Thoughts on West Side Story

by Velvet Belle Tree

The other night, we watched West Side Story on PBS.  Of course, we had both seen it before, but not for many years. 

In the introductory remarks, the commentator was standing in Lincoln Center. When the movie was filmed there in 1961, Lincoln Center had not yet been built.  It was then a slum, ripe for demolition.  It was chilling to realize that the buildings with broken windows, the rubble in the street and the general decay wasn’t a stage set, but was real.

I was immediately caught by the opening sequence.  The Jets are walking down the street — one jumps in the air, twirling, then another.  They’re walking, then they’re dancing.  It’s hard to tell which is which, the dancing is so natural.  And it’s so athletic and masculine.  I wasn’t surprised when I read that Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff, the leader of the Jets, had been a  gymnast in high school.

When Riff sings “When you’re a Jet,” he doesn’t come across as the leader of a street gang.  His face is open and smiling and he seems like a clean cut, all-American boy singing about his group of friends.  And similarly with the comic song “Officer Krupke.”  Hey, we’re just a bunch of fun-loving guys.  He might sing “we’re depraved because we’re deprived,” but he certainly doesn’t come across as depraved.

Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, was played by George Chakiris.  Surprisingly, Chakiris played the role of Riff in the London stage production.  I came away with the feeling that in another time, in another place, Bernardo could have been a real leader of men.

Although the gangs seem relatively harmless and almost innocent compared to today’s gangs, the prejudice of the times is made clear.  When the police officer, Lieutenant Schrank, tries to get the gang members to “make nice” and stop their rumble, his disdain for them is obvious.  But it is clear that he is on the side of the Jets, the white gang.  The Jets call the Sharks spics and the Sharks call them wops and polacks.  So while the Jets look down on the Sharks for being immigrants, the Jets are only one or two generations away from being immigrants themselves.

Natalie Woods’ Maria seems sweet and innocent but shows a real strength of character, though naiveté, when she insists that Tony stop the fight between the Jets and Sharks.  The girlfriend of Maria’s brother Bernardo is played by Rita Moreno.  She, and the other Shark girlfriends, show real spark and fiery temper and try to stand up to their boyfriends.  On the other hand, the Jets’ girlfriends are insipid.  The only girl that has a real role is Anybodies, a seemingly pre-adolescent tomboy, who wants to be one of the gang.  Their response is to tell her to wear a skirt.  But she shows real courage and daring.  One wonders what a girl like her could grow up to be if she’d had a decent upbringing away from gangs.

It is in the ending where Maria’s passion and strength really shows.  When Tony is killed and the members of both gangs congregate in the playground, she yells at them,  forbidding them to touch his body.  And then she accuses all of them of killing him, not with their knives or guns, but with their hate.  This reminded me of a line I love from Henry Kutner’s Fury, a story that takes place long after the Earth has been destroyed by atomic war:  “It wasn’t atomic power that destroyed Earth. It was a pattern of thought.”