The Thematic and Stylistic Influence of West Side Story on Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet

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In his 1968 interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli seems determined to defy every possible public conception of the elements of a Shakespeare movie; essentially, it seems to be Shakespeare distilled for public consumption. This is not to imply that Zeffirelli is not authentic in his interpretation of the text and drama; rather, he is, in the truest sense, staging an adaptation of the ancient tragedy to the modern medium of film. Far from altering or rejecting the Elizabethan conventions of style, tone, and presentation as Baz Luhrmann perhaps did three decades later, Zeffirelli incorporates these elements seamlessly into the more contemporary genre of Hollywood romance, in the process infusing the oft-told story with a vibrancy and relevance that was perhaps unparalleled in filmed Shakespeare in 1968. A truly filmic production, this Romeo and Juliet features quick cuts between speakers, clarity of dialogue, notable yet natural insertions to the text and two leads with no Shakespearean credentials selected in a worldwide open casting call—in totality, an unabashed commercial production.

If, then, Zeffirelli’s film is meant to serve as an essentially genuine staging of Shakespeare’s work seen through the lens of the movie camera and the eyes of the twentieth century, it seems logical that the director would draw inspiration from a contemporary film production of the same narrative: Jerome Robbins’s musical West Side Story, released seven years prior to Romeo and Juliet. While West Side Story perhaps lacks the tragic momentum of Shakespeare’s construction and effortless poetry of his text, it easily rivals any other production in its youthful exuberance, celebratory visual style, and seemingly boundless kinetic energy. As a result of this enticing presentation, and overall accessibility, Robbins’s musical was perhaps the only available adaptation of Romeo and Juliet after which Zeffirelli could pattern his directorial vision; the only major precedents were Cukor’s 1936 production, led by a 43 year-old Romeo and a 32 year-old Juliet and Castellani’s 1954 production which, despite lush production and young actors, saw little commercial success. West Side Story, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1961 and had seen two separate Broadway revivals in the previous decade, had certainly entered the zeitgeist by 1968 and thus could reasonably serve as an influence for Zeffirelli. Also contributing to Zeffirelli’s interest in West Side Story was his longtime friendship with Leonard Bernstein, the musical’s composer—most notably, Bernstein conducted Zeffirelli’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1964, an adaptation noted for its modernization and popularization of the opera.

Thus, the influence is definite and noticeably acknowledged by Zeffirelli as early as the opening shot—an aerial view of misty Verona that recalls Robbins’s famous opening shots passing over Manhattan. Other direct parallels between the two films include the contrivance of a dance in two circles, divided by gender, as a means of introducing the two lovers and an ending funeral procession choreographed to include both houses, Capulet and Montague, Jet and Shark, following the bodies in a two-by-two line to imply some sort of peaceable reunion.

Ultimately, the freshness, boldness, and overall dynamism that both Zeffirelli and Robbins bring to their films can be traced to their common answer to what is perhaps the text's most pressing question: Who is responsible for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet? Is it fate, as the prologue's famous "star-cross'd lovers" (I.0.6) passage would suggest? Is it the lovers' lust, rashness, and impatience, defining them both as tragic heroes destroyed by their own impetuosity? Romeo certainly admits this quality upon confronting Paris in the tomb, making reference to his own condition as "a madman's mercy" (V.ii.67), and Juliet’s “Gallop apace”...
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