If you are not familiar with the story, West Side Story is a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. It focuses on two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, who are struggling to retain control of their small neighborhood in New York City's West Side. The Sharks are recent immigrants from Puerto Rico. The Jets are white, also of immigrant roots; several ethnic groups are represented, including Polish, Irish, and Italian. In the midst of this strife, two young people, Tony (Anton) and Maria fall in love. As in Romeo and Juliet, these outside forces doom their pure love.
Two performances stand out. Rita Moreno as Anita, is, as always, breathtaking. I'm familiar with Ms. Moreno from a number of her performances, and I was not surprised that she blew the roof off every time she performed. More surprising, to me at least, was the electrifying performance of George Chakiris as Bernardo. When he is on the screen, it is impossible to take your eyes from him. He is a lithe and powerful dancer; his movements beyond graceful, and with a masculinity that is palpable.
Natalie Wood is quite lovely here, and her Maria is sweet and innocent at the start. She is especially good in the final scene, when she confronts the two gangs. It's well known that neither she nor Richard Beymer (Tony) do their own singing. Maria is sung by the estimable Marnie Nixon (who also sang for Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, and Margaret O'Brien). Beymer is subbed by Jimmy Bryant (who also sang for James Fox in Thoroughly Modern Millie). When these pros do A Time for Us, I dare you to listen dry-eyed. (And it is as much the power of the singing voices as it is the skill of the acting).
Some interesting pieces of trivia were discussed in the playbill: The play was originally titled East Side Story, and the rival groups were to be Catholics and Jews. This was finally rejected, because it seemed to close to Abie's Irish Rose. Warren Beatty was in contention for the role of Tony - and Natalie Wood came with him when he auditioned, which is how she was selected. The film was shot in the area that is now Lincoln Center. The film crew was allowed to work just before the tenement buildings were demolished. I was also quite taken with the opening montage of shots of New York City, circa 1961.
With or without an orchestra, I highly recommend this excellent film. TCM has named it one of The Essentials, and it surely is. Wonderful acting, great music, splendid dancing. Here is a clip that features Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Enjoy!