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Setting the Scene: The Cars of “West Side Story”

What was the original Romeo and Juliet missing? Classic cars, of course.

By Audrey Davis
December 09 2021
West Side Story/20th Century Studios

Shakespeare never got the chance to write a sonnet about the beauty of a mid-century Ford or Chevy, but 
West Side Story sure can. Set in 1950s New York City, this iconic American musical retells Romeo and Juliet as the story of Tony and Maria, who are on opposite sides of a brutal turf war between rival street gangs. The original 1961 film is famous for its blend of realistic street scenes with dazzling Broadway choreography, meaning cars and the urban landscapes surrounding them have always been integral to this show. 

So, with Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake opening this weekend, do vintage cars make any more appearances? It would be hard to leave them out, considering how much of the dancing takes place in the streets. The film creates a distinct visual language for automobiles to play off of, subtly color-coding the Jets (a gang of white Americans) in cool grays and blues while the Sharks (their Puerto Rican rivals) are decked out in warm reds and yellows. 



In the original film from 1961, the cars we saw were often drab and monotone, like the ones that frame Bernardo and the Sharks as they skip down an alley in the film’s memorable opening scene. But when the Sharks and other cast members dance in the street in the new version, their pathway is flooded with station wagons and convertibles that are rocking some pretty wild and wonderful hues, common on cars of this era and bright enough to perfectly complement the Sharks’ costumes. On the other side of the tracks, the Jets’ more muted tones look somber against the backdrop of long, black Chevy Bel Air cop cars that are constantly tailing them. That Officer Krupke just doesn’t understand! 

Of course, West Side Story wouldn’t be the first movie musical to turn cars into scenery. In the opening number of 2016’s La La Land, Angelenos make the best of a gridlocked traffic jam by getting out of their cars and performing a comically optimistic song and dance on top of them. In order for the plucky spirit of this sequence to make sense, most of the cars need to be noticeably run-down, which is not unlike what we see in Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights (another notable 2021 movie musical adaptation). The cars in these films play an important role in shaping how we perceive the world of the show, especially shows that require a bit more realism. So, in the gritty, urban environment of West Side Story, cars are characters in their own rite, and we like them just as much as Tony and Maria. 

Related: Designer Garage: The Gorgeous Cars of House of Gucci



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