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DVD Picks: 'West Side Story'

<strong>'Tonight' Music:</strong> Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood played Tony and Maria in the 1961 film of <em>West Side Story.</em>
Fox Home Entertainment
'Tonight' Music: Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood played Tony and Maria in the 1961 film of West Side Story.

Time now for a home video recommendation from movie critic Bob Mondello. This week he's looking back a half-century, to a ground-breaking musical that won ten Oscars, West Side Story.

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Clean-cut delinquents and pressed jeans — giggle all you want, you know the moves. Finger-snaps, switchblades, Romeo And Juliet as a gang war pictured in colors that wouldn't be out of place in Bollywood. The streetscape's real, the acting and lip-synching crazily artificial. In 1961, West Side Story was thought shattering; today the Glee version looks tough by comparison.

Still, this is the one that broke the mold — first on Broadway, then at the movies, where the trick was to make it feel real and still let it sing. Watch how Jerome Robbins eases dance moves into the movie's start: A bunch of hoods walking down the street, snapping fingers like they might in any movie. Then you notice a shoulder roll, two guys turning their heads at the same time, an arm stretching, then a leg, and before you know, it they're all soaring.

In commentaries, producers remember how even after the two-year Broadway run, everybody was still claiming Leonard Bernstein's music was unhummable, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics too tricky. But just weeks after the movie came out, "Maria," "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart" and other songs felt like standards.

Among the four-disc set's Blu-ray extras: Stephen Sondheim knocking his own lyrics as overly writerly, and a whole documentary focusing on the film's legacy — everything from a solo harmonica version of the score to the spoof West Bank Story, which turns Anglos and Puerto Ricans into Arabs and Israelis.

A few people recall seeing Punk Side Story, and then of course there's Glee, spending most of this season so far in a multi-show buildup to their high-school production of West Side Story,, timed to peak just as the 50th anniversary DVD is released — an unsubtle but impressive bit of product placement for Fox Home Entertainment, right there on Fox TV.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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