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West Side Story remains one of the great Broadway adaptations

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Recent releases Annie and Into The Woods have us thinking about our favorite film adaptations of Broadway (and off-Broadway) musicals.

West Side Story (1961)

Few Hollywood musicals have ever used the widescreen canvas as expertly as West Side Story, directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ big, bold, and brash adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical. From its opening city playground sequence, Wise and Robbins (who was hired to helm the dance sequences, and then fired midway through the production) shoot their material in expansive panoramas that capture both the rough, swift beauty of the gang members’ combat-like dance moves as well as the towering Manhattan buildings and structures that make the characters’ turf-war grievances seem so petty and insignificant. Boasting long takes that emphasize Robbins’ sharp, graceful choreography, as well as a color-coded visual palette that amplifies the piercing emotions of his story, Wise’s direction has a formal dexterity and elegance that lends epic import to his story. A modernized retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, it’s a tale rooted in the conflict between the white street gang The Jets and their Puerto Rican adversaries The Sharks, which is complicated by the budding romance between Tony (Richard Beymer), a member of the Jets, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Sharks head honcho Bernardo (George Chakiris).

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Wise’s direction benefits from a script by Ernest Lehman that wields ’50s-era slang to give the action its teen-angst punch, as well as a collection of phenomenal songs (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, orchestration by Leonard Bernstein), from Tony and Maria’s fire-escape duet, “Tonight,” to Ice and the Jets’ finger-snapping “Cool,” to Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) singing the boisterous “America.” The last of those numbers underlines both the burning hope and roiling anger of mid-century immigrants looking to make a home in the U.S, and eventually, us-vs.-them tensions lead to tragedy in West Side Story, as the Jets and Sharks’ rivalry climaxes in a brawl and a murder. Its period trappings may date it as a relic of a particular time and place, but as a portrait of the tragic consequences of blind hatred for the “other”—and as a work of exuberant cinematic song-and-dance artistry—West Side Story remains a timeless classic.

Availability: West Side Story is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.

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