Book – West Side Story
Author – Irving Shulman
Year – 1961
Pages – 160
Genre – Fiction
Bought for me by Jacqui Campbell
It is coming up on the two year mark since I directed the wonderful West Side Story for DAODS. It is an absolute classic of a show, and I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of putting it all together. As a show gift, Jacqui got me the novelisation of the film, and it has been sitting on my shelf for a while now. I don’t know that I have read a novelisation of a film before, let alone one so reliant on storytelling through song, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
To those less familiar with the musical, it is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this time told through the two warring New York gangs of the Jets and the Sharks. When Tony meets Maria and instantly falls in love, a series of events is set in motion that changes everything. The show has some of the best music in any musical, and has been a favourite of mine for some time. The film itself won ten Oscars including Best Picture, so there is a certain pedigree to uphold when it comes to a novelisation – one that I wasn’t sure it could uphold.
So I was somewhat surprised when it gripped me from the first page. It is just wonderfully written. It is gritty and real, and gets to grips with the characters from the off. There is a certain feel of A Clockwork Orange or some similar book of the time, and it works perfectly. I couldn’t know the story much better than I already do, and yet I still had that all too important “must read on” feeling throughout – in fact I absorbed the whole book in just two sittings.
The book is somewhat darker than the stage show or the film, but this works perfectly. You can only make a musical so dark and still have it work properly – there are few light numbers in this one, but they are sorely needed – but a novel doesn’t need that light and shade. The Jets come across as downright bad, and this is genuinely essential to the story. They are not some plucky group of kids, but a gang that terrify the neighbourhood, and the novel lets this come through possibly even more than the show.
Irving Shulman wrote several other books, some of which were made into films, but it seems that there are not many in print still. Something for me to have a little look for when the second hand bookshops are back open.