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Column: ‘West Side Story’ as poignant as ever

Funny how some things in life deeply affect a person while others of seeming equal weight leave little impression.

Such has been my ongoing relationship with “West Side Story.”

In May 1962, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I attended the film at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The film, like the Broadway production before it, set Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to music in 1950s New York City.

Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, it was the Sharks and the Jets — two gangs populating NYC’s mean streets.


I was familiar with the music before I saw the film. My dad, a Broadway music aficionado, purchased the original cast recording shortly after the show’s debut in 1957.

I fell in love with it and memorized every note and lyric.

As I viewed the film in Hollywood, I was only a couple of weeks shy of my Costa Mesa High School graduation. It was a defining moment for me.

I watched “West Side Story” recently — from overture to final curtain — in the comfort of my family room. I’ve watched significant portions of the film a hundred times over the years but was finally savvy enough this time to put a box of tissues in my lap. I was going wire-to-wire with this jumbo jet of emotions for the first time since ’62.


I didn’t cry when I first saw the film at 17. I was with my girlfriend, after all, and I had a “manly” image to maintain. But, 60 years later — and with three daughters and six granddaughters in the fold — I’ve learned that it’s perfectly OK for a grown man to cry.

My wife accuses me of milking it, however.

The film starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. The music was by Leonard Bernstein.

In my opinion “West Side Story,” which received 10 Academy Awards, holds up as a Broadway musical to this very day. Not many musicals from that era — like “Flower Drum Song,” or “Annie Get Your Gun” or “Bye Bye Birdie” — can make that claim.

“West Side Story” resonates, I believe, because of its appeal to our humanity. It remains a hit because of its narrative, choreography and amazing score. Every performance projects unbelievable energy.

The production focuses on bigotry, and that continues to resonate with audiences.

And, here’s the emotional kicker: the three male leads die tragic deaths before the final curtain. How many romantic musicals could survive that?

In 1962, the film made a significant impression on this 17-year-old. It still does today.


Three of my granddaughters — ages 12, 15 and 17 — saw the movie for the first time this summer and were enthralled. The “waterworks” were repeatedly unleashed, especially during the final scene when Tony dies in Maria’s arms.

The girls were breathless.

I hadn’t thought much recently about “West Side Story” until the other night. I stumbled on a video from the BBC Proms of 2012. It contained a treasure-trove of snippets of Broadway musicals, performed by the John Wilson Orchestra and staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Sierra Boggess, an American, and Julian Ovenden, a Brit, performed the balcony scene from “West Side Story.”

It was magnificent.

You most likely know who Miss Boggess is. I didn’t. She originated the role of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway, and had starring roles in “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Love Never Dies” and “Les Miserables.”

But her performance as Maria was all chills for me. It seemed as though this current generation was doing a better job of interpreting the show than mine did 60 years ago.

I shared the clip with my granddaughters, and we emptied another tissue box.

In 1964 — two years almost to the day after seeing “West Side Story” — I was stationed with the U.S. Army outside of New York City. Because of that film, New York to me was the most romantic city on earth.


I’d later visit Paris, London and Rome but none would compare to NYC of 1964. And that was due largely to “West Side Story.”

I love the city. I love the show.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.