels, speaking perfectly modern English.  Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio come reallyreally close in their ability to make the original language accessible in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but it still slightly misses.  (And as an aside, John Leguizamo is *off the hook* good in this film, so if you like him even a little and haven’t seen it yet, put it on your to-do list.) I don’t mean to sound like I’m harshing on Willie Shakes, but the language can become an obstacle.  And I’ve grown up around it.  If you think I’m overstating resistance to the language, think about any high school English class you’ve ever taken, and mentally count how many students rolled their eyes and slumped in their seats when they had to read a Shakespeare play.  That’s resistance, and people keep the Shakes at an emotional arms’ length.

Since the modern viewer can so much more easily identify with the WSS characters, it’s also that much easier to stick your own social expectations on to her, and feel their loss much more personally.  Juliet–had she lived, of course–would have had a life that involved being waited on by servants, while living in a fabulous estate…no matter who she married.  (And I can hear the arguments already–she didn’t love Paris, what if Romeo’s dad cut them off because of disapproval, Romeo was exiled, life was more complicated than that in 16th century Italy…blah blah, whatever, not listening. See?  I don’t relate as well.)  Maria is offered the chance to get out of the projects, a path to the American dream, especially the dream prevalent at the time.  Maria has met a man who wants to marry her, work hard, fill her with babies and provide a sanctuary/home in the country.  Thanks to blind hatred, to relentless racism, and despite her and Tony’s color-blindness, we get to watch that future dissipate, stolen from them in Super Panavision 70 format.  And while I haven’t exactly trodden the traditional path, it’s still a framework I know and understand, and I grok that loss far more profoundly.  I’m sure I’m not alone.

It ain’t pretty, people.

I love this movie.  I grew up loving this movie, and am so grateful that I had the chance to see it on the big screen, especially when I think about watching it on my parents’ old…what was it?  19-inch?…tabletop number.

19 inches of pure viewing power, no remote. Oh, the hardships...

But what I love more about this movie, now that I’ve taken the time to think about it, is how it underscores the reality of the times, and shows us that our nostalgia fix is all wrong, and that fifty years ago we faced the same social problems we have today.  White folk hated the euphemistically determined  “immigrants”, were junkies, and had gangs, premarital sex, neglectful parents and unwanted babies.  Only they were poor, so no one really cared much about what happened to them.  Much like today.

Photos from a former employee of the law firm of Steven J. Baum: Two Steven J. Baum employees mocking homeowners who have been foreclosed on.


So, that’s my take on West Side Story.  It’s a musical, it’s an adaptation, and it’s so much more, but I’ll get off my soapbox now.  Oh, and one more thing:  The song “Cool”.  Most jazz hands in this movie, or most jazz hands in a performance, ever?

Compare with:


Who can decide?

6 responses to What I’m Watching: West Side Story

  1. JP

    Glad you had the chance to enjoy this in its digitally restored 70 mm technicolor glory!
    I am sure I know every word (and maybe even note) of its score (as do you, I’ll bet), but *Officer Krupke* is my favorite, for all the reasons you name and more, not the least the balls-out awesome performance of it in this film.

    It was outrageous at the time for musicals to look and sound like this, and to deal with such issues. Think of all that sappy Rogers and Hammertstein (ok, give Carousel its props for taking on some dark themes). But this was revolution: Berstein’s tortured, dissonant score, those dance moves inspired by ballet but wrenched all sideways and out of synch by jazz and bebop. Add the tongue-twistered lyrical stylings of a young genius no one had heard of yet…and the history of the American theater would never be the same.

    What breaks my heart when I watch this film now is the vast difference between what it meant be in a “gang” half a century ago and what it means now. Oh sure, some of the problems are there–as you note, the kids are poor and unwanted, there’s alcohol and drug abuse. But gang activity in West Side Storyland still seems pretty much limited to hanging on the corners drinking soda pop and getting into fistfights. One weapon appears and Jets and Sharks reel in shock. These punters wouldn’t stand a chance on today’s streets.

    Inspiring post!


    • beyondpaisley – Author

      I understand that it broke ground, but the forthright manner in which the topics were discussed–to me–indicate that people were pretty well aware of these social problems, and accepted them as a given. As for being a gang then vs. now, I’m sure the streets are meaner, true. But! This is a musical, not a documentary, and I’m sure the Jets would have fallen apart if they came face to face with a real gang from 1961.


  2. JP

    PS, I do declare, that is Ben Vereen & the two artery ladies DOING A MOONWALK in that *All That Jazz* number! So MJ stole it (and from the 70’s!). Hoot!


  3. Jim

    Jesus Christ…everyone around here has a case of creeping death. I am basically better but still coughing like a bastard. Amy just got strep throat, an ear infection, and the flu! I did dig your blog, though.


    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Yeah, creeping death was pretty much how I felt. Yeah, basically better, still coughing. OMG, poor Amy! Do you need anything? Ice pops? Scotch? 😉 Please tell her I hope she feels better soon, and take care of yourself. I’m all excited because (and I never thought I would ever say this in a million years) I get to go back to the gym tomorrow. Yay! LOL

      Glad you dug my blog.


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