West Side Story at 60: the dazzlingly modern musical that’ll be hard to beat | West Side Story

It’s the opening credits that do it suitable absent. Following a few eerie whistles around a black monitor, West Facet Story explodes into a comprehensive display of poster-paint colour – shifting from orange to pink to magenta to royal blue – as Leonard Bernstein’s 4-minute overture brassily clatters into motion. In excess of the colour, a stark layout prosper: seemingly random brigades of parallel vertical black traces, only coalescing at the overture’s conclude into the suggestion of Manhattan, viewed from the air, cuing a vertiginous bird’s-eye montage of New York Metropolis in motion. That chipper nonetheless chillingly disembodied whistle returns by the time we ultimately see a human experience, six coolly riveting minutes has handed.

This full title sequence – from the graphics to the aerial images – was visualised by Saul Bass, the distinctive graphic designer then favoured by such aggressive stylists as Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. It however appears, most likely even additional than anything at all that follows in West Side Tale, sleekly and breath-catchingly modern-day: a coup of costly minimalism at the outset of a splashy Hollywood creation. That was no incident: in 1961, United Artists set out for the film to be one thing bracing and new in the motion picture musical, an market staple that was on the lookout significantly out of action with a youth society turning towards rock’n’roll.

The past two a long time had been tough ones for the genre. In 1958, South Pacific might have topped the yearly box workplace while Gigi swept the Oscars, but because then, the only Hollywood music-and-dance films to prove even delicate hits experienced been minimal comedies, Disney cartoons or Elvis Presley cars. Hopes have been substantial for West Side Story to set the gloss again on to the status musical – the 1957 Broadway musical experienced been a strike with critics and audiences alike – but the studio realized the standard design and style of overstuffed Technicolor spectacle wouldn’t reduce it. The film had to be as propulsively dance-oriented as the stage exhibit, still expansive and kinetic as cinema. It experienced to honour the classically passionate roots of its resource – this was a riff on Romeo and Juliet, soon after all – although Declaring A thing Substantial about fashionable youth and urban culture. It had to be spouse and children-friendly nevertheless attractive to tearaway teenagers it experienced to court Oscar voters and large-tradition critics alike.

It was, in influence, strategised and emphasis-grouped to within an inch of its lifetime, down to the unusual compromise designed on the directorial entrance. Genius choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose get the job done experienced been so integral to the stage show’s good results, was hired to immediate the musical sequences, even with having zero film expertise. Business journeyman Robert Clever was enlisted for the straight dramatic scenes, not in spite of his absence of musical expertise but mainly because of that: greatest acknowledged for stolid black-and-white dramas on stern topics (he had recently been Oscar-nominated for the grim loss of life-row biopic I Want to Stay!), he was supposed to bring some grownup gravitas to the physical exercise. Not that the producers ended up previously mentioned bare populism when casting the sales opportunities: irrespective of whether or not there’s any fact to the enduring rumour that Elvis Presley was approached to be the film’s Tony, teen-idol opportunity took precedence about musical capacity: 23-yr-olds Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer did not sing a notice in the movie, but could not have lip-synched extra prettily.

All of which can make West Side Tale audio like a desperately about-calculated, even cynical physical exercise. Yet as it performs out, from that Saul Bass aesthetic masterstroke onwards, the film continues to be a blinder: by some means checking off each individual of these aforementioned, contradictory boxes, it is formally electric powered, musically alive and emotionally pummelling, even as its dubbed sales opportunities trade in borrowed sensation. West Facet Tale is not unflawed, in ways the display was not possibly: its overwriting of Shakespeare to lend proceedings at least fifty percent a happy ending, with Maria alive and distraught, simply cannot very contact the frenzied melodrama of Romeo and Juliet’s twin-demise fiasco, and there’s no receiving round the fact that its sweet, doe-eyed potential customers are offered a lesson in musical magnetism each time their more mature counterparts Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are allowed to burn up up the body. (That West Side Story received 10 Oscars, which includes two for Moreno and Chakiris, though Wood and Beymer weren’t nominated was a harsh way to worry the place.)

Natalie Wood in West Side Story
Natalie Wood in West Aspect Tale. Photograph: Allstar/United Artists

And but 60 several years on, West Side Story is more substantial, bolder and braver than any of its shortcomings. Robbins’s cinematic inexperience may have despatched the generation behind schedule and about spending budget, major to his eventual dismissal, but he was value each and every excessive day and penny: from Astaire and Rogers and Gene Kelly, Hollywood was effectively-schooled in filming dance, but by no means experienced bodies in motion been applied to shape and dictate a film’s individual rhythm rather like this: just take the ultra-stripped Awesome selection, filmed largely in extended, roomy wide photographs, in which every single thrusting limb and snapping finger feels like an editor’s reduce. Or the cantankerous chaos of The us, the Latin characters’ pent-up exasperation spilling in a brash synthesis of swirling, confrontational choreo and the jangly, switching rhythms of Bernstein’s score, flawlessly described by Moreno: “Then along will come Leonard Bernstein with his 5/4 time, his 6/8 time, his 25/6 time. It was just ridiculous. It is incredibly complicated to dance to that form of new music, mainly because it doesn’t make dancer perception.” In the moment, of program, it does.

Six a long time on, then, West Facet Tale however feels agile and athletic and crisply, fizzily modern day, elegantly poised in limited trousers involving the previous of the Hollywood musical and its potential, nevertheless hardly ever quite surpassed or outdated on possibly facet. In a issue of months, we’ll be ready to choose the knowledge of Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner producing their personal new model of the musical, however I confess to some sight-unseen scepticism. A remake may perhaps ideal wrongs of casting or writing in the 1st movie: in particular, anticipations are large for the Colombian American teen Rachel Zegler to hew closer to the show’s vision of the romantically confused and culturally conflicted Maria than Wood at any time could. But I’m curious to see how the film, in retaining the 1950s gangland setting that in the initial was so sparsely and exhilaratingly present-day, can stay clear of feeling like a nostalgia item, a painstakingly recreated interval piece. In the meantime, its predecessor hangs on to the shock of the new, the urgency of the now, the heated flush of youth. Even after 60 years have handed, that is a difficult act to stick to.

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