TBT: West Side Story (1961)


With a remake coming to theaters, I thought it might be worth looking at the original movie of West Side Story (1961). Though I’m the designated fan of movie musicals, this is not one I was familiar with because it seemed too “modern” to me as a kid. Y’know, compared with my faves like Camelot and My Fair Lady, set in the medieval and Edwardian eras respectively. Watching West Side Story now though, it seems particularly dated, not in costumes but when it comes to casting and some of the theater conventions of dance and song. But it’s still an entertaining watch because the production has requisite catchy songs and high-quality dance numbers, and it fulfills the brief as a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

While it was made around 1961, the story is set in the 1950s when the Broadway show was first written. Onscreen, this close of a look back is always suspect to me. It’s so easy for the production to lapse into looking and acting just “contemporary” with when it was made, instead of making a solid attempt at the historical period. For comparison, a lot of movies about World War II that were made in the decade immediately after that war may have some uniforms and equipment that are legitimately from the 1940s, but the civilian clothing and hairstyles tends to look far more early ’50s than the war-rationing styles. West Side Story isn’t great in this regard, but there are lots of little clues to put the story slightly outside the “this is happening today” realm.

Most noticeable are the boys’ hairstyles — in both of the teen gangs, the guys are going for the look of ’50s greased-back hair and pompadours. This helps show the audience who they’re supposed to be, in a way that looks like a caricature now (but the film is one of the things that contributed to that image). Their language also emphasizes the ’50s period, with frequent use of Beatnik terms like “daddio” and “hip,” plus the snapping motif in the music is evocative of the Beats and jazz.

West Side Story (1961)

The Jets stake their turf.

West Side Story (1961)

At the big dance, the leader of the Jets, Riff (Russ Tamblyn) shows his gang colors in gold, and the jacket’s black accents and skinny tie seem like a nod to Teddy Boy styles. Meanwhile, Anita (Rita Moreno) in purple serves some epic side-eye.

There’s a visual line drawn between the two gangs with the white Jets wearing more subdued yellow, orange, and blues and the Puerto Rican Sharks wearing bright purples and reds. The girlfriends of each gang follow along with these colors, and it’s most clear with the Puerto Rican women wearing vivid dresses; if they have a full skirt, there’s also a bright petticoat. The exception is Maria, who wears white and light colors, as the virginal Juliet at the center of the story.

West Side Story (1961)

At the dance where she meets and falls immediately in love with Tony, Maria wears this white dress.

West Side Story (1961)

Later in the movie, she dances solo on the roof in pale blue.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that Maria is played by Natalie Wood, and most of the other actors playing Puerto Rican characters are white. Rita Moreno is Puerto Rican, and she’s stunning as the character Anita — she won an Oscar for this role. But she described in a recent Fresh Air interview how all the actors were made-up to look darker:

“I remember some shots of George Chakiris [who plays Bernardo] where he looked like somebody had taken him by the ankles and dipped him in a bucket of mud. It was so thick, and it was so dark that we would — our faces would streak and show our real color underneath. And I remember saying to a makeup man once, ‘I don’t know why I have to be this color. … This is not my color.’ And he actually said to me as he was making me up, ‘What are you, racist?’ Well, talk about nonplussed. I didn’t even know what to say to him.”

The 1961 film further stereotyped the Puerto Rican characters by having them all speak with a broad accent (which sounds especially weird coming out of Natalie Wood’s mouth, and then she sings with Marni Nixon’s voice!). The 2021 remake tries to correct this in casting Afro-Latinx actors in the key Puerto Rican roles, so that will be interesting to compare.

West Side Story (1961)

There’s that brownface on George Chakiris (center) that Rita Moreno talked about.

West Side Story (1961)

Great dancing, at least.

For all the old cringes in the original film, one thing that’s still relevant is the racism expressed in the play’s text and songs. The white characters denigrate the Puerto Ricans, and the Puerto Rican characters point out the many ways that they’re discriminated against. The song “America” contrasts the opportunity of this country with the harsh realities that immigrants face when they get here. While the women sing in praise of their new country, the men point out that anything good in this country is only available to whites. There’s a bite in the music, and the whole argument feels unresolved. Because it is still unresolved in America.

West Side Story (1961)

EGOT, baby!

Far and away, the best thing about this movie is the dancing. At first, it’s a little jarring to see gangs “fight” each other through dance, but once you give into a willing suspension of disbelief and just admire the amazing precision, it’s great. And any time Rita Moreno is dancing onscreen, you’ll be entranced. She set a high bar, and we’ll just have to see if the 2021 version can meet it.

West Side Story (1961)





How do you feel about the original West Side Story? Will you watch the new version?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

22 Responses

  1. thedementedfairy

    I’ve always LOVED this film, have seen it on stage [which was basically a recreation of everything in the movie]. I’ll have to watch the new version, but I will be ready to cringe…

  2. Jillian

    It will definitely be interesting to see how the new one compares to this one. I know Rita Moreno has, at the very least, a cameo appearance. One thing I’m curious about is whether the ending will stay the same, or if they’ll do what was done with the ending of Ophelia.

  3. Sam Marchiony

    The original film is something I mostly watch for the dancing nowadays, especially the Dance at the Gym. I am totally stuck on what to do about the new film – I wanted to see it, especially for Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler, but then the allegations about Ansel Elgort having groomed/had a statutory relationship with a 17 year old girl put me off it. I’ve read in reviews that he’s the weakest link in the cast anyway, which makes it even more infuriating. And I have friends who are annoyed that even though the Sharks are all played by Latine actors now, many of the actors are not Puerto Rican. So, I’m still trying to figure out my position on it.

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    Yes because I too love musicals and the original felt off because of the casting of everyone but Ms Moreno.

    • MoHub

      A musical in which every actor was dubbed by a real singer. When Bernstein made a recording of the show years later, he used opera singers and said he always intended the show to be an opera.

  5. Lynne Connolly

    This is easily one of the greatest musicals ever written, but the film messed with some of it, so the suites and ensemble pieces aren’t as good. But then, the number “Cool” was written for the movie, so we have that.
    I love that the new movie has appropriate casting, as many of the stage productions did. I can’t wait to see it.
    The movie feels off to me mainly because of Richard Beymer. He is the vacuum at the centre of the movie. Plus, Natalie Wood and George Chakiris’s hideous pancake makeup.
    They could have had the original Anita on stage, Chita Rivera reprise her role, and moved Rita Moreno to Maria. That is a mouthwatering prospect.
    Having said that, I would have been sorry to have missed the sparks flying between Moreno and Chakiris.
    The movie isn’t all about Ansel Egort. It’s also about Sondheim, Bernstein and the entire cast of the movie. He was cast before the scandal broke, and he’s unlikely to get any more leading roles. F- him.

  6. Michael McQuown

    Mixed feelings. I was 21 when the movie came out, but I had heard a lot of the songs from the stage version at an appropriate age; I used the movie as a teaching moment for my 7 years younger brother. As far as the casting, I took the characters at face value. I lived in Ft Lauderdale when I was in high school, so mostly we saw rich Cubans of we saw any Latinos at all. You had to go a few miles south to see any part of that community, and mostly the better-off ones. At one point there was some gang warfare in Miami between two high schools, one of which was pro-Batista and one pro-Castro, but that didn’t reach all that far north . As to the remake, I don’t know. The casting may be more accurate, but often remakes lose something in the process.

  7. Addie

    I will say that for all it feels dated in some key ways, I think the music and dance is some of the most well-done (and easily among the most difficult to perform) of any Broadway musical. My Dad conducted a professional production, and it’s an insane score- it’s extremely experimental, playing with atonality and the very complicated beats found in mid-century Latin dances (mambo, cha-cha, son Cubano), but that’s what makes it so good.

    One thing that’s under appreciated is that the movie changed “America” a lot from the stage version. In the stage show, the Shark guys never get to sing at all. “America” is sung by the Shark girls, with one strawman girl being nostalgic for Puerto Rico and Anita and the other girls pushing her down. This version throws in even more shade at Puerto Rico than the few lines about hurricanes and systemic poverty in the movie version, with the arguments in favor of Puerto Rico all being surface-level like “I like pineapple and coffee blossoms.”

    The movie made it a two-sided argument where the girls represent what the US presents itself as and the hope they have of actually “making it” while the guys deliver some real sharp jabs at systemic racism and poverty of immigrants (or US citizens, which Puerto Ricans were even then, but they weren’t treated like it). And how the US economy benefits from this exploited class:
    “Skyscrapers bloom in America,/ Cadillacs zoom in America,/ Industry boom in America,/ Twelve in a room in America.”

    In the stage version, the strawman girl Rosalia cheerily says she’ll give her family in Puerto Rico a new washing machine, and the other girls tell her they’ll have nothing to wash there. In the movie version, one of the Shark girls brags she has her own washing machine in New York, and one guy retorts that she has nothing to wash. It’s the same problem (achieving a quality item but the user not having the wealth for it to be practical) but in the stage version it’s just a dig that Rosalia’s gains in the US will be useless for the poor schmucks in Puerto Rico, whereas in the movie it’s about how one of the Shark girls has achieved a step in “making it” but without materially benefitting by it, because the American Dream is a cardboard facade.

    Tbh, “America” in the stage show kind of sucks and is definitely uncomfortable, but “America” is the best number in the movie (with the mambo at the dance)

  8. Brandy Loutherback

    Rita Moreno is a goddess! Her performances are always magnetic! To top it all off, she’s a good person! I seriously can’t praise her enough!

  9. kathleenjowitt

    It’s definitely my favourite musical (the music is so, so good!) but I think the 1961 film never quite gets there for me. I’ll be interested to see the new one.

  10. Kathleen Norvell

    FWIW, Leonard Bernstein wrote the score and Stephen Sondheim provided the lyrics, which IMO, are the most “musical” and sing-able of everything he did. Jerome Robbins, who was a classical ballet choreographer did the dance numbers.

  11. Gray

    Jerome Robbin’s choreography is the best! That whole opening sequence… the dance at the gym … and Bernstein’s score! My fave is the number “Cool”. The music is complex with sections that sound fugal. And the choreography is fantastic.

    The new one has a good choreographer. Like you say, it well be interesting to see how things turn out.

  12. Jane

    A Leonard Bernstein score, a Stephen Sondheim book, and Jerome Robbins choreography. Three of the most monumental intellects of the 20th century, who collaborated to produce a groundbreaking theatrical experience that far transcended the theatre–indeed the movie brought the experience to all of us beyond the unreachable confines of Broadway., including me in a small country town. West Side Story took a Shakespeare classic and updated to the 20th century, intentionally including some controversial material that made mid-20th century people uncomfortable. Stop trying to presentize a work of pure genius, and appreciate the timeless talent of these groundbreaking artists. Enjoy it, for heaven’s sake. It changed the world.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      If Shakespeare can be updated for the 20th century, then West Side Story can be updated for the 21st. We always look at art through our modern eyes today. That’s human nature. We can’t stop time & say “let’s only enjoy this work as it was meant to be seen in the past.” Otherwise, we wouldn’t have West Side Story based on Shakespeare! Romeo & Juliet would only be allowed to ever be presented as it was first seen in 1597.

      Also, I don’t think West Side Story changed the world — the music was innovative in various ways, but the story absolutely reflected the world the musical was made in.

      • The Scrivener

        Here here! These stories are timeless! A new West Side Story doesn’t replace the Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins classic, but it will introduce a new generation of kids to their (grand)parents’ music.

        TBH, I always thought In the Heights should have been the West Side Story of the 21st century. I lived in Washington Heights in the late aughts and saw it on Broadway. There’s even a star-crossed lovers bit with Benny and Nina (downplayed in the movie compared to the stage show). And it pokes at major social issues, like gentrification and DACA (Sonny’s story was expanded for the movie, which I thought was a good move), rather than gangs (also something of a problem in Washington Heights at least while I was there, but I’m glad they side-stepped in the musical) I don’t think LMM went as far as Sondheim and Bernstein at making his audience uncomfortable, though.

  13. spanielpatter14

    I never noticed George Chakiris’ makeup; I was too busy thinking how handsome and fiery he was, and how terrifically he danced. It was a bit harder believing (for the purposes of enjoying the movie) that Natalie Wood was Puerto Rican; the accent definitely wasn’t that good; but she was trying; and the songs were great (I can’t remember if Wood’s voice was used or not).

  14. Elizabeth W Traylor

    I’m pushing back on the idea they were trying to make the film a period piece. The show debuted on Broadway in 1957, and the movie was released in 1961. That’s only four years apart– not enough for any of them to say, hey let’s set the story in the previous decade.

    And Addie: your analysis of “America” is SPOT ON, girl. Well done.

  15. Boxermom

    Today is Rita Moreno’s 90th Birthday! Happy Birthday to a living legend! :)