Rewatching the Original West Side Story

Dept. of Music, Magic, and Maria


The original version of West Side Story holds a special place in my heart. I stole my sister’s CD when I was younger and it introduced me to a whole new world of music. (She was more of a Phantom of the Opera kind of girl anyway!) West Side Story changed me and my life in profound ways. It opened my eyes to the wonder of musicals. It made me fall in love with this wonderful world of song and dance.

West Side Story is special. So special in fact that I’m planning on naming my first daughter Maria.

The original West Side Story was released 60 years ago on October 18th, 1961. Directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music) and Jerome Robbins, this adaptation of the Broadway musical was inspired by that original tale of two star crossed lovers, Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet. This movie would be the first time many had learned of The Sharks and The Jets, of Riff and Bernardo, of Tony and Maria. 


Tony and Maria in the original West Side Story.

From the movie’s opening, directors Wise and Robbins try to remind you that you’re watching a stage show. The image on screen designed to convey the drawn curtains of the theatre and the orchestral overture. Wise and Robbins strive to not scare away fans of the stage production (which only opened on Broadway four years prior), all while doing their best to ease in the mass moviegoing audience.

As the movie comes to life you are immediately reminded that this isn’t so much a filmed version of a stage show, but rather a recreation of it. It is a bold announcement that while you may have seen West Side Story on stage, this is different. This is West Side Story on film.


Riff and The Jets confront Bernardo in the original West Side Story.

The movie opens with an aerial shot of New York City, as seen from Upper Bay, where for 60 years migrants made their way to America through Ellis Island in search for a better future. The camera continues flying over New York City, first following one of the many bridges that feed the peninsular, then over the well manicured lawns and expensive high rise buildings. We fly over the UN General Assembly Building and the Empire State Building, before the camera finally settles on the Upper West Side, where this story is set.

The overhead shots of New York inform us that while this story is set in New York, it isn’t a New York story. This is about the ghettos and the gangs, about the people who live in it and the people coming to live in it. This is about the older European migrants rubbing up against the newer South American migrants. 

Ostensibly, West Side Story is a story of forbidden love, but it’s also a lot more than that. It’s about identity. It’s about wanting to belong. It’s about trusting those you know against those you don’t. It’s about race. It’s about who deserves to be there and who decides. It’s about The Jets versus The Sharks and what it means to be American in America. It is about the irony of America, where white European migrants, who probably arrived in New York barely a generation ago from countries far removed, end up fighting against newly arrived Puerto Rican migrants, who are actually American.

There is so much to love about the 1961 version of West Side Story. There is such innocence here. From the ballet fighting to the dance off at the school gym. The staged rooftop setting of Anita and Bernardo’s “America.” The way the dance fades away as Tony and Maria first lock eyes. There is a charm here that feels like it could only have been achieved in 1961.

I Feel Pretty

Natalie Wood as Maria in the original West Side Story.

Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story is such a great vehicle for the genius music created by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Just consider the music for a second.

“Something’s Coming” is the perfect soundtrack for every teenager on the cusp of adulthood, impatient for adventure, and chomping at the bit to discover what is around the corner. 

“America,” about the push and pull of the promised land, is a song that both describes the dreams and realities of what can be. 

“Gee, Officer Krupke” is a commentary on the social justice system of America in the 1960s. About troubled youths being pushed through the legal and psychiatric systems, leading to many a generation of young Americans being sent either to jail or mental institutions, or ending up back on the street.

The songs are fun, funny, and beautiful, but also strained. Bernstein and Sondheim never let a song just be something to be sung. And it’s the trio of “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere” that best describes West Side Story.


Riff leads The Jets as they sing Gee, Officer Krupke in the original West Side Story.

Musicals have made something of a comeback of late. And in a big way too. The American broadcast networks have gone big with The Little Mermaid on ABC, Rent Live! on Fox, and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical! on NBC all in the last 3 years. The juggernaut that is Hamilton came to Disney Plus in 2020 and blew the doors off everything. Apple TV Plus has regularly tried to remind audiences of the magic of the musical, with its animated musical series Central Park, and live action comedy series Schmigadoon!. There have also been some misses. Netflix tried to get in on the game with the Ryan Murphy musical, The Prom, which fell flat. And then of course there is Tom Hooper’s Cats.

This year alone, we had Come From Away on Apple TV Plus and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big hit, In The Heights, which was released after numerous COVID delays. Come December, we will also finally get to see Steven Spielberg’s big screen reimagining of the classic West Side Story.

I love the original West Side Story. I have never had the chance to catch it on stage, and although my first reaction was to be excited at the idea of Steven Spielberg taking it on, rewatching the 1961 version has left me apprehensive. The new trailer looks like Spielberg’s version will be more. Bigger set pieces. Bigger dance sequences. But in doing more, in being bigger, will it lose its charm? Will its increased scale mean it no longer feels intimate? Then again, if anyone knows how to balance scale and intimacy it’s Steven Spielberg. But will *something* end up being missing when it’s remade for a 2021 audience? 

Tony sings Something's Coming in the original West Side Story.

In the last two years we have seen the introduction of Hamilton to a wider audience. We’ve seen a big screen, Jon M. Chu version of In The Heights. Come From Away told us about the town of Gander and the events of 9/12. The world is more than ready for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. And as much as I love Steven Spielberg, I think I love Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ original West Side Story even more. Spielberg will do fine. Heck he may even do great. But will it be enough?

Go and watch the new version when it comes out. I mean, it’s Steven Spielberg so it’ll be good regardless. But do yourself a favor and watch this one first. Experience the original, discover the magic, be moved. Trust me. You may even end up wanting to name your firstborn girl Maria.

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is scheduled to open in Malaysian cinemas on Thursday, December 9.

Bahir likes to review movies because he can watch them at special screenings and not have to interact with large groups of people who may not agree with his idea of what a movie going experience is. Bahir likes jazz, documentaries, Ken Burns, and summer blockbuster movies. He really hopes that the HBO MAX Green Lantern series will help the character be cool again. Also don’t get him started on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (#NotMyArthurCurry).

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