When I was younger and growing up in a typical council estate house, where the walls were very thin, I can remember hearing the songs of West Side Story wafting across the landing from my older sister’s bedroom, to where I would be sat in the doorway of my bedroom, listening to the songs and my sister singing them, no doubt with hairbrush in hand. When she was out, I would steal across into her room, take the album and carefully play it on my own record player. I would be lost in the songs, word perfect on them all and falling in love with Tony.
I couldn’t believe it when one day, the film was shown on the television, now not only did I have the words and music, but I could see the characters, Tony was even more handsome that I had imagined. Of course, when the age of video came along, this was one of my first purchases, now I could watch it whenever I wanted.
As soon as I was old enough, I booked to see it at a theatre, it was our local theatre with a local drama company, but I loved it and years later, I would watch it in London with my husband.
The musical is based around William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with Tony and Maria playing the lead characters. It explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs.
The Jets are an American gang and are led by Riff. Ice is second in command and the rest are: Action, A-Rab, Baby John, Big Deal, Gee-Tar, Mouthpice, Snowboy, Tiger and Anybodys.
Tony was a former member of the group and Riff’s best friend. There are also the girlfriends of the Jets: Velma, Graziella, Minnie, Clarice and Pauline.
The Sharks are from Puerto Rico and their leader is Bernardo. His best friend is Chino and Pepe is the second in command. Other members are: Indio, Luis, Anxious, Nibbles, Juano, Toro and Moose. Bernardo’s girlfirend is Anita.
(Yes, I don’t know how they came up with all these names!)
Tony falls in love with Maria at a local dance, who is unfortunately Bernado’s sister. The Jets and the Sharks meet under a highway and Bernardo fights with Ice, Tony intervenes and attempts to make peace, but Bernardo provokes Tony and Riff jumps to Tony’s defense. Riff and Bernardo draw their switchblades and they get into a fight. Tony again tries to intervene but subsequently this leads to Riff being fatally stabbed and Tony then kills Bernardo.
A grieving Anita is angry with Maria for loving Tony, but soon realises that Maria loves Tony as much as she had loved Bernardo and she agrees to pass a message on to Tony for Maria. Whilst she is trying to pass the message, she is accosted by The Jets and she tells them that Chino has shot Maria.
Tony gets this message and he walks the streets looking for Chino and when he finds him, he begs Chino to shoot him too. Tony sees Maria alive, just as Chino shoots him. The film ends with all the members of each gang assembling either side of Tony’s body and they carry Tony away, thus signifying that the feud is over.
The musical score on this film is the best I have ever heard, with perhaps my favourite being the Tonight Quintet, where the whole cast is singing, the video is below. I love Gee, Officer Krupke, for the comedic element, although I do notice that Ice is too cool to join in with this song… and obviously America, the upbeat song about Puerto Ricans living in America. The song that I feel was ahead of its time is Cool, sung by Ice after Riff is killed – I don’t think it ever got the recognition it deserved.
The 1961 film adaptation of the musical was the second highest grossing film of the year in the United States. It won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture. Rita Moreno who played Anita, was the first Latina actress ever to win an Oscar. The album won a Grammy Award.
So there you have it, my favourite musical. I have to give honourable mentions to Grease, Saturday Night Fever and The Rocky Horror Show, each of them so very good in different ways.
What’s your favourite musical? Modern, yesteryear, tragic, funny? Let me know in the comments below.