Monday, December 13, 2021


West Side Story is the first movie I ever OD’d on. 
It was my first pre-teen movie crush, my first filmic fateful attraction, my first case of movie musical mania. I saw West Side Story when I was in early adolescence and fell for it with the kind of overawed intensity and enthusiasm only the very young and impressionable have the time and stamina to sustain. I was so overwhelmed by the film's soaring music, glorious dancing, and striking visual style, I embarked on a decades-long campaign of self-inflicted West Side Story oversaturation so immersive, I ended up overdosing on it. Over the course of 35 years, I saw and listened to West Side Story so often and on so many different occasions (it was my go-to "comfort food" movie) that I ultimately reached a stage where I couldn’t stand to watch it even one more time. 
The Sharks
The last time I saw West Side Story in its entirety was way back in 2003 when the Special Collector’s Edition DVD boxed set was released. I think I watched it then about three or four times before finally hitting a wall.
But here I am in 2021, the year marking West Side Story’s 60th Anniversary, the death of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (WSS’s lyricist), and the release of Steven Spielberg’s long-delayed, eagerly-anticipated reimagining of the iconic film. No better time for me to fall off the wagon, acquire West Side Story in yet another home entertainment format (VHS to Blu-ray) and revisit the 1961 classic before my initial thoughts and memories risk becoming entwined, influenced, and shaped by comparisons and reactions to the latest adaptation. 
The Jets
The groundbreaking musical West Side Story—the show that introduced the world to dancing street gangs and balletic inner-city combat—premiered on Broadway on September 6, 1957. Conceived, directed & choreographed by Jerome Robbins, this seminal theatrical production was a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as a contemporary star-crossed love story set against the violent backdrop of turf wars and racial conflict between rival New York street gangs. With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by 27-year-old Oscar Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim (his Broadway debut), West Side Story was an innovation in the advancement of the realistic musical. A gritty fusion of ballet and operatic romantic tragedy in a production that moved ensemble dance to the forefront.

Although I was around at the time (I was born roughly two weeks after West Side Story opened on Broadway) I was only four years old when the much-heralded Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise co-directed feature film was released, so I have no memory at all of what a big deal it must have been at the time. I don't even know if my parents went to see it.
In trying to recall when I first became aware of West Side Story, my earliest memory places me at about six or seven years old and the West Side Story original Broadway cast album being one of a couple of unopened LPs in my parent's record collection (in the days of mail-order record clubs that automatically sent members a monthly featured LP unless a "decline" card was mailed in time, it was quite common for families to have a couple of albums they just weren't interested in but couldn't bother to send back). 
As for me, I, too, ignored the West Side Story OBC album, my six-year-old sensibilities accurately gleaning from its cover art that it contained no songs to which I could do The Twist.
Natalie Wood as Maria

Richard Beymer as Tony
The opportunity to see West Side Story for the first time came in the fall of 1968 when the 10-time Oscar-winning film was given a national re-release before being sold to television (and to coincide with/cash-in-on the October 1968 release of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet). I was then 11 years old and remember West Side Story was playing at our neighborhood movie house (the Castro Theater in San Francisco) for a single one-week engagement during the Thanksgiving holiday. In a rare gesture inspired, I suspect, by the theater’s close proximity and the prolonged underfoot proximity of a bunch of restless kids at home on Thanksgiving break; my parents decided to treat us all (me and my three sisters) to a rare family night out at the movies. 
Rita Moreno as Anita

George Chakiris as Bernardo
Going to the movies at night with my parents always felt like a big event and a little magical to me. For one, we all had to get dressed up. Plus, it was nice going by warm car instead of walking or having to catch a bus. But my favorite thing, and what really made going to the movies at night feel magical was the bright neon and colored lights of the theater marquee and lobby. As often as we kids had attended screenings at the Castro on weekend afternoons, the familiarly ornate theater looked totally different at night. More like a palace or castle. With parents along, we didn't have to ration out our allowance money for popcorn and candy, and best of all, we got the major thrill of being able to sit in the balcony. A place our parents forbid us to go when we were on our own because—according to mom—the balcony is where all the troublemaking kids sat. 
Russ Tamblyn as Riff
While I was overjoyed to be going to the movies that night, I don’t recall being particularly enthusiastic about seeing West Side Story. I still didn't know much about it, and what little I did (shots of Natalie Wood & Richard Beymer clinging to each other with their mouths open on a fire escape) didn't suggest a whole lot of laughs. But having gone to see Peter Sellers several times in Casino Royale (1967) earlier that year and later in The World of Henry Orient (1964) on TV,  the movie I was most excited about seeing was the one the Castro paired with West Side Story on a double-bill: Blake Edwards' The Party (1968) - in which Peter Sellers plays an Indian actor who comically destroys a Hollywood party. 
Screened first, I loved The Party and think it's one of Sellers' best. However, looking back I have to say that was one weird double-feature: Welcome to four full hours of ethnic cosplay and brownface!

(On a side note: the movie booked to follow West Side Story’s one-week engagement at the Castro was Rosemary’s Baby. So being traumatized by that film's spooky theatrical trailer was another memory I took away with me that evening.)
The 1968 West Side Story re-release was shown minus the overture and intermission of its 1961 roadshow engagements, but it was presented in breathtaking widescreen (a welcome change from our 20-inch B&W console TV), eye-popping color (growing up seeing 95% of all entertainments in grayscale, a bigger thrill than you might think), and with stereo sound that fairly lifted me out of my seat. But none of these things would have mattered if the film they buttressed hadn’t measured up to the fanfare. And on that score, West Side Story fairly blew the roof off the Castro Theater that night.
A phenomenal film experience, West Side Story was like nothing I’d ever seen (granted, at 11, the list of things I'd never seen was pretty extensive, but you get my point). I couldn't think of any movies I'd seen that looked even remotely like West Side Story. From that astounding 8-minute Prologue that sets the stage and establishes the film's stylized realism and visual vocabulary of saturated colors, to the vivid elegance of its cinematography and evocative use of music, it was obvious from West Side Story's jaw-dropping first frames (those aerial views of New York!) that it was a breed apart from the kind of musicals being turned into films at the time (Bells Are Ringing, Flower Drum Song, The Music Man). Even its innovative score…classical, operatic, unforgettable song after another--didn’t sound much like the other musicals (Bye Bye Birdie, The Sound of Music). 
And the dancing. Had there ever been such engagingly witty, extraordinarily exhilarating dance sequences? Electrifying ensemble dance numbers that were genuine showstoppers, not because of empty spectacle, but because dance, music, cinematography, and editing were in simultaneous, seamless service to character, emotion, and the dramatic flow of the narrative. In the large-scare numbers, every dancer is doing more than dancing...they're acting, they're revealing character, they're giving a performance. There's so much detail to take in and so much "business" going on in every corner of the frame, it feels like this 1961 movie was made for the digital age of the freeze-frame. To watch the way Rita Moreno and George Chakiris look at each other when they dance is to learn everything you need to know about the relationship between Anita and Bernardo.
My first goosebump moment in the movie came when West Side Story, heretofore rooted in a kind of lyrical reality, bursts into magical fantasy when Maria's twirl in the dress shop leads to one of the heavenly scene transitions in musical cinema.

I’ve recounted in earlier essays how averse to age-appropriate movies I was when I was young. That's how I missed out on seeing Funny Girl, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins...I thought they were all "kiddie movies" or worse, movies deemed  “fun for the whole family.” West Side Story won my heart in no small part due to it being a grown-up musical. Grown-up by ‘60s movie musical standards, anyway. The film was pretty dated and tame in some ways. I mean, the Jets—direct descendants of The Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids who pronounced “world” as “woild” and spoke in the colorful bop-slang patois of those low-budget ‘50s juvenile delinquent movies my sisters and I devoured on Saturday afternoon TV (“Daddy-o!”)—were harmless hoodlums. (The Jets' cartoonishness had the perhaps intentional effect of softening the distastefulness of their "Make The West Side Great Again" racism.)

But this was also a movie, a musical, no less, that was critical of what was wrong with American society and referenced mature themes like racism, drugs, poverty, gang violence, prostitution, rape, and police corruption. It even had good-girl Natalie Wood having sex without benefit of marriage (although I admit, at the time, I thought Maria and Tony had just spent the night cuddling). 
The Delicate Delinquent
Speaking of things I'd never seen before, gay Ken, whom I hadn't yet been properly introduced to, never saw ANYTHING like George Chakiris. I don’t quite know what I did with the feelings aroused by the sight of Bernardo in that purple shirt and skinny tie, but I suspect they were tucked away in the same place I put my unconscious identification with/recognition of the queer-coded character of Baby John. 
(Ask Anybodys: For those who don't know, the creators of West Side Story - Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins - were all gay or bisexual men in various stages of closeted/denial. Too bad at least one of them wasn't also Puerto Rican.)
As the song that best expresses what co-creator Arthur Laurents described as West Side Story's theme: "How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?" --Somewhere has gone on to become a pop standard and a gay anthem. The latter confirmed when The Pet Shop Boys reworked it into a synth-pop dance tune.

My earlier use of the word "dated" wasn't intended as a pejorative. As it relates to my impression of West Side Story as a product of the past, a film reflecting the perspective, aesthetics, and concerns (and occasional cluelessness) of a very distinct point in time, I see it as one of West Side Story's strengths. The same way I would mean it if I referred to the films of Fred Astaire and many of the classic MGM musicals as dated. They are of the time they were created and reflect a kind of past urgency or vitality that can't be wrested into another era.
West Side Story being behind-the-times in some aspects (while simultaneously raising and setting the bar of innovation in others) lends the film an air of parable or fairy tale. Its themes are rooted in realism, but the world depicted is very different from reality.  
One scene in West Side Story is far from dated and is so firmly rooted in contemporary reality I no longer watch it. Although it's one of the strongest and most pivotal scenes in the film, sometime during the Reagan '80s I lost my taste for the sequence where Anita is assaulted in Doc's drugstore by the Jets. The pain in Rita Moreno's eyes and the vulnerability of her performance is a little too raw. The look on the faces of the Jets, a look I've seen too often in my life. It's the look of Charlottesville tiki-torch bearers. The scene is powerful and Moreno and Ned Glass as Doc are terrific, but it's too ugly and too prevalent a face of America. I fast-forward past it. 

The world had changed a great deal between the time West Side Story first appeared on screens and the time I saw it. It wasn't a seven-year gap, it was a lifetime. Even as a kid I thought the film's depiction of a world where restless youths (just how the hell old  ARE the Jets and Sharks supposed to be?) blew off steam by having turf wars and zip-gun rumbles seemed as remote as Neverland when contrasted with the what young people were dealing with in 1968: Two political assassinations in 1968 alone, race riots, the Vietnam War, police brutality, campus protests.
Yet the film still spoke to me. And I think that's because the things it talks about (even in its clumsy '50s jargon) is still real for young people. And it has been since the days of Romeo and Juliet. 
Cool Never Goes Out Of Style 
For a maddeningly long time after seeing this epic number, my sisters and I got into the annoying habit of preceding every question and answer with - "Boy, boy, crazy boy." 
Mom: Did you take the garbage out? - Me: Boy, boy, crazy boy...I'll do it right now.
 I don't know how our parents stood it.

Looking back, I feel so lucky to have seen West Side Story for the first time with no idea of its significance, no sense of its legacy, and no prior exposure to its music (I HAD heard the lilting "I Feel Pretty" on some variety show, and was so surprised to learn it came from this show). I’ve never forgotten what it was like experiencing this innovative, visually dazzling, and highly entertaining musical as a journey of complete discovery. I was taken on a real emotional roller coaster that night, from the ecstasy heights of those fabulous numbers to that ending that gave me major waterworks (I think you always cry harder in movies if you see your mom is crying, too) everything came together so beautifully. West Side Story was without a doubt a most extraordinary movie experience.

I Saw You and The World Went Away
West Side Story remained an ongoing passion and fan favorite for lo these many years. The visual aid purpose of this collage is to show not only how much fun I had being a West Side Story fan, but also illustrate how I came to reach such an oversaturation point. And if you're wondering about that TV Guide ad at the bottom that has nothing to do with West Side Story, let me put it this way... there's a reason I say dreams are what the cinema is for.
The year 1985 (five years after the movie Xanadu inspired me to study dance) found me on a cordoned-off city block in Los Angeles--folks watching from behind barriers, massive speakers blaring musical playback, a camera on a crane---dancing as a member of a terpsichorean street gang in a West Side Story-inspired musical fantasy sequence for a CBS Schoolbreak Special: Ace Hits the Big Time
The hilariously cheesy number was more nightmare than dream sequence, and my dancing in it didn't give George Chakiris any sleepless nights, but for that entire day I felt as though it wasn't really happening...that it was all a fantasy playing out in the head of  11-year-old Ken sitting in the balcony of the Castro movie theater.

Gee, Officer Krupke
Always thought Russ Tamblyn deserved an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination
Nobody does a flip-out like Natalie Wood. I really adore her in this movie, and she's at her strongest in this scene. The way she yells "Don't you touch him!" is heart-wrenching. Cue the waterworks.

Anita's Gonna Get Her Kicks
Perhaps it's been run into the ground, but there's no getting past Rita Moreno really bringing it and earning her Oscar and Golden Globe wins. The only Puerto Rican in the cast, her performance has humor, authenticity, grit, and tragedy.

I didn't expect to be as moved by seeing West Side Story again after so many years. In fact, each musical number left me as something of an emotional wreck. It was nice to see these old friends again. Especially Maria and Tony. 

(Top - Tony Mordente as Action). This quotable admonition, in addition to the Jets' stare-down, finger-snapping response to authority figures, found its way into the 1967 teen musical The Cool Ones, choreographed by West Side Story's David Winters (A-rab).  

Critics couldn't make up their minds as to whether Bob Fosse's rooftop staging of "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" in Sweet Charity was a skirt-flipping homage or blatant rip-off. The same with his decision to stage the "Rhythm of Life" number in a subterranean parking structure (a la West Side Story's "Cool").

It's not unusual for artists to be unfamiliar with the trailblazers and innovators in their field. Indeed, in many cases, ignorance behooves the young artist, lest they find out their trumpeted originality is often just history repeating (see: Lady Gaga, Bette Midler, and a singing mermaid named Delores DeLago).
But director Bob Giraldi's persistent claim that his music video for Beat It (featuring dancing rival street gangs - complete with singer-snaps and a choreographed rumble) was not influenced by West Side Story is both laughably unconvincing and blatantly disingenuous. And (the most likely option) the kind of cagey deception one engages in to sidestep potential legal hassles.
 In any event, Rita Moreno once relayed in an interview how Michael Jackson approached her at a social function and proclaimed to be such a huge West Side Story fan that the film inspired the song, concept, and choreography of the music video.
Premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater on Wednesday, December 13, 1961. A week earlier, on December 5th, Natalie Wood had her footprints placed in the cement in the theater's forecourt. 


Actress, singer, dancer, and TV game-show stalwart 
Elaine Joyce making her uncredited film debut

Womb to Tomb
Former Jets Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer appeared in the
David Lynch series Twin Peaks in 1990 and its 2017 return.

I promised myself that I wasn't going to post this somewhat overworked image, but I have to concede that there's a very good reason for its popularity. The tenement backdrop, the natural light, the low camera angle (accomplished by digging a pit in the asphalt), and the graceful athleticism of the dancers as they execute a grand battement à la seconde in relevé pure visual poetry. With their faces lifted to the sun and their bodies literally rising above their gritty reality, this image perfectly captures the aspirational spirit that is the essence of West Side Story's "Somewhere." 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021


  1. This is a nice Christmas present! I haven't seen the remake yet, which so far has gotten great reviews and disappointing box office. This is another musical I have a personal connection to. In my junior year of high school, the year after playing Henry Higgins, I was cast as Riff in West Side Story. I wasn't great. I had no problem with the songs, but my weak dancing (I got better in later years) and overall physical presence just wasn't right. Still, I managed to console myself that I was one of the few people on the planet to play both Riff AND Higgins.

    I've never really understood all the carping about this movie over the years. Yeah, Natalie Wood doesn't sing, isn't Puerto Rican and wears terrible makeup, but I still think she's awesome. Moreno, Chakiris and the underrated Tamblyn are perfect. I even like Richard Beymer.

    One of the truly amazing changes they made from the play was to add Bernardo and the Shark boys to the "America" number. Maybe current staqe productions have adopted this change, but it really makes the number about the everyday racism they face. The old version is kind of a dopey "girls number" without half the impact. I honestly don't think Chakiris would even have been nominated for an Oscar let alone won it, if he hadn't part of this song.

    I do look forward to seeing the new version, I'm just having a hard time imagining the five principals eclipsing Wood, Moreno, Chakiris, etc.

    1. Hello Kip – Musicals are always ideal for Christmastime, so it was quite enjoyable re-visiting West Side Story after such a long break. I knew the story would get to me by the end, but I wasn’t prepared for how often the musical numbers brought me to tears. Simply because they are SO magnificently executed. And that music…

      It’s starting to sound like you were really active in high school dramatics. And to get to play Riff in the show that allows you to sing, dance, and die on stage (every actor's dream). YouTube is loaded with high school production videos. Do you ever wish you had film of your productions, or are you grateful that camera mania hadn’t hit yet?

      I understand the problems many people have with WEST SIDE STORY in terms of having no Puerto Rican actors but Moreno in the cast, and as you mentioned, that terrible brownface makeup (HD Blu-ray is murder on those closeups the makeup was put on with a trowel). But as far as the dubbed voices and the casting of Natalie Wood…well, I’ve always been too enchanted by her to find it a problem,
      Aslo, I grew up when dubbed voices and ethnic cosplay in movie musicals were so common, I’m glad I’m having my eyes opened a bit by the younger generation to what I had just unquestioningly accepted as a youngster.
      But WEST SIDE STORY to me, as is, is a classic…flawed and clueless and in some ways, absolutely one-of-a-kind brilliant in others. I’m with you in thinking the entire cast (even the much-maligned Richard Beymer) is awesome.
      Thank you for commenting, Kip!

  2. Great, great essay/analysis/review/autobiography! You write so well and compellingly. You can only accept West Side Story like you accept Shakespearean plays: nobody actually TALKS like that (hey, daddy-o!) but plenty of people ACT like that. Some movies appeal to the intellect but Westside Story appeals to the emotions, 100%. My first experience with the film was similar to yours. I knew nothing about it and had never heard any of the music even though my parents were into musicals. It came on TV sometime in the seventies and my parents allowed us to stay up late to watch it (which means it was an EVENT). I didn't know who any of the actors were (aside from Rita Moreno whom I had seen on The Electric Company). But from the beginning, it was enthralling. By the time Maria is cradling Tony in her arms singing brokenly "There's a place for us..." we were ALL bawling. I couldn't believe it. TONY DIED???? My dad kept saying "She's going to shoot herself. She's going to shoot herself" (probably because he knew the source material). Of course, Maria doesn't but her grief-stricken figure walking away rounds out the tragedy with the only small ray of hope being that both Jets and Sharks pick up and carry Tony's body. I'm tearing up just remembering it. I can only imagine the impact of watching it on the big screen, larger than life (and sans commercials). I hope you will write a review of the new version when you see it. P.S. My least favorite scene is the same as yours: the assault on Anita. As you say, it's powerful but so very very uncomfortable.

    1. Hi Ron - You're so right about what is necessary to leave at the door in order to enjoy the '61 WEST SIDE STORY. It's like when I watch '60s sitcoms on TV and have to accept, in THAT world, kids actually say things like "Jeepers, Mr. Wilson!" I like how you put it, calling attention to the artificiality of the dialog, but the truth of the behavior and emotions.

      Your description of your first time seeing WSS does indeed echo my own. How lucky you were to see it with your family, knowing how that kind of thing really makes seeing a movie feel like a special event.
      My favorite is your father repeating "She's going to shoot herself. She's going to shoot herself" that's hilarious! It sounds like all saw one of the broadcasts that played the film in it's entirety in one evening. The first time WSS was televised was in March of 1972, and it was shown over TWO nights. How unfair!
      But wasn't it shocking to see such a sad ending in a musical? I'd never seen that before. And such a heartbreaking one to boot. Say what you will about the arguable chemistry between Wood & Beymer, I still contend that something between them must be working to make that ending hurt so much. Certainly if just playing that scene out in your mind ca bring on the waterworks. What a phenomenal film to be able to do that.
      And that scene neither of us cares's always very tragic when a strong, likeable, and lively character has their spirit broken.
      Thank you for expressing interest in my potentially writing about the new film. I'm very enthusiastic about seeing it.
      Your autobiographical comment here was a pleasure to read, so I return the very kind compliment of your first sentence. It means a great deal.
      Thank you, Ron, for sharing with us so personally and for your continued visits to this blog.

  3. Dear Ken: What a wonderful essay!

    Your love for "West Side Story" and the role the film has played in your life through the years comes through so clearly. Seeing the film at such a formative age as you did, it's little wonder that it has left such a mark on you in a variety of ways.

    The passage of your essay that really stood out for me was your description of seeing the movie for the first time. You convey well what was so magical about the experience for you, from the specialness of being able to see the film together as a family to the thrill of walking under the neon-lit Castro marquee and into the theatre itself.

    I kind of envy you that experience, and your special relationship with the film. I grew up in a time and place (the suburbs in the 1970s) when the grand old movie palaces were falling out of use and when the typical theatre I attended was a big, plain auditorium out at the mall.

    Also, I don't really have a special movie from my youth that has stayed with me as a favorite. Most of the movies I consider personal favorites today I first saw in my late teens or my twenties. Movies that I liked as a child ("The Sting" and "Star Wars," both of which I saw something like seven times on their original release) no longer are movies I care to see. I do have in my collection a few films I enjoyed when very young ("What's Up, Doc?" and "A Boy Named Charlie Brown") but I wouldn't necessarily classify either as a special favorite.

    My late mom was a big film fan, though, and from time to time she would mention to me (briefly) some film that she had loved as a child. One of her favorites was the 1946 Frank Borzage melodrama "I've Always Loved You," a Technicolor romance about a starry-eyed young piano student who trains to make her debut at Carnegie Hall. Mom first saw the movie as a 12-year old (in, I would imagine, one of the lavish Milwaukee theatres) on its original release. Then she saw it again years later on late-night TV in the 1960s, when she was up wrapping Christmas presents for us kids. The movie finally got a restored VHS release in the early 1990s, and I bought it and enjoyed it immensely (it's now one of my favorites). Shortly after purchasing the tape I took it over to Mom and Dad's to show it to Mom, and when she saw the beautiful box with its lavish, Technicolor stills, she was very excited! She had a childhood friend visiting at the time, and when she returned the movie Mom told me she and her friend had stayed up late into the night to watch it. I can imagine that for a few hours, Mom was once again that 12 year-old (herself a piano student) seeing the film for the first time.

    One point you didn't touch on in your essay, Ken is: being a dancer yourself, do you ever fantasize about what it would be like to appear in the dance sequences of your favorite films? I can imagine you perhaps picturing yourself in that famous WSS parking garage, or perhaps striking a pose in a Halston outfit as one of the Emerald City residents in "The Wiz." :)

    1. Hi David –
      Thank you very much. I’m happy you enjoyed this piece.

      I remember you visited the Castro Theater on your trip to SF, so you got to see the restored majesty of that iconic Castro marquee. It's still a beautiful theater, but so much smaller than I remember it. Or smaller now that I’ve been in those cavernous palaces here in Hollywood (Grauman’s Chinese and one of those vintage palatial downtown theaters.

      You’re like my partner in that the circumstances of your youth (suburban, happy) didn’t make movies as necessary a part of your growing up as they did in mine (living in a city, the only boy in my family, introverted, not particularly happy, very much searching for a sense of myself). I say it speaks well of you that you have not clung to certain movies you liked as a child (I never cared for THE STING, and after seeing STAR WARS perhaps 2 times when it came out, that did it for me for the whole franchise).

      However, that’s a wonderful and vividly touching memory you share about a favorite film of your mother. I never heard of the film, so I looked it up on YouTube and watched a few minutes of it. I could so see how a young girl (especially one who studied piano) could get swept up in this gorgeous technicolor romantic drama. Even the slightly fuzzy video clip I saw looked sumptuous. Looks like a real tear-jerker (the happy kind) too. The best part is that you were responsible for granting your mom an opportunity to revisit a film that meant a lot to her.

      As per your last question (a terrific one, by the way), there was indeed a time I used to fantasize about appearing in the dance scenes of my favorite films. I did that when I was a kid (there’s a particularly silly step choreographer Oona White works as a signature move in the “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do number in the movie BYE BIYE BIRDIE”…hard to describe, it’s like a bird who can’t fly trying to take sisters and I histerically recreated that one at home.

      In later years, after I was dancing, my fantasizing became a way of study. I’d watch the numbers and imagine myself in them, aware of the lines created, the extension of the limbs, the execution, etc. But I always saw myself somewhere on the screen.
      Eventually, I got so in the habit that I wound up developing a class in which I taught numbers from movies and Broadway shows using as much of the original choreography as was appropriate to the skill level of the class. So I finally DID get to perform some of my favorite movie musical numbers.

      What’s funny now is that after turning 55 or so, I started to notice I had ZERO desire to imagine myself in movie dance numbers (mostly because I went through a period where all I imagined while watching dance numbers was how painful those moves would be to execute. My knees!” “My back!”) but this also coincided with a contemporary style of dance becoming prevalent that just wasn’t my thing, so it was easy.

      When I see classic jazz dance, traditional Broadway musical theater choreography, Bob Fosse stuff, the kind of dancing I see in JC Superstar and The Wiz…yes…I STILL like to imagine myself in those numbers.

      Happy holidays, David! And thank you for being such a longtime reader of this blog and always bringing so much to add in the comments. This has turned into another essay, so I have even more to thank you for. Much appreciated!

  4. I must say you have 20/20 hindsight to remember with such clarity a night at the movies over 50 years ago. I remember wanting to see WSS very badly on its release, but having just moved to the suburbs without a movie house in sight, fat chance. My best friend told me his parents went to see it, I asked if they liked it, and he told me they thought it stunk and left in the middle. Well, I thought, his dad's a chiropodist, so what does he know about teen love? We did live equidistant to three drive-ins, so maybe one day I would see it, but the thought of watching a musical with the sound being delivered via one of those squawk-boxes hanging from the driver's window was disconcerting. Plus, it was easier to cajole my Dad into going to the drive-in if the flicks involved war or a cattle-drive. I consoled myself with the thought that I'd see it, someday, somehow, somewhere.

    1. Being that nowadays I find it a challenge to even remember what I did even 5 days ago, I contend that I owe my 20/20 hindsight clarity of an event that happened 50-years-ago to the phenomenon of the “significant experience”: It takes no effort to remember what you never forgot.

      Seeing WSS that night in 1968 was a single event in the past. But the memory of that night, the reliving of the experience (how it felt, my memories of it, what it meant to me) was an ongoing, rebooting, rerun experience. Any of the innumerable times I played that soundtrack, rewatched the film, or engaged in some kind of fan-based reliving of the moment, the memories of that day moved to the present. So we're not talking 20/20 hindsight, that night never left me.
      The recounting of your own WEST SIDE STORY history reiterates the role theater accessibility played in the days before home video and cable. Living in the city as I did, I tend to forget about the Drive-In option for many families. They did seem fine for war movies and westerns, but a movie like WSS would be hard to get exited about...what with those speakers and having to relay on a really clean windshield.
      Thank you for commenting, and for reading this post.

  5. Hi Ken - I am not surprised at all that the dancing in this would sweep you away, along with the iconic music ( I too grew up listening to the original cast album), gorgeous Natalie, intense Rita and smoulderingly sensual Chakiris as Bernardo. Your beautiful essay on this classic film makes me trepidacious about seeing the remake. Why do I fear it won’t be as magical as the original?

    I spotted a very cute SHARK in one of the many pics illustrating your article. Not only did he become an accomplished dancer, but one of my favorite writers as well!
    - Chris

    1. Hi Chris -
      Thanks so much for the kind words and for contributing to the comments here!
      So many things come together so beautifully in this musical, from performances to the score, but the dancing is what I think has granted it classic status. Sort of ironic that Jerome Robbins was fired for his costly "perfectionism" and slow pace. Yet it's arguably Robbins' contributions that have made WEST SIDE STORY the enduring classic that has allowed the studio to keep reaping profits for decades.
      Like you, I'm a bit anxious/eager to see the remake, too. I can't expect it to be the same for me (I'm long past the impressionable age, and I worry if my past oversaturation will prevent me from seeing the new one with fresh, open eyes), but I'm kinda of pushover when it comes to this show. They'd have to screw it up royally to ruin it (a 2010 national tour of WSS succeeded in doing that).

      As for the SHARK in the picture you're referring to, I'm not sure who you mean, but I do know of one SHARK dancer named Robert Thompson in the film who (as it so happens) was a co-choreographer on 1980's XANADU. The internet and several research sites have made the error of confusing the then-26 year old dancer Thompson (who continued dancing and choreographing after WWS until his untimely death in 1984), with older, non-dancing Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert E. Thompson of "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"- Thompson the writer (who was almost 40 at the time this movie was made) died in 2004.

      I hope you're having a happy holiday Chris. And I hope, if you ever get around to seeing the new WEST SIDE STORY, it turns out to be a pleasant surprise. That's certainly what I'm keeping my fingers crossed for! Thanks, again

    2. Hi again, Chris
      Oh, my partner clued me in that the "cute" SHARK who was a dancer and went on to become one of your favorite writers was a reference to ME?! HA!
      I laughed aloud because that 's our relationship in a nutshell: I can't take a compliment and my sweetheart is always steering me on the right course.
      What a nice and clever compliment, Chris. I'm very flattered and so amused at not recognizing myself in your witty description! A big thanks from literal-minded me, and very Happy Holidays!

  6. Argyle here. It's superfluous to add anything to your description of seeing this movie for the first time at night, with your parents, at a real old-time movie theater, with no expectations. That's the richest recollection. I have some similar from when I was about 11.
    I thought you had posted about WSS before, but I guess not. For some reason it was never high on my musical list, same with "Gypsy", so I only saw it for the first time in my 30's maybe. I think I had a goofy prejudice against Broadway-to-film adaptations. While I have never had a swept-away experience of WSS, perhaps because I've only seen it on TV, a few years ago I was watching it and the scene at the very end really hit me. The scene where Maria grabs the gun and aims it at several of the boys, crying something like "How many bullets are left? How many of you can I kill? And still have one left for me?" It absolutely floored me and made me cry. So moving and sad.
    I hope you have a great holiday and new year. Thank you for your blog.

    1. Hi Bill -
      Given how long I've had this blog and how much I like this film, you'd think I'd have written about it before now. But as one of those movies written about for decades, I think I didn't want to write about it until I felt I had something different to add. The remake forced my hand a bit. If I waited much longer, given how impressionable I can be, the only kind of piece I would have written would have been a comparison between the two films.

      In spite of the path my life took post-XANADU, I can identify with why you were not keen on musicals when you were young. I didn't have a stage to screen prejudice, but musicals as promoted in the 60s looked SO dull to me. Big entertainments intended for old people (or so I thought).
      And the musicals that aired on TV were not much better. A feeling I still harbor to this day is that a great many of those classic MGM musicals feature some of the best dance sequences committed to film, but they are attached to some of the dumbest, most inanely unwatchable movies.
      That boy meet girl stuff was boring to me as a kid. So you can imagine what a thrill it was to see a romance attached to a street gang story and a tale of racial tension. That made all the difference. But I still wouldn't have gone to see it if my parents hadn't taken us.
      WEST SIDE STORY is a little too corny for some folks I know, even though they like the music and dancing. But almost all are in agreement about the power of that ending. Even just reading how you describe it I can feel myself getting all verklempt thinking of how good Natalie Wood is in that scene.
      I'm awfully glad you decided to post a comment, and no personal experience shared is ever superfluous because its always so unique. Thanks for reading this and I hope you have a very happy holiday and joyful New Year, Bill!

  7. Hi Ken, wonderful essay! (Neely O'Hara here, but Google isn't taking my comments under that name!) I love your recollection of seeing WSS for the first time — but on a double bill? And possessing an 11 year old’s miniature bladder?! That sounds like child abuse!

    Seriously, family movie nights were the same for me; dazzling colors, being “dressed up,” not spending my own jack for the candy, and if it was a road show with an overture and intermission (Funny Girl, Grande Prix, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Doctor Doolittle) I was in heaven, regardless of the quality of the film.

    How I wish I’d encountered WWS as you did. Unfortunately…

    My (new, woo hoo!) boyfriend insisted I see it upon learning that I never had. Seven foot projection screen, Blu-ray, surround sound, and popcorn. The dance numbers absolutely blew me away — they’re flawless, beautifully shot and performed. Probably the best ensemble dancing ever put on film. And the music and lyrics are GLORIOUS.

    I know I’m in the minority here, and I know as a gay male film buff this is heresy, but I had zero emotional connection to the two leads, so I couldn’t care less who lived or died. (Ditto most of the Bowery Boy gang members, and the poor Susan Oakes, who was apparently told to overplay every syllable as Anybody’s — every time she showed up I was pulled out of the world of the movie because I found her so distractingly bad.)

    I adore Natalie Wood (hell, I even LOVED Brainstorm!), but she’s not only undermined visually by that awful makeup, but every time she opens her mouth. Neither she nor Marni Nixon could muster a credible accent (full disclosure, former dialect coach here), and I don’t believe a thing she says or does. Also, I find Richard Beamer, while easy on the eyes, to be uncontaminated by talent and/or charisma.

    My emotions were engaged exactly once, when Anita decides she has to go and warn Tony. Moreno deserved all the awards in the world for that moment — heartbreaking. (I also find Chakiris to be easy on the eyes, and a gifted dancer, but without much in the way of acting chops.)

    At the end my BF was in a fetal position, gasping at the violence (despite having seen the film dozens of times) and weeping. I was unmoved because, as I said, I simply didn’t care about these two frankly drippy characters, whom I found unrelatable for myriad reasons, not the least being the writing.

    I found the scene of Tony and Maria dressing the dummies for a wedding (the lead-in scene to One Hand, One Heart) so awful that I withdrew totally for the big love duet (which, again, had the BF in tears). Wood and Beymer commit to it fully, god bless ‘em, but the scene is so amateurishly written that seeing them give it their all was just toe-curlinly embarrassing.

    Surprisingly, I’m planing to see the remake, in the hopes that, I WAS going to say better acting, but let’s be generous and say better casting, might make the story resonate for me.

    That said, I love reading your essays, even when we’re in different camps!

    Have wonderful holidays, Ken, looking forward to more delicious prose in 2022!

    P.S I’ve heard Sondheim relate that the I Feel Pretty lyrics were out-of town-tryout placeholders, to be rewritten before the NYC opening, but never were. He also said the lyrics to Maria were all Bernstein’s, saying he (Sondheim) never liked to repeat a word once in the same song, and that he would never have written the lyric, “Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria!”

    1. Hi Neely (glad your Google moniker made it through somehow)
      What a complimentary comment contribution (thank you!) and what a terrific account of a very different type of introduction to WEST SIDE STORY.
      First off, congratulations on the new beau! Back in my dating days, I would have taken it as a serious red flag if a potential paramour wasn’t brought to tears by WEST SIDE STORY. Happily, you’ve hit the jackpot!

      I got such a kick reading about how you both responded to the film so differently. You eloquently and colorfully detailed what elements of the film simply didn't work for you (I have to agree with you about the performance of the actress playing is stage bound theatrics of the worst kind. In fact, each time I watch her she comes across as Natalie Wood's inspiration for her cringe-worthy ”toughie” routine in INSIDE DAISY CLOVER).
      From your comments, I got both a good laugh and some good insights into the ways WEST SIDE STORY fails to click with everyone. And contrary to your feeling you are in the minority, you have actually voiced the same complaints leveled at WSS by its detractors (Pauline Kael comes to mind) since it first opened. They are all very valid issues, and well-taken. I’m sure many who absolutely adore this film could at least see your point when in some areas.

      However, what I enjoyed the most is how you and your boyfriend were each able to enjoy the film in entirely different ways. If I taught a class in film theory and criticism, I would ask permission to use your comment for a lecture on how people can be on entirely opposite poles of opinion about a movie, feeling comfortable and unchallenged in their opinions, yet neither party feels the need to negate or invalidate the experience of the other. That's what's it's all about.
      It's practically a revolutionary concept when I think of how things play out on Film Twitter and other Film Forum discussion sites on the internet.

      I'm glad you finally got to see WSS and now you never have to look at it again. (Unless you two become an item, and then I'd put money on it that in 10 years you will love WSS simply because your sweetheart does.)
      But you should be proud you were able to pinpoint in your superb commentary what you felt the film's flaws were for you. Being able to expound on those flaws in ways that reflected your subjective truth without ever apologizing for it, nor without without putting down those who feel differently. Nice job.
      Happy Holidays and New Year, Neely!
      And thanks for the Sondheim factoids at the end. I love that kind of stuff.

  8. We think of West Side Story as the obvious choice now when it came to its Oscars success, but back then in 1961 the frontrunner was actually a little film called Judgement at Nuremberg.

    1. Indeed. Tied with eleven Oscar nominations each, Hollywood tends to reward itself when it comes to serious, high-minded, prestige pictures, so the heavy-hitter all-star cast and director had "Nuremberg" definitely considered as the stronger contender over WEST SIDE STORY.

    2. To further complicate matters George Chakiris' win was more or less as a result of Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott splitting the Hustler vote much like how Rex Harrison won for My Fair Lady when Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton split the Becket vote.

    3. That's true. I'd forgotten about those nominees.