There are probably not too many people who do not know that I am an actor when I am not providing financial advice. That mostly started when I was 13 and first attended Camellot Academy (spelling is correct – don’t ask me). Of all the things that summer program did for me, instilling a love of performing was first on the list. Since summer is here in full force and that always makes me fondly remember my Camellot days, let’s take a look at movie musicals, the best of which is West Side Story (1961, dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins).
West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with the warring Montagues and Capulets replaced with the Sharks and the Jets – two rival gangs in New York City. The primary love story involves Tony (a former Jet who has mostly aged out of the gang life but still has strong ties, played by Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood - the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks). If you are somehow not familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet, then you basically need to know that this does not end well for Tony and Maria – or some of their friends and family – as the divide costs several of them their lives.
The strength of West Side Story is undoubtedly its score and the dancing. Both are first rate. The instantly recognizable Leonard Bernstein score still pops with vibrancy – as the 2021 Spielberg remake can attest. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are still as poetic and memorable as ever. (Who cares that very few of the stars cast in the movie could actually sing it?) It is easy to forget how brilliant the dancing is as some of it has become a bit of a joke nowadays. Maybe it is the circles I run in, but I cannot go a month without someone striking the familiar double snap pose as a joke when a small argument starts. However, nobody will convince me that the rooftop challenge dance number, “America,” is not the greatest dance sequence in movie history – prominently featuring the two Oscar winning co-stars, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. (For those curious, the remake lands at 293 – still a great movie in its own right.)
We could certainly focus on the problems in the movie. The aforementioned voice-doubling work is certainly unfortunate, but they are all lip-synching anyway. Is it really that big of a deal that they are not doing so to themselves in many cases? We also have the white washing of the Sharks. Natalie Wood is no more Puerto Rican than I am. George Chakiris is Greek. Rita Moreno – who was literally born in Puerto Rico as all the Shark characters were – was forced to wear darker makeup, like all her co-stars. She has spoken about this at length, and it is pretty embarrassing in hindsight. These do not ruin the quality of the film for me, but they do make me appreciate the remake a little bit more. If they do ruin it for you, I consider that extremely fair.
The general weirdness of musicals aside – particularly with gangs singing and dancing across the streets of New York – there is not much to dislike about this film. Give it a watch – preferably on Turner Classic Movies, which is desperate for viewership these days – and reminisce about not only Broadway’s Golden Age, but treat yourself to the greatest movie musical of all time. You could even watch it…Tonight.
FUN FACT – Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise were the first (and still only one of three examples) co-directors to see their film with Best Picture. (The other two are the Coen Brothers for No Country for Old Men and Daniels for Everything Everywhere All at Once.) But theirs was NOT a collaboration. Jerome Robbins was known to be extremely demanding. With production moving significantly behind schedule and consequently over budget due to Robbins’ demands for perfection, the studio fired him halfway through production and replaced him with Wise.
Probably should have included a top ten with every post this year, so I will start now and do it from here on out. These are the top ten movie musicals and overall ranking in parentheses.
- West Side Story (12)
- Singin’ in the Rain (16)
- The Wizard of Oz (21)
- Moulin Rouge! (70)
- Once (126)
- La La Land (146) I know this film gets a lot of hate (particularly from my friend Laura, who traveled emotional miles on Oscar night when it first won and then lost Best Picture), but I find it charming and delightful.
- Beauty and the Beast (225) This is the animated version. The live action version is…further down. By a lot.
- The Court Jester (228) Perhaps a surprise inclusion, but this is Danny Kaye at his best and features my favorite swordfight ever captured on film.
- Chicago (234)
- Bedknobs and Broomsticks (238) I will never not smile when I think of this film.
FYI – Waiting for Guffman is at 128, but I didn’t think it fair to consider that a movie musical. It’s as close as you can get, but I still think it’s something else. Also excluded This Is Spinal Tap for the same reasons.