Classic Movies

West Side Story

West Side Story is an American musical romantic drama produced in the year 1961. It was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise.

The movie “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare’s,  is a big source of inspiration for most interpretations of West Side Story – from the film adaptation in 1936 by George Cukor to the present interracial musical romance called “Save the Last Dance For Me” in 2000. West Side Story is simply the most visually exhilarating and dynamic versions of this popular star-crossed romance. From its imaginative staging to the gravity-defied choreographic art of Jerome Robbins to the lovely music score of Leonard Bernstein with its lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

West Side Story is the pure update on the Shakespeare’s story for the new generation. It adds the topical racial prejudice issue for dramatic impact. The Montagues are now seen as an Anglo street gang called “the Jets”, while the Capulets were converted into a rival Puerto Rican gang called “the Sharks”.  Friar Lawrence’s character is now a neighborhood druggist and other updated parallels includes Tony killing Bernardo (just as Romeo killed Tybalt) and Bernardo killing Riff (just as Tybalt killed Mercutio). The only alteration is the double suicide ending of Romeo and Juliet.

The success story of West Side Story began on the Broadway stage, with Larry Kent and Carol Lawrence as the leads. With the typical pattern of Hollywood, a new cast was arranged for the movie version with the exclusion of George Chakiris, who played the role of Riff, not Bernardo, in the production done in London. At the initial stage, a rumor was spread that everybody from Marlon Brando (at the age of 34 that time) to Elvis Presley was interested in playing the role of Tony but Keir Dullea was the one originally tested to play the role. When he didn’t agree to cut his long and wavy blonde hair so that he would be looking like a gang member, Richard Beymer, a former child actor was tested for the role and was hired because he passed the test. Barbara Luna, a relative newcomer was to play the role of Maria, but when the movie producers came across Natalie Wood, they concluded that they have found their Maria. Unfortunately, Natalie Wood was not up to the task for the role. Despite her work with Jerome Robbins for sixteen hours each day to be perfect and she was able to sing all her songs by heart. Wood’s voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. Later on, Nixon also dubbed Audrey Hepburn’s voice in “My Fair Lady” in 1964. Beymer was not too good in singing, so his voice was eventually dubbed by Jimmy Bryant. Previously, Wood desired to have Beymer replaced because she dislikes him, but the film producers did not honor her wishes. She wasn’t happy about that, but she tried to control her animosity for the remainder of the film shoot.

Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (677400i)
‘West Side Story’ Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, 1961


As expected, the West Side Story film version was an epic undertaking for Artists that are united, so a decision was taken to use two directors. Robert Wise, Hollywood veteran was selected to handle the technical and dramatic end while Jerome Robbins would concentrate on the sequencing the music. However, the two men could not have been so different in controlling their temperament or how they handled their craft. They started clashing from the beginning. Jerome Robbins wanted to have full control of all pertaining to his stage production, so he resisted any changes. In his autobiography, Saul Chaplin, the Oscar-winning composer, and musical director discussed the confrontational personality of Robbins: “Jerry was the best choreographer I had ever watched. He had an endless stream of amazing ideas. At the same time, he was such a perfectionist that it was extremely hard for any of the dancers to attain the standards he demands. Worse still, his tolerance point is very low. Anytime he was annoyed, he will heap such a verbal abuse on the dancers that the atmosphere of the place becomes so hot. The dancers did not dance out of joy, they danced out of anxiety. I was wondering how he ever got someone to work for him until I spoke with one of the dancers. His reply was “It would be difficult for me to ever get a chance to dance like that. The notion was not invented by me, but it is a proof that for one to be a successful dancer, he/she needs to have a certain degree of masochism.”


As time went on, Robbins was removed from the studio when he caused the cost of production to go over budget because he refused to stick to the organized shooting schedule. Other challenges included some risky location shooting (rocks were falling at crew members from rooftops during the film shooting around a section of West Sixty-eighth street that has been abandoned) and police surveillance that are ineffectual were firing gunshots on the 110th Street rundown section (the crew later hired a local street gang to protect them). Robert Wise managed to complete the film, despite the task of assembling Robbins’ uncompleted “Prologue” number. This finally became one of the most vital sequences in the movie.

West Side Story became the number two hit of the year at the box office when it was opened theatrically. Hollywood was highly excited about the film and it was awarded ten Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Picture, Best Director and Best Color Cinematography. The latter category brought Robbins and Wise together again to accept the award. Natalie Wood created an amazing sensation at the Oscar award ceremony with her Warren Beatty appearance. Ironically, she came for the award of “Best Actress Oscar” for her outstanding performance in the movie “Splendor in the Grass”, not West Side Story. She lost the award to Sophia Loren.

In all respects, Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein musical recreation in the dynamic motion pictures is superbly achieved in West Side Story. The New York juvenile gang war drama which should be released in a less restricted and freer medium of the mobile photograph is now given a natural and range aspect on the big Panavision color screen, and the music and choreographic dances that expand it are magnified as a real sense-experiences. The strong combination of drama, music, and dance in West Side Story folds into a high-quality artistic whole.


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