Re-released in a new digital restoration by the BFI in September 2011 to celebrate the film's 50th anniversary
West Side Story is one of those musicals everyone purports to love, but which doesn't often see the light of day. Some auspicious names are attached to its production: it's directed by choreographer Jerome Robbins and Citizen Kane editor Robert Wise (brought in to execute the non-dance parts), and the songs are by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Yet, to contemporary audiences, it lacks the kitsch appeal of The Sound Of Music, the Sunday afternoon charm of Oliver! or the critical praise of Singin' In The Rain.
Adapted from an early 1950s stage play by Arthur Laurents, itself an adaptation of 'Romeo And Juliet', this tale of forbidden young love won 10 Academy Awards on its release and was praised for its relevance, exuberance and emotive power. The dizzying choreography alone justifies the plaudits, the notorious opening number an exhilarating exposition of the power-play between the rival gangs, the all-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Amid all the hot-blooded hoo-hah, Shark boy Tony (Richard Beymer) falls for Jet girl Maria (Natalie Wood), despite the enmity between their respective gangs. The sweetness of this pair contrasts sharply with the tension that exists within their communities. Maria simpers along prettily to her lover but is eclipsed by a spitfire performance from Rita Moreno as the fiancee of Maria's brother. But Romeo and Juliet were always the wet drips of Shakespeare's play, the show constantly stolen by the likes of Mercutio.
As ever, the teen romance will appeal to the more soppily inclined, but the real interest lies in the wonderful syncopated rhythms of Bernstein and the stunning choreography of Robbins who matches Bernstein's innovation at every turn - no mean feat.
Perhaps the film lacks the kick necessary nowadays to keep it relevant. This tale of urban warfare and juvenile delinquency is literally bloodless. Even back in the day, it lacked bite, despite the force of all that glorious dancing. But listen carefully to Sondheim's lyrics, particularly the cynicism of call-and-response anthem 'America', and you'll find a surprisingly feisty take on immigrant New York.