West Side Story: Giving Segregation The Green Light

West Side Story is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Verona becomes 1950s New York City. The feuding families are displaced by fighting gangs led by young adults. The white Jets (Montagues) are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Sharks (Capulets) are Puerto Ricans led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). At a dance Tony (Richard Beymur), who is white, and Maria (Natalie Wood), who is Puerto Rican see each other from across the hall, and it’s love at first sight. With adversity from both ‘families’, they meet in secret. However, their groups plan a last rumble, a brawl that will decide who has the streets. Will love prevail, or will hypermasculinity have out?

It’s a testament to ‘The Musical’, and to cinema when a film still holds up over fifty years after its release. This is one of greatest musicals of all time and is set to one of the great tragedies, Romeo and Juliet. Based on the book by Arthur Laurents,West Side Story is the real deal. From the songs to the cinematography to the acting to the sets, it has everything a great musical needs. It’s electric. Though, I still suck air through my teeth, snigger and cringe when I’m watching a 60s movie and a character says “daddio.” That street lingo is accurate to the time in which the film is set, but nonetheless, it still makes me gag. It’s dated, but it’s still comical.

Tony plays Romeo and Maria plays Juliet in 1961’s Best Picture winner, West Side Story
(West Side Story, United Artists)

The songs are eclectic that tell their own story if one listens to the poetry that’s being said. The choreography (Jerome Robbins) is also fantastic. This is an animated musical: exhilarating, passionate and energetic with a score (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sonheim) that can really blow you away. At many times throughout, it is highly possible to forget you’re watching a ten-time Oscar-winning Hollywood musical and think you’re watching a high quality production from Broadway or the West End. The greatest musicals came out between the 1930s and the 1960s. West Side Story is merely a prime example of Hollywood’s high class of film back in the day.

‘Us and Them’ is a phrase on everybody’s tongues. Whether we’re building walls, trying to prohibit peaceful marches or judging people on their race, no I’m not talking about the 50s and 60s. This is 2017. West Side Story is a story about race, and how humanity doesn’t get on with each other because we look different and have different-coloured skin. Black, white, yellow, green, brown, blue, burgundy? We are one species, so should it really matter whether people from other parts of the world have different skin colours or speak with different accents? Well, apparently it does. This film is a reflection of 1950s America’s race relations, but it’s also a reflection of the present day.

This film critiques gender and how hypermasculinity is a direct implication on crime on the streets
(West Side Story, United Artists)

Gender is another issue discussed in this film. We see women through the Male Gaze, but I also think we see men through the Male Gaze as well, if that’s possible. We see men from a male standpoint. So, we see men from the perspective of Tony. Tony sees his friends as young men who want to fight all the time. He’s thinking, why can’t people just get on? Why do our differences have to divide us? Why does the male sex always have to be out prove something? West Side Story is a dick-swinging contest, a reflection of what it meant to be male in the 1950s and 1960s. If you didn’t fight, you weren’t considered a proper man, and thus showing men from a man’s standpoint.

Maria (Wood) is a beautiful Puerto-Rican girl and sister to the gang’s leader but falls for a white-skinned Tony. Set in the concrete canopies of a New York neighbourhood, two separate Diasporas battle it out for control. Armed with knives, guns and rocks, all the gangs want to do is fight. But our star-crossed lovers’ love affair sets off a tragic chain events, that by the end might manage to show the two gangs that they don’t need to fight. What is so bad about diversity? What is so bad about being different? Our differences should bring us together, not further apart. And perhaps, the ending in this message film might instil a little hope in cultural variation and race relations.

It’s not one-sided racism, both the Puerto Ricans and the Caucasians are content with segregation
(West Side Story, United Artists)

Whites prefer whites, blacks prefer blacks and it goes on and on. Communities in the first half of last century very much stuck to their own. In the modern day, it is common to see interracial couples with mixed-race children. Yet, it is still common for communities to stick with their own. We are still living in a very culturally-frigid society and a a very racist world. Sure, not so many people would call a black person “nigger” in the street, but the institutional prejudice is still very much alive, regardless of whether we’re talking law enforcement, media, politics or in education. It goes to the very top and base level factions have green lit this segregation.

This is an exceptional story about gangs battling it out for small plots of land in the west side of The Big Apple. This could be argued to be metaphorical for how governments fight petty wars over sand and oil. Sure, they may make a ton of money, but is it worth it when so many lives have been lost for the material? But ‘the material’ is what drives this musical with its epic dance numbers, some of the most incredible ones I’ve ever seen with all its: flamboyance, colour and charisma. Many thanks to shooting on location on the city streets of New York. The city is alive and our cast tickles New York’s feet to show its raw flesh underfoot.

It’s sometime before we are actually witness to any tangible dialogue in this film
(West Side Story, United Artists)

This is a worthy ten-time Academy Award-winner, including Best Picture and Best Director(s). This is the musical genre as it should be. Watching musicals like this is a sad reflection of our current reality, a time in which few musicals are made outside of the annual Disney film. Hopefully, one day, that will change. From the sociopolitical commentary to the choreography to the sets to the songs, West Side Story is another one of the American Greats that can be watched time and time again.

 It’s called West Side Story, but its message is one that should be applied to the western world and beyond, not just a few streets in New York