West Side Story is one of the greatest musicals of all times, not because of its music—which is great—but because the songs and dance in this film drive the story forward.
Other musicals have done this too but, in my opinion, none as well as this 1961 film about gang rivalry and star-crossed lovers in the slums of New York. (Apologies: I never saw the original 1957 Broadway musical.) Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics have been imprinted on my brain for decades, but Jerome Robbins’ “sneaker ballet” choreography, that fuses formal dance movements with the body language of the street, is the reason I keep returning to it.
Non-verbal communication is also important in written storytelling. A lifted shoulder or the set of a jaw can telegraph a character’s motivation and intent more deftly than a line of dialogue. The stronger our emotions, the more our bodies react to them, and the less control we have over our movements. I keep looking for ways to express characters’ feelings and thoughts through their body language. It’s difficult to master, though, and often easier to rely on dialogue. Which I find myself doing all too often.
It goes without saying that I’m looking forward to Steven Spielberg’s revival of West Side Story, scheduled for release by 20th Century Fox this December. The choreography has been reinvented by Justin Peck, resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet and winner of a Tony Award for his work on Broadway’s Carousel. Rita Moreno, who earned an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Anita in the 1961 film, appears as a new character at the age of 88.