West Side Story Sparkles in a Spectacular DVD Release
West Side Story surely ranks as one of the best musicals ever filmed. The list of talents involved is practically a Who's Who of the theatrical arts at mid-century: Leonard Bernstein composed, Jerome Robbins choreographed, Steven Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Heady stuff! And it was a critical and commercial hit to boot. The film garnered 10 Academy Awards and a whole passel of Golden Globes, and it ran forever in the theaters (that was pre-video, for all you younguns); in Paris, it ran for five years straight!
Nearly 40 years later, it still holds up. It may not cater to our more cynical '90s worldview, but musically and dramatically, it still works. Perhaps it shouldn't—singing, dancing juvenile delinquents ought to evoke laughter—but Bernstein's tough, jazzy score and (especially) Robbins' muscular dances have so much aggressive swagger that they don't destroy credibility one jot. From the opening dance sequence, showing the Jets dominating their turf, to the closing tolling of the timpani, music and dance create a credible, physical world.
It was brilliant of Robbins and Bernstein to set Romeo and Juliet in the inner city as a struggle between the assimilated children of immigrants and the newly arrived Puerto Ricans. It not only works dramatically, but America was ready to declare its own art forms, such as the musical, as being as legitimate as any from Europe. The creative team—a jazz-loving highbrow, a street-savvy choreographer, a brilliant lyricist, and a cast of young, energetic actors—made for a package that proved irresistible.
Director Robert Wise successfully expanded the stage play while keeping it true to its sources. True, he had to cast Natalie Wood, a non-singer, as Maria. (Marni Nixon supplied Wood's singing voice, as she had for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and would for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.) But the film's cast was packed with extraordinary talent—most spectacularly, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as Anita and Bernardo.
For the DVD, a transfer was made from a pristine 65mm master print. It looks spectacular. The film used a shockingly bright color palette, and the colors are incredibly deep and rich. A new digital soundtrack was also struck. (It says 5.1, but there's nothing happening in the rear. Fine by me.) It sounds very good, but shows its age in places: Somebody definitely rode the gain to keep hiss down, and you can hear splices and single-channel dropouts. This was state-of-the-art sound in 1961; it's held up amazingly well.
The eight-page booklet is surprisingly informative. For instance, I'd always wondered why Moreno's voice sounded so different in the "A Boy Like That"/"I Have a Lot of Love" duet; it's because her part was dubbed by Betty Wand. (Which raises but doesn't answer the question: Why would anyone want to dub Rita Moreno?)
The DVD also features the original theatrical trailer, which makes for an interesting contrast, as it has not been restored. It sounds tinny, and has almost constant scratches in the emulsion. I'm not saying MGM should have restored the trailer—I have no way of knowing if they could have found a better print. But it does show how well they've done by the film itself—it's a beautiful job of preserving one of the great film musicals.
It's ironic that, instead of breathing new life into the genre, West Side Story proved to be one of the last of its kind. It was always one of a kind—and so is MGM's DVD.