‘West Side Story’ at 50
by Nancy Ford
Most of the time, stereotypes exist for a reason. One of the greatest stereotypes of all time is that Broadway musicals—high-quality, enduring musicals—are the domain of gay men. If ever there was a proof-in-the-pudding of said stereotype, it would be West Side Story.
From WSS choreographer Jerome Kern to lyricist Stephen Sondheim to composer Leonard Bernstein to playwright/director Arthur Laurents, all four principal creators of the greatest Broadway musical-then-movie of all time were/are bi or gay men. Only Stephen Sondheim, now 82, remains alive to celebrate the release of his masterpiece, now half a century old.
And what a celebration West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition is.
Produced in 1961, WSS went on to win 10 Academy Awards, setting a record at that time for most Oscar wins by one film in movie history. The richly restored DVD and Blu-ray revisit the story of young lovers whose devotion is misunderstood and condemned by tradition and society, leading to tragic consequences. Gay much?
What is WSS’s gayest moment? When Tony (Richard Beymer) and his best friend, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), evaluate the depth of their friendship (“Womb to tomb, sperm to worm. . . .”)? When the switchblade-wielding Jets and Sharks gangs break into dance instead of slicing each other to ribbons? Or is it when the misunderstood Anybodys (Susan Oakes), the tomboyish and likely lesbian teen girl, yearns for the respect of her fellow gang-members?
Clocking in at almost three hours (and that’s not counting bonus features), WSS requires a bit of commitment from the viewer. But, even after 50 years, it’s a worthy one, to say the least; it’s one of few gay stereotypes that actually deserves our commitment. (Yes, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, we’re looking at you.)
Available November 15 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment (foxconnect.com).