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West Side Story (1961) : re-telling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet tragedy

West Side Story (1961) is an energetic, widely-acclaimed, melodramatic musical – a modern-day, loose re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tragedy of feuding families, although the setting is the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1950s with conflict between rival street gangs rather than families. West Side Story is still one of the best film adaptations of a musical ever created, and the finest musical film of the 60s. It arrived at a time when the silver screen was realizing tremendous competition from TV and other genres of cinematic entertainment.

West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story (1961)

The ground-breaking, dynamic film of 1961 was based on the successful Broadway hit – a staged musical play (opening in 1957) by writer Arthur Laurents and directed/choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The play reworked the traditional love story material (of lovers that crossed racial/ethnic barriers) and translated it, in a radical, novel and revolutionary style for a musical, to include racial strife between rival New York street gangs (newly-arrived Puerto Ricans and second-generation Americans from white European immigrant families), juvenile delinquency and inner-city problems of the mid-twentieth century – in exhilarating musical and dance form. To capture the realism of the social tragedy and its urban environment, some of the film was shot on location in Manhattan (in abandoned West Side tenements around 110th St., and other settings), but most of it was actually filmed on sound stages with stylized, artificial studio sets.

The same tale has been told numerous times in past cinematic history, including:

  • Romeo and Juliet (1916) with vampish Theda Bara as Juliet
  • Romeo and Juliet (1916) with Francis X. Bushman as Romeo
  • George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) with elderly ‘teen’ lovers Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, John Barrymore as Mercutio, Edna May Oliver as the Nurse, and Basil Rathbone as Tybalt
  • Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954) with Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall in the leads
  • Paul Czinner’s Romeo and Juliet (1966), with ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn
  • Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), with appropriately-aged star-crossed lovers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey
  • Baz Luhrmann’s hip and updated William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes
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