West Side Story
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William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has served as the inspiration for countless interpretations of that classic story - from the 1936 film adaptation by George Cukor to the recent interracial musical romance, Save the Last Dance For Me (2000). But West Side Story (1961) is easily the most dynamic and visually exhilarating version of this famous star-crossed romance. From its imaginative staging (a poor neighborhood in New York City's West Side) to the gravity-defying choreography of Jerome Robbins to the beloved music score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story convincingly updates the Shakespeare story for modern times adding the topical issue of racial prejudice for dramatic impact. The Montagues are now identified as the Jets, an Anglo street gang, while the Capulets have been transformed into the Sharks, a rival Puerto Rican gang. The character of Friar Lawrence is now a neighborhood druggist and other updated parallels include Bernardo killing Riff (just as Tybalt killed Mercutio) and Tony killing Bernardo (just as Romeo killed Tybalt). Only the double suicide ending of Romeo and Juliet has been altered.
West Side Story enjoyed a first wave of success on the Broadway stage, with Carol Lawrence and Larry Kent as the leads. Typical of Hollywood, a new cast was assembled for the film version with the exception of George Chakiris, who played Riff, not Bernardo, in the London production. Initially, everyone from Marlon Brando (34 years of age at the time) to Elvis Presley was rumored to be interested in the role of Tony but it was Keir Dullea who originally tested for the part. When he refused to cut his long, wavy blonde hair so he would look like a gang member, former child actor Richard Beymer tested for the part and was hired. The role of Maria was also originally slated for a relative newcomer - Barbara Luna - but when the producers saw Natalie Wood test for the role they knew they had found their Maria. Unfortunately, Wood was not up to the operatic demands of the role. Even though she worked with Jerome Robbins sixteen hours a day to reach perfection and knew all her songs by heart, her voice was eventually dubbed by Marni Nixon, who would later dub Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). Beymer was not a professional singer either and his singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant. Initially Wood campaigned to have Beymer replaced because she didn't like him but the producers refused to honor her wishes and she kept her animosity in check for the remainder of the shoot.
As expected, the film version of West Side Story was an epic undertaking for United Artists so it was decided that two directors were needed. Hollywood veteran Robert Wise was chosen to handle the dramatic and technical end while Jerome Robbins would focus on the musical sequences. However, both men couldn't have been more different in temperament or how they approached their craft and clashed from the beginning. Robbins wanted everything to be completely faithful to his stage production and resisted any changes. In his autobiography, Oscar-winning composer, arranger, and musical director Saul Chaplin discussed Robbins' confrontational personality: "Jerry was by far the most exciting choreographer I had ever watched. He seemed to have an endless stream of exciting ideas...At the same time, he was such an insane perfectionist that it was impossible for any of the dancers to achieve the standards he demanded immediately. To make matters worse, he had a very low tolerance point. When he was displeased, he heaped such verbal abuse on the dancers that the place took on the atmosphere of a concentration camp. They didn't dance out of joy, they danced out of fear....I wondered how he ever got anyone to work for him until I asked one of the dancers. The reply was "How else would I ever get a chance to dance like that?" I didn't invent the notion, but it's further proof that being a successful dancer requires a certain degree of masochism."
Eventually, the studio was forced to remove Robbins when he caused the production to go over budget due to his refusal to stick to the arranged shooting schedule. Other problems included some dangerous location shooting (rocks were thrown at crew members from rooftops during filming around an abandoned section of West Sixty-eighth street) and ineffectual police surveillance while shooting on a rundown section of 110th Street (the crew eventually hired a local street gang for protection). Yet somehow Robert Wise completed the film, despite having to assemble Robbins' unfinished "Prologue" number, which became one of the most important sequences in the film.
When West Side Story opened theatrically, it quickly became the number two box office hit of the year (101 Dalmatians took the number one spot). Hollywood was wild about the film too and awarded it ten Oscars including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Color Cinematography, and Best Director. The latter category brought Wise and Robbins together again to accept the award though neither acknowledged the other in their acceptance speeches. As for Natalie Wood, she created quite a sensation at the Oscar ceremony by appearing with Warren Beatty (Their romance broke up the Natalie Wood-Robert Wagner marriage). Ironically, she was up for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Splendor in the Grass, not West Side Story, but lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women.
Producer: Robert Wise
Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Production Design: Boris Leven
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Costume Design: Irene Sharaff
Film Editing: Thomas Stanford
Original Music: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein (also songs)
Principal Cast: Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Simon Oakland (Lt. Schrank), Ned Glass (Doc), William Bramley (Officer Krupke), Tucker Smith (Ice).
C-152m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford