Taking a beloved Broadway musical and translating it to film can be a recipe for disaster. But take that recipe, add some spice (and a few nuts!) and you may just have an instant classic on your hands.
The latter is definitely the case for Francis Ford Coppola’s West Side Story. Kevin Bacon shines as Pepito, a tough and scrappy Jet with a secret. He plays opposite his smart, sexy love interest, the chick from The Godfather (not Diane Keaton, the one who shows her boobs then gets blown up). Their on-camera chemistry is one for the ages, making the story’s homage to A Midsummer Night’s Dream all the more powerful. In the opening number, Growing Up in New York, Kevin Bacon is snapping his fingers down an alley with his Jet gangmates, ready for a rumble with the Sharks. Suddenly, he sees the chick from The Godfather hanging out of a window from above. She’s pleading for him to turn around and stay out of the fight. What happens next, well… I think we can all guess pretty well.
Kevin Bacon is bouyed by the outstanding performance of – you guessed it – a young Warren Beatty. Beatty plays Tito, Kevin Bacon’s scrappy and sarcastic best friend and sidekick. Always chasing girls who won’t give him the time of day, Beatty’s performance in the fiery number A Tough Life for a Kid in New York completely steals the show. Ditto to Raquel Welch, who plays The Godfather chick’s best friend and “mother hen.” Welch’s raw emotion in Arriba! Arriba! Nueva York! speaks volumes not only about her relationship with the chick from The Godfather, but also the struggles of all Latinos during that era.
This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have its share of hiccups. Officer Jim O’Hanrahan, played by Peter O’Toole, falls flat, a rare miss for the talented actor. His brash performance in the usually tender and heartfelt Top O’ The Mornin’ To Ya, New York! feels awkward and forced. Things also get bogged down in side stories toward the middle of the film. For instance, Coppola takes us on a long detour showing Tito’s family arriving in New York and being harrassed by an Officer Seamus O’Hanrahan, none other than Jim O’Hanrahan’s father. While it’s an interesting backstory, it doesn’t serve the plot and destroys any sort of momentum that was building after Kevin Bacon and the chick from The Godfather get things steamy on the top of the Empire State Building.
Overall, the film is a charming and powerful take on the Broadway classic. Just remember to keep your expectations in check; while it certainly holds its own, this ain’t the same Andrew Lloyd Webber stage production we first fell in love with!
Gary Pascal is an actor, improviser, and sketch comedian from Calgary, Alberta. He is currently based in Chicago, IL, where he performs with the improv team RLM and the sketch duo Ray Bradgary. His other writing can be seen online in his gmail account under the folder “McSweeney’s Rejections.”