Romeo and Juliet is updated to the tenements of New York City in this Oscar-winning musical landmark. Adapted by Ernest Lehman from the Broadway production, the movie opens with an overhead shot of Manhattan, an effect that director Robert Wise would repeat over the Alps in The Sound of Music four years later. We are introduced to two rival street gangs: the Jets, second-generation American teens, and the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants. When the war between the Jets and Sharks reaches a fever pitch, Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) decides to challenge the Sharks to one last “winner take all” rumble. He decides to meet Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) for a war council at a gymnasium dance; to bolster his argument, Riff wants his old pal Tony (Richard Beymer), the cofounder of the Jets, to come along. But Tony has set his sights on vistas beyond the neighborhood and has fallen in love with Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), a love that, as in Romeo and Juliet, will eventually end in tragedy. In contrast to the usual slash-and-burn policy of Hollywood musical adaptations, all the songs written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for the original Broadway production of West Side Story were retained for the film version, although some alterations were made to appease the Hollywood censors, and the original order of two songs was reversed for stronger dramatic impact. The movie more than retains the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, which is recreated in some of the most startling and balletic dance sequences ever recorded on film. West Side Story won an almost-record ten Oscars, including Best Picture, supporting awards to Chakiris and Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita, and Best Director to Robbins and Wise. Richard Beymer’s singing was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant, Natalie Wood’s by Marni Nixon (who also dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), and Rita Moreno’s by Betty Wand. The film’s New York tenement locations were later razed to make room for Lincoln Center.
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