Natalie Wood and charisma-free Richard Beymer seem slightly miscast at times in this story about two rival gangs on New York’s West Side – the Puerto Rican Sharks and the ‘Anglo’ Jets – but Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn are superb.
Bernardo (Chakiris) leads the Sharks, but his sister, Maria (Wood) has fallen in love with Tony (Beymer), an ex-member of the Jets, led by Riff (Tamblyn). The streets of New York begin to rumble with the anger of both gangs, and soon, death is stalking those streets.
The excellent on-location photography enhances the Romeo & Juliet theme, and the music from the 1957 Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is the icing on the cake, along with the choreography of Jerome Robbins, who received a co-director credit with Robert Wise.
West Side Story collected Academy Awards in 1961 for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Moreno), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Musical Score.
The opening sequence – the camera panning over Manhattan until it closes in on a playground and a close-up of the Jets’ main-man Riff, snapping his fingers to the rhythm of the music and action that’s about to begin – could qualify for an Oscar all on its own.
A great deal of the film was shot in parts of New York City which were scheduled for demolition, in addition to the 35 sets which were constructed in the studio. The shooting took six months, with no less than five weeks for the exteriors alone.
Natalie Wood’s onscreen singing voice was provided by Marni Nixon (who also provided Audrey Hepburn’s vocals in My Fair Lady (1964).
This dynamite musical remains fresh and vibrant many years after its release.