5 Reasons Now’s the Time to Watch West Side Story
Rent it for $3.99 on Prime Video et al.**
Somehow, despite being immersed in Bye Bye Birdie, Fiddler on the Roof, Grease, The Sound of Music, and so many other classic musicals, I was never properly introduced to West Side Story as a kid. I think I must have half-watched it as I cranked through the AFI100 as a teen Video Librarian, but I didn’t fully experience the greatest movie musical of all time until I was thirty-two years old! But hoo boy: Once you’ve had a taste of this movie, it bites you bad.
As some of my dearest can attest, all I wanted to talk about circa 2017 was West Side Story, and all Alexa was allowed to play in our house during the same span was West Side Story. The movie, about star-crossed lovers and their rival family-gangs in ’50s New York City, has given our family much musical joy, not to mention entry points into subjects from immigration to cultural appropriation and a boundless appreciation for Rita Moreno (Natalie Wood, less so). Make this the week to make sure your kids won’t be WSS late bloomers like I was, or treat yourself to a rewatch. If you still need more reasons to take in this all-time great, here are five.
You got swept up in In the Heights, and now need a chaser. If Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new stage-to-screen musical about Dominican immigrants’ New York experience blew your kids’ minds, they’ll drink up its 1961 Sondheim-songed predecessor like a bodega Coke during a heatwave. (Heights is still in theaters but starting tomorrow you can can also buy it VOD-style.) Heights and WSS make for a boffo double-feature. Or you can parcel out these two epics one act per night and keep your crew entertained for nearly a full peak summer week — see #3 for suggested stopping points.
There’s a new documentary on the movie’s sparkliest star. Triple threat Rita Moreno won the Academy Award for her performance as WSS’s Anita and now is the subject of this summer’s Rita Morena: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (PBS). Miranda (who else!) is an executive producer, with Chita Rivera, Gloria Estefan, Eva Longoria, and TBP hall of famer Whoopi Goldberg joining as talking heads. The doc is as much about the Latina experience in Hollywood as Moreno’s pioneering career. If your kids are theater kids or happen to enjoy showbiz bio-docs, they’ll like this; otherwise, it’s a worthwhile grownup watch.
’Tis the season. Only during the dog days do you have the time and emotional space to fully wallow in the angsty teen romance between Maria and Tony; dissect and memorize the balletic battles between the warring Sharks and the Jets; and explain to your kiddos the many layers that contribute to the enduring resonance of “Officer Krupke.” One approach is to divvy up the two-and-a-half-hour epic into a three-part miniseries:
The lengthy opening credits—which are stunning and confident, but make our 10-year-old WSS stan groan upon every viewing—through Tony’s solo of “Maria,” ending at 00:46:30.
The iconic “America” number through “Somewhere,” stopping at 01:51:17.
The final rumble through the tragic ending.
There’s an excellent WSS follow-up podcast for your summer road trip. On the Unspooled pod, actor/producer Paul Scheer and film critic Amy Nicholson talk their way through the classics. The WSS episode (#46)—which clocks in almost as long as the movie itself and will kill a good chunk of a long drive or lazy afternoon—is the best of the bunch: fun, insightful, and chockablock with historical tidbits. Here’s one I love: Elvis Presley was the first choice for the role of Tony, but turned it down as part of his campaign to cultivate a cleaner image. And here’s one that freaks me out: Stephen Sondheim was just 27 when he wrote the lyrics. Skip the introductory banter and start at the 11:30 mark. Please note: There are a couple of swear words in here, but I didn’t find them scandalous in context.
You’ll be prepped for the Spielberg remake when it comes out this winter! Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited WSS adaptation—starring Baby Driver, the human bullet from the original Hamilton, and one of the Tony-winning Billy Elliots—finally arrives December 10th! Watch the teaser here and try not to get chills.
**If my suspicions are correct, the much-anticipated Spielberg version is the reason HBO has very recently (and obnoxiously) stopped offering the original WSS for free on its platform. As the streamer-studio cabal has done with other originals upon the release of sequels, as well as Christmas movies, the VOD price may even climb as the hype heightens. Take it from Anita: Industry boom in America…
Bonus reading rec!
If you like behind-the-scenes drama, this New York Times Magazine cover story on the making of 2020’s short-lived* West Side Story update is a must-read. The production opened weeks before the pandemic shutdown, and we’ll never know its true potential.