"How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,/Like softest music to attending ears!" So says Romeo in Shakespeare's most enduringly popular play, the metaphor becoming literal in the great American musical West Side Story. The 1957 musical by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins (dance) and Arthur Laurents (book) will forever reside in the pantheon of the greatest stage musicals, and the source material gave film director Robert Wise and Robbins quite a mountain to climb with their 1961 film version. In concert with the great screenwriter Ernest Lehman, Wise and Robbins crafted a landmark screen musical that left its own indelible stamp on popular culture.
The play and film wittily reconceive the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet within the idiom of 1950s "j.d."s, the feuding "two households" becoming rival street gangs, with whites ("the Jets") locked in constant battle with Puerto Ricans ("the Sharks"). The somewhat ambivalent Jet Tony (Richard Beymer; singing voice of Jimmy Bryant) falls for Maria (Natalie Wood; singing voice of Marni Nixon), setting up the ultimate romantic obstacle for two teenage lovers. West Side Story dispenses with parents, though it retains sympathetic and unsympathetic authority figures in Ned Glass' Friar-esque Doc, Simon Oakland's Prince Escalus-esque Lt. Schrank and William Bramley's Officer Krupke. Here too are a funny and volatile Mercutio figure in Russ Tamblyn's Riff and a bloodthirsty (though humanized) equivalent to Tybalt in George Chakiris' Bernardo. The musical's most notable character innovation comes in the form of the caliente-tempered and witheringly witty Anita, originated on stage by Chita Rivera and played to the hilt by Rita Moreno on film.
Wise puts his mark on the material from the very start, with the masterstroke of judicious location footage frontloaded in the film's earliest scenes. Having thrillingly put New York's skyline and streets to work for the film, Wise shifts to crafty sets for the duration of the picture. West Side Story will always have to overcome the initial silliness factor of "tough" street gangs breaking into rhythmic snapping and balletic dance, Jets jeté-ing and Sharks pirouetting. But musicals are all about suspension of disbelief, and once the audience makes the, well, leap, West Side Story engrosses with its characterization, Shakespeare's driving plot, and world-class song and dance (though Robbins was fired during production, his stunning original choreography continued to rule the day).
Bernstein's score may never be surpassed as the towering achievement of American musical theater. Anyone not stirred by "Something's Coming," "Tonight" or, in particular, "Quintet" should check his or her pulse, and "America" and "Officer Krupke" provide delicious slices of satire that briefly, joyously hold back the show's tragic momentum. The hits keep coming, from "Jet Song" to "Cool." Sondheim's limber lyrics mesh brilliantly with the music, and though, to this day, he rues some of his own sparkling wit as too clever by half, it's hard to imagine trading a syllable for anything. Bested only by Singin' in the Rain on the AFI's "100 Years of Musicals" list (and, in my book, wrongly so), West Side Story inarguably belongs in the company of musical classics like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. It's as good a place as any to begin studying the musical art form.
MGM celebrates West Side Story's 50th Anniversary with a three-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo pack. West Side Story definitely looks better than ever—on home video, at least—in this edition, but most people picky enough to upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray will also be picky enough to blanch at an authoring mistake evident in the Overture (MGM has promised a replacement-disc program correcting a misplaced fade-out/fadein edit). And though the transfer also suffers from some distracting compression artifacts (mostly shimmering of all those skyscraper lines and metal grates), the overall impression is sharp and vibrantly colorful in ways DVD was never able to accomplish. Some will also be frustrated that the recently rediscovered and restored six-track mag masters of the film's audio aren't the source used for the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix here (rather, the mix is sourced from four-track masters). All the same, the audio has also inarguably improved significantly from its standard definition forebears: the surround elements are well-placed and the sound proves both potent and limber in dialogue, effects and, of course, music.
Extras, presented on two blu-ray discs, impress. Pow! The Dances of West Side Story (19:12, HD) is a nifty new bonus feature that's presented both as an interstitial playback option and through menu access. Assistant director Robert Relyea, Leonard Bernstein's daughter Jamie Bernstein, dancer Yvonne Wilder, Debbie Allen, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Glee choreographer Zach Woodlee, among others, appear to give their take on the dance sequences.
Also new and well-timed to complement Sondheim's recent annotated lyrics collections is a Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim. In easy-to-access audio segments, Sondheim tells tales out of school about the show's development and, in particular, the songs' development and his own regrets and points of pride when it comes to the lyrics.
Music Machine is a fancy menu access to all of the film's musical sequences.
"A Place for Us: West Side Story's Legacy" (29:28, HD), another new feature, allows folks (including some of the original cast members, Baryshnikov, Allen, et al) to speak to the incredible impact of the film in their lives and on the culture.
"West Side Memories" (55:55, SD) is a fine featurette gathering archival clips of Jerome Robbins, original book writer Arthur Laurents, Sondheim, director Hal Prince, Robert Wise, and cast and crew members to recount the film's making. The doc also includes original recordings of Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn, whose song vocals were entirely and partially replaced, respectively.
Rounding out the set are a "Storyboard-to-Film Comparison Montage" (4:50, SD), "Trailers" (11:50, HD) and DVD copy.
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