A musical masterpiece bursting with cinematic magic
Through artfully entertaining filmmaking, “West Side Story” transformed a hit Broadway musical into a true cinematic masterpiece. Dynamic, vibrant, and emotional, this movie musical explodes with magic in just about every way, and was deservedly rewarded with a near clean sweep of Academy Awards – winning ten of its eleven nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, two for acting, and an array of technical awards). The American Film Institute (AFI) named it the 2nd Greatest Musical, the 3rd Greatest Love Story, and the 41st Greatest American Movie of All-Time. In my childhood, it was one of only a few films that was an event every time it aired on television, and to this day it hasn’t lost any of its potency. Groundbreaking and inventive, it has influenced many filmmakers, and even inspired director Steven Spielberg to do a remake which premieres in Los Angeles tonight.
“West Side Story” was made towards the end of the studio era, when television was grabbing a bulk of movie audiences and studios could no longer afford to turn out big-budget musical after big-budget musical. The heyday of the movie musical was over. Feeling it was a safer financial bet, there was a turn towards adapting hit Broadway musicals to the screen, such as "Gigi", "The King and I", "Oklahoma!", and later "My Fair Lady", "The Sound of Music", "Funny Girl", and “Cabaret”. “West Side Story” is one of the best.
It began as a 1957 Broadway musical, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Ten years earlier Robbins was asked by a friend auditioning for the part of "Romeo" in a production of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet”, to read the play and Robbins began thinking about setting the story in present day. He approached playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein with the idea. Laurents was itching to write his first musical, and Bernstein was longing to bring a modern, accessible approach to classical music. Together they came up with placing the story among New York City’s gangs by changing Shakespeare’s “Montagues” and “Capulets” into gangs named “The Jets” and “The Sharks”. Thus, “West Side Story” is a modern twist on a Shakespeare classic. Those of you familiar with “Romeo and Juliet” should have fun discovering the creative ways in which the story was adapted. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was enlisted to provide lyrics to Bernstein's music.
The show's pioneering style and groundbreaking use of dance and music stunned critics and audiences, and it initially ran on Broadway for 732 performances, followed by a national tour, another run in New York City, and two years in London. Film director and producer Robert Wise was enlisted to direct the film, and Robbins was hired as co-director and choreographer (Robbins directed the musical sequences and Wise directed the drama). Screenwriter Ernest Lehman was hired to adapt Laurents’ stage book into a screenplay, and Lehman earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination for this film (the film’s only nomination not to take home an Oscar).
The film opens with a mesmerizing prologue – the only scene shot on location and not on a set. It begins with extraordinary aerial shots of Manhattan as we hear three musical notes repeatedly being whistled. We end in a playground and see seven guys snapping their fingers and making it known that this is their territory. These are "The Jets”, and the whistle is their signal. As they cruise the neighborhood, dance moves begin to emerge, suddenly moving in unison as the music comes to a spine-tingling climax. They are stopped in their tracks by a guy they taunt named “Bernardo”, the leader of a Puerto Rican gang called "The Sharks". Through dance, the two gangs battle and bait each other for control of the neighborhood until the arrival of the police. In just under nine minutes, the prologue spectacularly sets up the film’s urban location, rival gangs, stylized tone, and imaginative use of dance. We are then introduced to “Tony”, founder and former member of “The Jets”, who soon meets “Maria”, sister of “Bernardo”. “Tony” and “Maria” fall head over hells in love, and as conflicts between the gangs ensue, powerful looks at bigotry, love, and how hatred begets hatred arise.
While practically everything in this film shines, its pièce de résistance is its dancing. Robbins’ choreography for “West Side Story” (both on stage and screen) was revolutionary. He used dance to enhance and create characters, forward plot, as stylized fighting, and never just for the sake of dance. Working closely with each dancer on character development, he challenged them to find meaning behind their moves until he was satisfied (Robbins had a reputation for being tough). As a result, every dancer in “West Side Story” is recognizably distinct. Because of his perfectionist nature, Robbins altered things during filming and took retake after retake. This caused the film to go over-budget and over-schedule, and after 60% of the film was shot, the financiers fired him. It was a devastating blow for him and the dancers who relied heavily on his input about their dancing and acting. After filming ended, Wise brought Robbins back to help edit the film, and rightfully both are credited with directing. They both won Best Director Academy Awards, the first time that particular award was shared. In addition, Robbins was also awarded an Honorary Oscar for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film. Any interviews I've seen with dancers who've worked with Robbins all say he was difficult, but working with him was one of the highlights of their careers. Perhaps because of being fired, he never directed another film.
Jerome Robbins began as a dancer, studying modern, ballet, Spanish, Asian and other forms of dance. He began performing in the Yiddish Theater, made it to Broadway in 1938's "Great Lady", and joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1940. In 1944, Robbins created "Fancy Free", a ballet for the Metropolitan Opera in 1944, commissioning Leonard Bernstein to write the score. After that, Robbins started choreographing for Broadway beginning with 1944's "On the Town" (also with music by Bernstein), and began directing with "Common Ground” in 1945. Thus, an illustrious Broadway career began which earned him five Tony Awards out of nine nominations (both as a director and choreographer), including one for choreography for "West Side Story". Other shows he directed and choreographed include "Peter Pan", "Bells Are Ringing", "Gypsy", "Fiddler on the Roof", and "Jerome Robbins' Broadway". Along with his Oscar and Tony Awards, his other awards include an Emmy Award, a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor, and a National Medal of Arts. In 1950 he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC - which I talk about in my "High Noon" post), admitted he had past affiliations with communist organizations (not uncommon in the 1920s and 1930s), and reluctantly named names of other supposed communists because of threats made to expose his homosexuality if he did not comply. Robbins was one of the first members of the famed Actors Studio. He never married, and reportedly had a relationship with Montgomery Clift, among others. Jerome Robbins died in 1998 at the age of 79.
Robert Wise worked as an editor before becoming a director, and one need look no further to see the tremendous influence of his sharp editing skills on his directorial style than the scene in "West Side Story" when "Tony" and "Maria" meet at the dance. His choice of transitions are astounding, from the opening with "Maria" spinning and transforming into one of the dancers, to how he cuts between the rival gangs and the entire crowd. Wise mastered how to tantalizingly show action through edits, camera placement, lighting, and even special effects. The way in which he shows "Tony" and “Maria" seeing only each other at the dance is jaw-dropping. Along with his shared Oscar win with Robbins, Wise also won the Best Picture Oscar as the film's producer.
Robert Wise began his career as an assistant sound effects cutter and editor, eventually becoming a solo editor on such classics as “Citizen Kane”, "Bachelor Mother”, and “The Magnificent Ambersons”. His directing debut was 1944's "Curse of the Cat People". A versatile talent, he jumped from studio to studio and from genre to genre in a career lasting approximately sixty years, directing about forty films. He earned one Best Editing Oscar nomination for "Citizen Kane", three Best Director and three Best Picture (as a producer) nominations, and won two additional Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Picture for "The Sound of Music") in addition to his two "West Side Story" wins. In 1967, Wise was awarded the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work. A sampling of his other notable films include "Executive Suite", "The Desert Rats", "I Want to Live!", "The Haunting", "The Sand Pebbles", "Somebody Up There Likes Me", "Two for the Seesaw", and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. He was married twice. Robert Wise died in 2005 at the age of 91. You can read more about him in my posts on “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Citizen Kane”.
The electrifying songs in “West Side Story” are a marvel, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by newcomer Stephen Sondheim. Bernstein's magnificent score mixes Latin rhythms with American jazz as it evokes hope, love, anger, and unrest. Filled with complexities, unusual duets and quintets, it both reflects and creates the world of “West Side Story”, with songs like the romantically hopeful “Somewhere”, the spirited “America”, and the spectacular dance number, “Cool”. The music for “Cool” darts around in jazzy disarray, coming together as the disjointed "Jets" becomes unified. This is grown-up music. Sondheim’s perceptive lyrics resonate with joy, insight, humor, and pain, stunningly revealing the passions of the characters that sing them. Three of the film’s songs made it to AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs in American Movies: "Somewhere" is #20; "America" is #35; and ”Tonight" is #59. One of my absolute favorites, "West Side Story’s” Grammy Award winning soundtrack spent 54 weeks at #1 on Billboard's stereo album chart and twelve weeks at #1 on their mono album chart, and it holds the record for placing at #1 more weeks than any other album in history. You can read more about Leonard Bernstein in my post on “On the Waterfront” – the only complete original film score he ever composed.
The stage version of “West Side Story” marked the Broadway debut of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who went on to becoming one of the Goliath’s of musical theater, often credited with reinventing the American musical. In addition to “West Side Story”, he also provided lyrics for the award-winning musical, “Gypsy”. The first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics was 1962's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", followed by other classic musicals including "Sweeney Todd", "Company", "Into the Woods", "Follies", and "A Little Night Music". Sondheim composed two film scores, one for 1974's "Stavisky" and the other for 1981's "Reds". His honors include eight Tony Awards out of fourteen nominations, a special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, fifteen Drama Desk Awards out of twenty-three nominations, a 1993 Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. He's also won seven Grammy Awards (with seventeen nominations), and a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985 for his musical, "Sunday in the Park with George”. A gay man, he married his husband in 2017. Sadly, Stephen Sondheim died just over a week ago on November 26, at 91 years old. A major loss to the world of musical theater.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it is important to remember that films are a product of their times and cannot be judged fairly for political correctness by today’s standards.“West Side Story” was made while the studio system was still in place, a system that was movie star driven, relying on star popularity to attract box-office. As a result, actors often played ethnicities other than their own. Though frowned upon today, it was a common practice for decades. California-born Natalie Wood (of Russian descent), staring as the Puerto Rican "Maria", is one of those cases. Wood was a major star at the time (the only star in the film), and "West Side Story" helped catapult her into one of the top stars of the 1960s. As "Maria", Wood radiates a youthful combination of innocence, rebellion, and charm, lighting up every scene in which she appears. “Maria’s” emotional ride is the one the audience takes, and Wood doesn’t have a false note – ever. Scenes such as when she frustratingly asks “Anita” to lower the neckline of her dress for the dance, her energetic high of being in love singing “I Feel Pretty”, or her devastation and longing after “Chino” brings news of the rumble are all riveting thanks to Wood’s effortlessly sparkling talent. And her final scene carries enough genuine deep emotion to elicit chills. Wood prerecorded her songs with the hopes (but no guarantee) her singing voice would be used in the final film. In the end, the film's music supervisors (Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green) dubbed her voice with that of singer Marni Nixon (except for Wood’s voice heard in the reprise of "Somewhere" at the film’s end). “Maria” remains one of Wood’s most famous roles. You can read more about Natalie Wood in my post on her earlier classic, “Rebel Without a Cause”. Please check it out.
A word about Marni Nixon, one of film's best known ghost singers. She dubbed the singing voices of actresses in very famous musicals, such as Deborah Kerr in "The King and I", Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady", and even added high notes to Marilyn Monroe's rendition of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". In addition to dubbing Wood in “West Side Story”, Nixon also dubbed Rita Moreno’s singing in the song "Tonight". She also provided singing for some minor characters in several Walt Disney animated films, including "Mary Poppins", "Alice in Wonderland", and the singing voice of "Grandmother Fa" in “Mulan”. In addition, Nixon appeared on TV, in opera, on Broadway, and in films, including playing "Sister Sophia" in the film "The Sound of Music", in which she sings the song "Maria". She was married three times, and one of her children was singer/songwriter Andrew Gold. Marni Nixon died in 2016 at the age of 86. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting her a few years before her death.
Richard Beymer stars as “Tony”, co-founder and former member of “The Jets”, in love with “Maria”. “Tony” is truly a romantic figure, and Beymer is often criticized for being too soft as a former gang member. What he lacks in brutishness he makes up for in tenderness. Watch the way he looks at and kisses “Maria”. He is utterly romantic. His believable starry-eyed quality makes the scene in which “Tony” and “Maria” exchange vows and sing “One Hand, One Heart” exquisitely touching. He and Wood have wonderful chemistry, which is a bit of a surprise when you learn that the two didn’t get along or even speak while on the set. Beymer was at a disadvantage from his fellow cast members as he started filming the day after Robbins was fired. Unlike the others, his character development and movements were not privy to Robbins’ genius (and Wise was known not to offer much acting guidance in this film). Beymer also worked alone alongside a cast unified in shock and loss. I’ve seen this film countless times and have come to appreciate how much hope and romance he brings to the film. For "West Side Story", Beymer received Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor and as the Most Promising Newcomer of 1961.
Iowa-born Richard Beymer relocated with his family to Los Angeles when he was two, and began appearing on television when he was eleven. His first film was Vittorio De "Sica's "Indiscretion of an American Wife" in 1953, opposite Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift. He soon gained acclaim as "Peter" in "The Diary of Ann Frank" in 1959. That role, and "Tony" in "West Side Story" are his best known film roles. In 1964, he put his career on hold, and became involved in the Freedom Summer Project to help register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi. He filmed it and made the award-winning 30-minute documentary "A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer". In 1973, he wrote, directed, and starred in the feature film "The Interview". His next major acting role was as "Benjamin Horne" in the 1990 TV Series "Twin Peaks", reprising the role when the show continued in 2017. Though he primarily worked on TV, other films from his 64 film and TV credits include "The Longest Day", "Five Finger Exercise", "The Stripper", and "Foxfire". He never married and has managed to keep his private life very private. As of this writing, Richard Beymer is 83 years old.
Russ Tamblyn plays “Riff”, the leader of "The Jets" and “Tony’s” best friend. Trying to keep his gang as rulers of their turf, "Riff" comes up with the idea of an all-out, winner-take-all rumble with “The Sharks”. Tamblyn more than effectively brings "Riff" to life with coolness, cockiness, and superb dance moves. His hip lingo and confidence help make it believable that "Riff" and his gang are typical troublemaking 1950's juvenile delinquents. He can be tough or funny even when dancing, such as in the stout "Jet Song” or the comical "Gee, Officer Krupke". Though Tamblyn’s voice is heard singing "Gee, Officer Krupke" and a line or two in "Tonight", his singing was dubbed in his other songs by fellow "West Side Story" dancer/actor Tucker Smith (who plays "Ice", the member of "The Jets" who sings "Cool").
Los Angeles born Russ Tamblyn began performing gymnastics for fun as a young child, and soon developed a musical act mixing singing, dancing, comedy and juggling, and at thirteen appeared in his first film, 1948's "The Boy with Green Hair". As a child actor, he appeared in such films as "The Kid from Cleveland", "Samson and Delilah", and "Father of the Bride". He signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1953, quickly found success in the classic musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", and in 1956 earned a Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe for the musical, "Hit the Deck”. Not just a musical star, he played opposite Lana Turner in "Peyton Place" in 1957, and earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination (his only). You can see touches of his acrobatic skills in “West Side Story”, with an occasional flip, backflip, or other physical feat in just about all of his musical numbers. Like Beymer, Tamblyn also appeared in both incarnations of TV's "Twin Peaks" (as "Dr. Lawrence Jacoby"). To date, he has appeared in just shy of 100 films and TV shows, and his other notable films include "Tom Thumb", "Gun Crazy", "Cimarron", "How the West Was Won", "The Haunting", and "Drive" in 2011. He married three times, including his first marriage to actress Venetia Stevenson. One of his children is actress Amber Tamblyn. As of the writing of this post, Russ Tamblyn is 86 years old.
In a show-stopping performance, Rita Moreno plays “Anita”, “Maria’s” friend and “Bernardo’s" girlfriend. Filled with a razor-sharp wit and fiery, no-nonsense attitude, Moreno makes “Anita” a magnetic presence one can’t help but watch. She overflows with personality and humanity in simple scenes such as arguing with “Maria” about the neckline of her dress or the fact that “Tony” is in the dress shop, and is explosive in heavy-duty scenes such as the one at “Doc’s” store. There’s an unflinching strength to her. Even if victimized, she’s never a victim. Her hot-blooded vitality bursts into a rousing crescendo as she sings, dances, and argues about life in the US versus Puerto Rico in the film’s most exciting musical number, “America”. For her work, Moreno won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, becoming the first Latina actress to win an Oscar.
Puerto Rico-born Rita Moreno moved to New York City when she was five and soon began taking dance lessons. Making it to Broadway when she was thirteen, she began appearing in films five years later with "So Young, So Bad" in 1950. She continued to work steadily in films and TV, mostly in supporting roles as Latinas or other ethnic women, including roles in "Singin' in the Rain" (already on this blog) and "The King and I". "West Side Story" made Moreno an international star, and gave her hope that her days playing stereotypes had ended. It didn't, and she took a break from Hollywood, returning in the 1969 film, "The Night of the Following Day", opposite Marlon Brando. She worked extensively on television from 1952 until today, and was a cast member on the children's educational sketch comedy-ish TV series, "The Electric Company" from 1971 through 1977, for which the cast (including Moreno) won a Grammy Award for the show's soundtrack. She also played "Sister Peter" on the HBO series, "Oz" (from 1997 until 2003) to acclaim and awards, and starred on all seasons of the 2017 reboot of the 1970s TV show "One Day at a Time". Her other films include "Summer and Smoke", "Pagan Love Song", "Carnal Knowledge", and "The Four Seasons". Moreno also appeared on Broadway in over a half-dozen shows, including "The Ritz" in 1975, for which she won a Tony Award (and also appeared in the 1976 film version). For her TV work she's earned six Emmy Award nominations, winning two (for "The Muppet Show" in 1977 and the "The Rockford Files" in 1978) and was also honored with a 2008 Televisionary Emmy Award. One of under a dozen EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners, among her other honors are a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, the Kennedy Center Honor in 2015, and a Peabody Career Achievement Award in 2019. She was married and widowed once, and had a turbulent eight year relationship with Marlon Brando resulting in an abortion and an attempted suicide by Moreno. As of the writing of this post, Rita Moreno is 89 years old (turning 90 on December 11). She is the executive producer of, and will be seen in a supporting role in the upcoming Spielberg remake of "West Side Story".
Also outstanding is George Chakiris as “Bernardo”, leader of "The Sharks", brother of “Maria”, and boyfriend of “Anita”. While his part may not be as flashy as that of Moreno, Chakiris’ exceptional dancing and acting form an indelibly commanding character. When dancing, Chakiris is supremely light on his feet, epitomizing elegance and grace. It’s no wonder visuals of him dancing in the prologue have become iconic. Beneath “Bernardo’s” anger Chakiris shows a glimmer of vulnerability, evident in the famous shot of him banging his fist against a brick wall, and felt simmering under his hatred during the war council. His chemistry with both “Maria” and “Anita” is so believable that he somehow helps define their characters as well. He sings just one song in the film, “America”, and is the only main cast member whose singing voice was not dubbed by someone else. For “West Side Story”, Chakiris earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe.
Ohio-born George Chakiris (of Greek descent) moved around with his family before settling in Long Beach, California. He sang in choirs, leading to his first film appearance as a choir boy in the 1947 Katharine Hepburn film, "Song of Love". Chakiris began studying at the American School of Dance at nineteen, and shortly after began appearing as a dancer in films (often as George Kerris) including "The 5, 000 Fingers of Dr. T.", "Brigadoon", "There's No Business Like Show Business”, “The Country Girl”, and "White Christmas", working alongside stars such as Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Rosemary Clooney and Rosalind Russell. He is also seen dancing in the iconic "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", opposite Marilyn Monroe. As less movie musicals were being made, Chakiris began feeling he was going nowhere in Hollywood and moved to New York City in 1958. Already a Broadway hit, auditions were being held for "West Side Story's" upcoming London run. Chakiris auditioned for both "Bernardo" and "Riff", and Robbins cast him as "Riff". The show and Chakiris were giant hits in London. He was asked to audition for both "Riff", and much to his dismay, "Bernardo" for the film. According to his recent memoir, "My West Side Story", he initially didn't want to play "Bernardo". "I'd been playing 'Riff' for a year and a half... 'Riff' had become personal to me". Needless to say, Chakiris was cast as “Bernardo”, the role that brought him awards and international fame. Now starring in films in the US and abroad, highlights include "The Young Girls of Rochefort", "Is Paris Burning?", "Bebo's Girl", and "633 Squadron". From the 1970s onward, he worked extensively on TV, including roles the series "Dallas", "Santa Barbara", "Superboy", and the British miniseries, "Notorious Woman". After "West Side Story", Chakiris occasionally returned to the stage, including a successful nightclub act at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and playing "Robert" in the national tour of Sondheim's "Company". He's recorded a handful of record albums and created his own line of sterling silver jewelry, The George Chakiris Collection. As of this writing George Chakiris is 87 years old. I know George and can honestly say he is one of the kindest, sweetest people I know.
If you’re a fan of classic TV, you probably noticed John Astin in an uncredited role as "Glad Hand", the man directing the boys and girls at the dance. In 1964, he became known for playing "Gomez Addams”, the father on the classic TV series "The Addams Family", until 1966. Of his over 150 films and TV shows (mostly TV), his other films include "The Frighteners", "The Pusher", and "Freaky Friday", with starring or recurring roles in TV shows that include "Night Court", "Murder She Wrote", "The Addams Family" 1992 animated series, "The New Addams Family" series in 1998, and as "The Riddler" in the classic 1960s, "Batman". He wrote, directed, and starred in the 1968 Oscar nominated short film, "Prelude". Married three times, including his second marriage to actress Patty Duke. Their son is actor Sean Astin. As of this writing John Astin is 91 years old.
In addition Academy Award wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, “West Side Story” also earned Oscars for its gorgeous cinematography (Daniel L. Fapp), stunningly colorful art direction-set decoration (Boris Leven and Victor A. Gangelin), striking costume design (Irene Sharaff), fabulous sound (Fred Hynes and Gordon Sawyer), flawless film editing (Thomas Stanford), and moving music score (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal).
Before gritty realism took over there was a stylized magic to cinema, and this week’s film overflows with it. Certainly one of cinema’s best (and one of my favorites), enjoy “West Side Story”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications every time a new film is recommended. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Thought I’d mention that Richard Beymer’s fabulous portrayal of “Tony’s” death is the best acted depiction of someone dying I’ve ever seen in a film or TV show.