This is not to say that “West Side Story” was a terrible film/musical. The music of Jerome Robbins here is splendid with one great number after another from “Tonight Tonight” to “Maria” and from “America” to “Somewhere.” The choreography is absolutely spectacular and the fight sequences are unique for their simultaneous embodiment of power and rhythm. Fortunately and unfortunately, there is such life and intensity in these sequences which is sorely lacking in the rest of the film.
However, in my opinion, the masterstroke of brilliance in the case of “West Side Story” lies in its setting. It takes a very real issue of its time i.e. rivalries among immigrant groups in New York City and sets it to a larger than life canvas which is simultaneously intriguing, entertaining and at times, awe-inspiring. It is a story set in a time when America was changing dramatically with more and more people from diverse cultures pouring into cities like New York and Los Angeles. It captures the immigrant experience and clash of cultures so well that perhaps that is the reason for its long lasting appeal.
This immigrant experience is perhaps best explored in the song “America.” The song is placed right after Anita is trying to explain to Maria’s brother that Maria has grown up and she can meet whoever she wants. He refuses to accept this argument and believes that Puerto Ricans cannot mix with Irish-Italians or any other group. They reach the terrace where several of their group members are there with their girls. Anita brings up the differences between America and Puerto Rico and quickly we are drawn into the song itself.
Perhaps the most obvious feature of the song is its picturisation. The choreography combined with the body language and costumes create a sexual tension which is palpable. The women ooze confidence and the men are clearly out to impress them. The element of the changing dynamic between the sexes is very well explored. The Puerto Rican women are freer in America. They can do what they want and wear what they want. They feel no longer tied down by the men. While they are still in a limbo caught between their past and their future, they are quickly becoming strong, independent women (perhaps best seen in the character of Anita). For the guys, while this is a turn on, it is also a source of insecurity as they realise that their women are no longer completely under their control.
Another aspect well explored is the issue of economic deprivation. Here, I don’t just mean the poverty but also the humiliation associated with menial jobs and the stigma associated with the immigrant status then. Of course most of it comes from the men who had to face the worst of it. While the women enjoyed a sense of empowerment in America, the effect was the opposite on men. Certainly, their lives were better here economically than their home country. But in that quest for greater economic status came a loss of the Puerto Rican way of life. Again, the women feel the pinch lesser than men who are affected not only by the individualism of America (as compared to the supposed warmth of their home turf), they also feel threatened (and perhaps, impotent) by their increasing insignificance individually, both in relation to society and in relation to their women. Hence, their urge to assert their control in more macho (and often, sillier) ways.
Ultimately, however, “America” is a joyous celebration of life in all its splendour. It brings out its constant changing nature and the need to enjoy it in every way possible. Despite their insecurities about their culture collectively and America’s impact on them individually, men and women take it in their stride and try to adapt to it and make the most out of it. It captures a time that no longer exists on a scale that is astounding. It is exciting yet insightful. That is precisely the reason why it marks a great moment in musicals and arguably, a great moment at the movies.