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Shakespeare & Beyond

West Side Story: 60 years as a cultural barometer

This fall includes yesterday’s anniversary of the 1961 West Side Story movie, the 25th anniversary of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Romeo + Juliet, and the premiere in December of a film adaptation of West Side Story by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg. In this blog post, Carla Della Gatta writes about the original West Side Story movie—and how it became the de facto representation of US Latinx in musicals for decades.

Watching Rita Moreno dance on a New York rooftop, singing about living in “America,” it is easy to forget that one of the most prominent depictions of US Latinx on stage or film for many years was also the most recognized Shakespearean adaptation in the world. The West Side Story movie premiered six decades ago on October 18, 1961, a highly anticipated film after the success of the 1957 Broadway musical.

Shakespeare’s famous prologue, “Two households, both alike in dignity / (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),” and the opening fight between the Capulet and Montague men are transposed to Jerome Robbins’s choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s music. It is a master class in adaptation: from the linguistic to the kinetic and musical, from a vague Verona setting to filming on the streets of New York. West Side Story’s opening dance number does not divulge the ending that the “star-crossed lovers” will lose their lives, setting up a different type of storytelling from the outset and augmenting the consequences at the end.


I’m curious why this leaves out the lyricist. There’s a place for Sondheim, somewhere.

Mark Hughes Cobb — October 20, 2021

I forgot to mention Sondheim! Could it be? Yes it could.

Carla Della Gatta — November 7, 2021

The author missed the musical’s gay subtext. Most of the artistic creators were gay, and they were looking forward to a time when all of us could just be ourselves. “Somewhere” has long been a staple of same-sex marriages and unions.

Craig Howell — October 27, 2021

Agreed – there is much to say about the queer underpinnings, in both theme and the musical’s afterlife as you mentioned, and in how the creators broke from established form in every way.

Carla Della Gatta — November 7, 2021

[…] of West Side Story, which premiered onstage in 1957 and as a film in 1961, which I wrote about in an earlier post on its anniversary. Luhrmann paid homage to West Side Story and Latin-ized the Capulets through the […]

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet turns 25 - Shakespeare & Beyond — November 2, 2021

[…] writer Carla Della Gatta (who also blogged recently about a related anniversary, the 60-year-old cultural legacy of West Side Story) encountered the movie while in college and clearly has a keen appreciation for it, and an astute […]

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