West Side Story (1961) – A Masterclass in Musical Adaptation

The Timeless Brilliance of West Side Story

In 1964, highly regarded communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” emphasizing the profound influence of the storytelling medium itself. This concept holds true when bringing a Broadway musical like West Side Story to the silver screen. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman and directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins faced the challenge of translating Auther Laurents’ iconic musical into a captivating cinematic experience. Their success in capturing raw performances, timeless themes, and catchy melodies resulted in West Side Story (1961), a film that continues to dazzle audiences fifty years later.

A Shakespearean Adaptation

West Side Story, like other timeless works such as 10 Things I Hate About You and The Lion King, draws inspiration from the renowned playwright William Shakespeare. The plot revolves around two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, whose escalating conflict hinders the budding romance between Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader. This premise draws parallels to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, exploring themes of forbidden love, familial disapproval, and the social tensions prevalent during that time.

The Politics and Aesthetics of West Side Story

While West Side Story subtly delves into political themes, its visual aesthetics are anything but understated. Born from its origins on the stage, the film brings the grandeur of live performances to the screen, incorporating abstract set pieces and vibrant costumes. The transition from stage to screen allows for a slight adjustment in approach, but the vibrant colors remain a prominent feature. Scenes are bathed in greens, purples, and, most notably, reds, intensifying the characters’ emotions and reinforcing the film’s core themes.

Auther Laurents effectively modifies Shakespeare’s original narrative by highlighting the racial tension between the Jets and the Sharks. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, wherein the feud stems from family rivalry, West Side Story addresses the explicit racial prejudice between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The struggles faced by both gangs due to their nationalities contribute to a greater understanding of their motivations and the complex issues driving their conflicts. Toxic masculinity is also explored, demonstrating how societal pressures and expectations escalate tensions between the gangs.

The Masterful Balancing Act

In terms of balancing themes and characters, few musicals can rival the finesse of West Side Story. It artfully combines character-driven moments and impactful musical numbers to convey its messages. While recent adaptations like Dear Evan Hansen have struggled to translate stage success to the screen, West Side Story serves as a shining example of how musicals can handle complex themes with nuance.

With an upcoming remake helmed by the legendary Steven Spielberg, viewers eagerly anticipate whether the new iteration can match the achievements of the original. The remake boasts a screenplay by Oscar nominee Tony Kushner, a breakout performance by Rachel Zegler, and stunning production design by Rena DeAngelo. These elements promise a visually enthralling experience, although the original film’s soaring heights may remain unmatched. Regardless, West Side Story will forever hold its place as one of the finest movie musicals, offering a glimpse into the Golden Age of Hollywood.


West Side Story (1961) continues to captivate audiences with its raw performances, timeless themes, and unforgettable melodies. The successful translation of the Broadway musical to the silver screen showcases the expertise and creative vision of screenwriter Ernest Lehman, directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, and the talented cast and crew involved. The film’s exploration of racial tension, toxic masculinity, and the devastating effects of hate remains as relevant as ever.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why is West Side Story considered a timeless masterpiece?

West Side Story’s enduring appeal stems from its ability to tackle complex themes, such as racial prejudice and toxic masculinity, through captivating performances and memorable musical numbers. The film’s relevance and powerful storytelling continue to resonate with audiences today.

2. How does West Side Story differ from its Shakespearean source material?

While West Side Story draws inspiration from Romeo and Juliet, it diverges by shifting the conflict to one fueled by racial tensions between the Jets and the Sharks. This adaptation allows the musical to explore the socio-cultural landscape of New York City during the 1950s.

3. What sets West Side Story apart from other movie musicals?

West Side Story’s ability to balance its thematic depth with captivating characters and musical performances sets it apart from other movie musicals. It skillfully navigates topics such as prejudice, love, and the consequences of violence, creating a truly immersive and emotional experience.

4. How does the upcoming West Side Story remake compare to the original?

The upcoming West Side Story remake helmed by Steven Spielberg offers a fresh take on the beloved musical. With a talented cast and updated production design, it presents an opportunity to reimagine the story while honoring the original’s legacy. Time will tell if it can live up to the heights of the 1961 film.

5. Why should viewers consider West Side Story essential viewing?

West Side Story remains an essential film for anyone interested in exploring the Golden Age of Hollywood and the evolution of cinema. Its enduring popularity and impact on the musical genre make it a must-watch for both fans of classic films and those seeking thought-provoking storytelling.