Saturday, September 12, 2020

West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic



West Side Story
The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Barrios
TCM & Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762469482
232 pages
June 2020

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When West Side Story was released in 1961, moviegoers had never seen anything quite like it. It threw out all conventions of what a musical should be, offering instead a young cast, an urban setting, on location shooting and ethnic strife. As author and musicals expert Richard Barrios writes, West Side Story was unique in "subject matter, unity of music and dance, overall presentation and seriousness of intent."

West Side Story was born out of a time when teenage culture was thriving and gang violence among youths was making headlines. Upon the success of Kiss Me Kate (1953), which gave Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew a modern twist, writer Arthur Laurents, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein came together to create the next big splash on the musicals scene. West Side Story would take Romeo and Juliet, strip it of its upper class stature and its pomp and circumstance to tell a story of lower class immigrant teens at war. The thumb biting Montagues and Capulets became the finger snapping Jets and Sharks. The musical was a hit on Broadway but when it came time to adapt it into film executives still thought the project was a gamble. What they didn't bank on was how enthusiastically audiences would embrace this vastly new and different approach. It all worked. The story, the music, the dance sequences, the urban backdrop, the colorful costumes, etc. And of course, the stars made a huge impact. There was Natalie Wood's effervescence, Richard Beymer's youthful innocence, Russ Tamblyn's spirited physicality, George Chakiris' elegant intensity and Rita Moreno's charming vivacity.


Look at that beautiful self cover!

An inside spread


Author Richard Barrios offers fans and musical enthusiasts a valuable companion to this iconic film with West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic. This is a soup to nuts exploration of the Broadway play's origins, it's transformation to film, the casting, the production, the release and the story's continued legacy. Barrios has a way with words and his elegant turn of phrase along with his thoughtful and informed insights make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. Mimicking the structure of the film, the book even has a prologue, intermission and epilogue. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes photos, film stills and publicity shots in both color and black-and-white. The biggest takeaways for me were how many obstacles had to be overcome in order to make the film and how there was a natural divide during production separating the cast in two camps. There were naturally those who were playing the Jets and those who were playing the Sharks. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins kept them separate as much as they could to build up natural tension. Then there were the Broadway veterans vs. the Hollywood Stars and team Robert Wise vs. team Jerome Robbins and other divisions that happened on set. It's fascinating to read how everything came together, despite so many challenges.

This the perfect gift for the West Side Story fanatic in your life. I am not even that big of a fan of the musical and I found this an engrossing read.



This is my fifth review for my Summer Reading Challenge.


Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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