Conceived by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents as a contemporary musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story made its Broadway debut on September 26, 1957. Presenting the story as a contemporary musical resulted in an intriguing mix of romance, tragedy, violence, and singing and dancing. Robbins, Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim worked wonders to keep all the different elements balanced; it would have been easy for one aspect or another to have emerged more strongly than the others, thereby ruining the overall impact of the story. None of this was a problem; audiences loved the play. It ran for two years on Broadway (732 performances), before going on tour then returning to New York for a grand re-opening.

West Side StoryNaturally, once the show became a hit, talk of a film began. With Bernstein, Robbins, and Sondheim working alongside director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music) production on the film version of West Side Story began in 1960. Released the following year, West Side Story won everything in sight, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Scoring, Best Film Editing, and even a special award for Robbins’ brilliant choreography.

New York’s Upper West Side during the late 1950s stands in for Verona, Italy; the feuding Monatgues and Capulets are represented by rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. The former is comprised of first-generation New Yorkers whose parents came across on boats during the early decades of the century. Their rivals are Puerto Rican immigrants who are newly arrived in the United States. The constant needling between the Jets and the Sharks is bound to lead to all out war, but not before Tony (Richard Beymer), a founder of the Jets (who’s left gang life behind in favor of a job), falls in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris), the Sharks’ leader. As in Romeo and Juliet, the two defy social conventions—risking everything—to be together. As in Shakespeare’s play, there’s no happy ending here.

Though West Side Story is virtually bloodless, it tackles some difficult issues. It explores both the senselessness of gang violence and the prejudice faced by immigrants. All the fights are highly stylized and detached from reality. The characters dance around each other while in the process of stalking and attacking.  Even so, there’s a real sense of fear in several scenes, in large part because of Jerome Robbins’ choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s discordant score. While the way things are handled may seem tame by today’s standards, the themes themselves remain relevant.

The female lead went to Natalie Wood, who was a big box office draw after earning an Oscar nomination for Rebel Without a Cause. Although she does an admirable job as Maria, it’s fair to argue she was miscast. A significant suspension of disbelief is required to accept her as a Puerto Rican, and her shaky accent doesn’t help. She just doesn’t realistically look the part. In fact, based on appearance, she would have been more at home as a Jets girl than as lovestruck Maria. Wood didn’t do her own singing. That job went to oft used dubber Marni Nixon who also handled similar duties for Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady).

The role of Tony went to little known Richard Beymer, who frankly isn’t a very good actor. His performance is exaggerated, which works fine for the musical numbers, but looks seriously out of place in the more dramatic scenes. However, Beymer is athletic and displays good timing and fluid movement, which makes him a natural for the dance numbers. Like his co-star, his vocals were dubbed by Jimmy Bryant.

While the supporting players (as Beymer had been), were selected based more on dancing ability than acting acumen. However, some stood out. Russ Tamblyn portrays Riff, the leader of the Jets. His dancing is excellent and he did his own singing. Rita Moreno, a native Puerto Rican who has enjoyed a solid career as both an actress and a singer/dancer, plays Anita, Maria’s best friend. Oddly, Moreno’s voice was dubbed by Betty Wand for just one song, “A Boy Like That.” Finally, George Chakiris did a memorable job as Bernardo, Maria’s brother and the leader of the Sharks.

Visually, West Side Story is a treat. Wise and cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp (The Great Escape) give the film a unique look that recalls, but doesn’t replicate, Manhattan’s West Side during the late ’50s. A few scenes were shot on location, but most of it was filmed on elaborately constructed soundstages. The colors are some of the richest seen in ‘60s cinema. While there are a few moments when West Side Story borders on the campy, those moments are heavily outweighed by pure musical magic.

West Side Story is presented in 1080p at 2.19:1 aspect ratio. Let’s get one big issue out of the way that’s been being discussed for weeks: the fade-out and fade-in during Saul Bass’s iconic title design which accompanies the Overture. Fans of the film undoubtedly know that there should be no fade out whatsoever, simply a bold color change, followed by the slight pull back which reveals the title West Side Story as part of Bass’s abstract skyline. That error was embarrassing enough for Fox to immediately agree to a second pressing, and corrected discs are expected soon. This should’ve never been allowed to happen. Aside from that, this is not a bad transfer at all. Colors are wonderfully saturated. Colors (particularly the bold reds), pop off the screen; you’ll notice a few instances of artifacting, but all told the pluses here heavily outweigh the negatives.

This lossless DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio sound mix is fine, until you realize what could have been. It turns out that the original six-track mix of West Side Story was found early last year (it has been lost for decades). Unfortunately, Fox didn’t think it was worth the money to use this newly-discovered mix, instead sticking with a lossless incarnation of the mix that was used for the film’s DVD release. So, does West Side Story sound great here? Yes. Is it a definitive mix for the film? No way.

The dynamic range and fidelity are very good for a film that’s fifty. Midrange is fairly expansive, with some spacious highs and fairly strong low end. In general, things are very front heavy; any true rear effects are hard to find. The only thing that really utilizes the surrounds is the score. Dialogue is clear throughout. This is a fine mix; just don’t expect a particularly enveloping experience.

English Dolby Digital 4.0, German and French DTS 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included, as are English, French, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Mandarin, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles.

The following special features are included:

  • Pow! The Dances of West Side Story (HD; 19:12) can either be accessed as in-movie features via seamless branching or played on their own. The many iconic dance sequences are analyzed by such people as Robert Relyea, Assistant Director of West Side Story, Jamie Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s daughter), Yvonne Wilder, who played Consuelo in the film, as well as others not particularly connected to the film.
  • Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim has long punisshed himself over some of his lyrics for West Side Story, and he does so again here, repeating some of the same anecdotes he relates in accompanying featurettes.
  • Music Machine (HD; 1:25:07) is a video jukebox of all the film’s musical sequences. Each song/sequence can also be accessed individually.
  • A Place for Us: West Side Story‘s Legacy (1080i; 29:28) is a decent retrospective documenting the film’s cultural impact. We get to hear from Sondheim and some of the actors in the  film as they recount their memories and what the film meant to them personally and professionally.
  • West Side Memories (SD; 55:55) is an older featurette offering archival recordings of Jerome Robbins, as well as reminiscences by original book writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Sondheim, director Hal Prince and several people involved in the motion picture.
  • Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage (SD; 4:50)
  • Trailers (HD; 11:50).