An operatic overture introduces and summarizes Leonard Bernstein’s sublime musical program. A sequence of aerial-view establishing shots hover over and mythologize Manhattan as the cultural capital of the twentieth century. Further establishing shots bring the viewer to ground level, on an asphalt basketball court and into the midst of a neighborhood Anglo street gang. Macho gang posturing is expressed as a modern ballet stroll through their turf (choreographed by Jerome Robbins), somewhere on “the west side” of The City.
Before the plot has even begun to unfold, the viewer is completely mesmerized by what is about to happen. West Side Story is profoundly affecting in the virtuosity of ensemble performance art—the direction of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, the lyrics of Steven Sondheim, the choreography of Jerome Robbins, the performances of the actors (drama, song, and dance) and of Natalie Wood in particular, and, above all, the music of Leonard Bernstein.
West Side Story has often been characterized as a latter-day, American Romeo and Juliet. It is true that the romance upon which the plot pivots is in the troubadour tradition of doomed romantic love (Tristan and Ysolde or Abelard and Heloise as much as Shakespeare’s Renaissance-era tragedy). But that is more a narrative device upon which a much greater tragedy (again, mirrored palely in the Shakespearean family feud) is framed. That the film is such a passionate homage to New York by so many New Yorkers among its ensemble is inescapable. That the time film’s arete, or aesthetic excellence, suggesting in the phrase of Albert Auster, “the beauty and menace of the city,” is a monumental transformation of the Hollywood musical into “serious art” is equally undeniable.
The American musical as a distinct genre emerged with The Golddiggers of 1933 and similar 1930s spectacles. On the surface, Golddiggers is the classic Hollywood musical as fairy tale, a rags-to-riches story of a troupe of Broadway hoofers being rescued from the crushing reality of Depression-era poverty by a wealthy but humbly down-to-earth love interest, who saves the day. Remarkably, that film’s spectacular closing production number is a tribute to “the forgotten man,” the World War I veteran abandoned by his government and manning the bread lines of the Depression. The closing act is a surprising direct political attack on American domestic social policies of the day.
West Side Story, which is arguably the apex of this tradition, does not hold back in its political critique. But it soars high above polemic or melodrama, suggesting that beyond the sociological truisms of the 1950s–that post-World War II juvenile delinquency is produced by harsh social circumstances–there are much larger invisible and impersonal powers in play.
An Anglo boy falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl in 1950s Manhattan. As a city of immigrants, both ethnic clans can lay equal claim to New York as their home—much in the spirit of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man photo exhibition mounted in 1955 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But the two street gangs, the Anglo Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, represent warring factions of the same human family, much as the Oedipal tragedy played out between the warring brothers, Eteocles and Polynice. The more specific the details, the more universal the underlying conflict seems to be—gang rivalry among high-school-aged Americans is not merely an uncontainable lower-class “problem,” but a fundamental tragic aspect of the human condition.
As grand opera, West Side Story expresses both the private joy of first love and communal joy of planning a wedding. As ballet, it formalizes the gang-fight as dance. This idea foreshadows the transformation of dance-as-symbolic warfare, as expressed in the documentary about New York’s 1980s ball scene Paris Is Burning by one of the “house children,” who explained that such dance contests were a gay form of gang street fighting. West Side Story is musical as spectacle combining sound, dance, color, movement, sets, story, acting, mise en scene– all bursting out and showering down upon any given audience watching in the anonymous intimacy of a darkened movie theater.
West Side Story embraces this very irony of Americans as a nation of intimate strangers. It addresses a shatteringly abrupt loss of the illusion of innocence and security. By finding the terrible beauty in violence, hatred, and ignorance, it questions why society persists in its blind will to punish anyone who flirts with transgressing the social order, who dares embrace someone or something which is “different.” The Jets v. Sharks gang war, like any guerrilla war, is meaningless and only spawns greater hopelessness. If Bernstein and company can articulate this in one circadian moment, why do we, as the family of man, not “get it,” century after century?