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It’s the rhythmic snapping that commands attention. People sometimes snicker at the notion of a fight between street gangs expressed through music and dance. But the snapping, laden with tension and the potential for violence, has achieved an iconic status in our popular culture.

Fifty years after its release, West Side Story proves to be a timeless classic. Styles may have changed, but the problems of prejudice, gang violence, and even forbidden love are still with us. The 50th anniversary Blu-ray/DVD combo pack features a brand-new restoration and bonus features that focus on appreciating the movie.

In Fair Verona Manhattan Where We Lay Our Scene

50 years later and we're still humming the tunes
50 years later and we’re still humming the tunes

Playwright Arthur Laurents, collaborating with composer Leonard Bernstein and songwriter Stephen Sondheim successfully updated Romeo and Juliet in a modern setting. Despite a three-year run on Broadway, West Side Story failed to capture the imagination of the general public. One bonus documentary on the Blu-ray suggests that people wanted escapism in musicals, not fighting street gangs and violent deaths (“where’s Oklahoma when you need it” says Chita Rivera, the original Anita on Broadway).

Perhaps the public was more willing to accept West Side Story as a movie because they were used to seeing gangster movies. Fifty years later, the reasons for the movie’s success seem obvious. It is expressive and alive with emotion. Best of all, it was made by talented professionals who put all of their energy into the film.

Two Households Gangs, Both Alike in Dignity

The Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks are the closest approximation to families in this scenario. The opening sequence, filmed on location in Manhattan, gives a real-world feel to their battle over turf.

Tony, the movie’s Romeo, is ready to move on from childish concerns over territory. If there’s a Romeo, there must be a Juliet. Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the leader of the rival gang, locks eyes with Tony across a crowded room. Neither Beymer nor Wood were trained as dancers or singers, but they are credible as the star-crossed lovers at the center of the story. They certainly lip sync with conviction. Beymer seems a little too happy-go-lucky, and not streetwise enough for a kid who co-founded a gang, but true love can do that to a guy. Wood radiates innocence and naivete as a new girl in America.

Where Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean

The heavy lifting, as far as the dancing goes, is done by rest of the Jets, the Sharks and their girlfriends. As the rival gang leaders, Russ Tamblyn (Riff) and George Chakiris (Bernardo), have plenty of dancing ability and charisma to spare. As Anita, Bernardo’s sexy girlfriend, Rita Moreno just about steals the movie.

It’s the big musical numbers that give West Side Story its vibrancy. Credit the work of co-director and choreographer Jerome Robbins (who choreographed and directed the play). His perfectionism would get him fired midway through filming, but it pays off in a thoroughly polished finished product.

In a review of the play, one critic amazingly complained that it had no hummable songs. As I work on this review, Tonight and America are fighting for space in my head. But in the end, it’s the snapping that stays with me.

Blu-ray Extras

The 50th Anniversary Edition comes with two Blu-ray discs and one DVD. Disc one has the movie in its entirety and bonus features that emphasize appreciation of the movie.

Choose “Pow! The Dances of West Side Story,” and the disc plays the entire movie, cutting away to mini-documentaries at the beginning of every dance sequence. People involved in the movie or in various productions of the play talk about the dances, and what the choreography conveys.

For a greater appreciation of the songs, Disc One has commentaries on each song by Stephen Sondheim. He admits that the lyrics to “I Feel Pretty” are silly. The comments are interesting, to the point, and are never long-winded. The “Music Machine Mode” (1:25) plays only the musical sequences.

Disc Two starts with “A Place for Us: West Side Story’s Legacy,” which is 30 minutes of praise for the movie and play, along with reflections on the influence of West Side Story.

The more interesting documentary is “West Side Memories” (55 minutes), which was made in 2003. It delves into the production of the movie, and includes interviews with Wise, Beymer, Moreno and Tamblyn. They are very diplomatic in talking about the personality differences between Robbins and co-director Robert Wise.

Also of interest is a discussion of the singing voices for the movie. Wood had intended to sing, but the producers opted to use Marni Nixon instead (Nixon also dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Deborah Kerr in The King and I). We get to hear snippets of Wood’s singing; her voice isn’t bad, but the producers made the right decision in dubbing her performance. Portions of Tamblyn’s and Moreno’s singing performances were also dubbed.

A storyboard-to-film montage (5 minutes) contrasts the storyboards with moments in the film. It could have been longer. Finally, there are four trailers.

The DVD has only the movie and the “Music Machine Mode.”

Picture and Sound

This re-release of West Side Story features a brand-new digital restoration of the movie. The visuals are very good, though a couple of problems stand out. Towards the end of the overture, at about 4:40 into the movie, the image fades to black for a few seconds before fading back in. The other noticeable mistake is at the beginning of the dance in the gym, where the color registration seems to be off. More nit-picky viewers might notice other errors, but overall it the movie looks and sounds great on our high-definition, five-channel home theater.

How to Use This Blu-ray

Watch the movie. Don’t skip the end credits. It will give you a chance to clear your head after the sad ending.

As the movie is 152 minutes long, you’ll likely want to save the bonus features for another night. Check out “West Side Memories” for the inside scoop on the movie and Sondheim’s commentaries for the inside scoop on the songs.