History, Legacy & Showmanship
Wednesday, 23 February 2022 10:31

Romeo and Juliet in New York: Remembering “West Side Story” on its 60th Anniversary

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A scene from West Side Story (1961)

 

The Digital Bits: In what way was Robert Wise an ideal choice to direct West Side Story and where do you think the film ranks among his body of work?

Matessino: Bob Wise hadn’t tackled a musical prior to that, and he always wanted to try new things. He also embraced technical advancements like wide screen and 65mm and wanted to challenge himself. So he was a great choice for West Side Story, even to the point of collaborating so closely with the director and choreographer of the stage show, who was a very big personality. Once again we know that there was tension there, but the movie didn’t suffer because of it, although Leonard Bernstein was reportedly not pleased about John Green’s adaptation of the score. But with regard to Bob Wise, I think it marked his transition from a typically solid and reliable studio director of the ’40s and ’50s into a full-on producer/director in the ’60s and beyond. He was very proud of the movie, and rightfully so.

Kimmel: Wise had already directed several terrific films, including Somebody Up There Likes Me, which had a really nice New York feel to it. I think he’d worked for Mirisch already, so they knew him as a guy who could get the job done and done well—and boy did he. Robbins’ contribution is also great, but we all know the story there—slow, methodical, and a perfectionist that was causing too many delays. For me, West Side Story and The Sound of Music are the best Wise films, but I really love Executive Suite, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Sand Pebbles—well, I like most of his movies and some of his early films are really great.

Kennedy: There’s an apples and oranges problem here. It’s hard to rank West Side Story in Wise’s career because his output was so exceptionally varied. It would be easier if he had a larger output of musicals, as did, say, Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen. Wise was the man who gave us Born to Kill and The Set-Up, two great noirs, and excelled at science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), horror (The Haunting), and melodrama (Executive Suite). The nearest film for comparison Wise gave us was—drum roll, please—The Sound of Music. So even his two big roadshow musicals are so very different from each other.

The Digital Bits: Any thoughts on the casting and performances?

Kennedy: This is where my misgivings about the film kick in. Some of it has withered with age. The costumes, for example, and the argot of the gangs. The original Tony and Maria, Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence, were superb singers. The inadequacies of Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood on film are glaringly obvious. Both were dubbed, and given not much more than a few twirls and snapping fingers for choreography. Meanwhile, everyone is dancing tornadoes around them. Their acting is limited as well; they fail to emotionally engage me in their tragedy. I may be a minority opinion, but I find Wood’s acting persistently unsatisfying. On the plus column, Rita Moreno is very good as Anita, and I imagine she is closer to Chita Rivera from the original cast. Ditto Russ Tamblyn as Riff. George Chakiris as Bernardo sure can dance and he seethes well, but he was Ohio born of Greek ancestry playing Puerto Rican. His brown-face make-up is hard to watch.

Matessino: I will be honest, and again it’s because I saw the movie much later. Natalie Wood was a fantastic actress and lovely individual, but she didn’t work for me as Maria. The performance is fine, but it’s not as authentic feeling as I would personally have wanted. A big factor in this is also the decision to have Marni Nixon dub her singing voice. I knew Marni personally and adored her. She had a tremendous talent. I felt she was a perfect match for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (and An Affair to Remember) but in West Side Story the dubbing does not seem well matched and I don’t really hear the accent that should be there. Of course, we know that Natalie worked on the songs quite a bit and that she believed her own voice would be used, so there was a bit of controversy there. Movie musicals are difficult in this regard, because the thought was that the audience should be seeing and hearing superbly polished performances. It apparently worked at the time with West Side Story (and My Fair Lady, where the same thing happened again), but for me, studying it only years later and with strong memories of the stage production, that aspect of the movie doesn’t quite work. I’m not quite so sure about Richard Beymer either, although he’s a good actor and did some really good comedy work around that time. But Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno were perfectly cast.

Kimmel: As I said, I had no problem with Richard Beymer and they got someone who sung for him who was a perfect match. Natalie Wood is fantastic in it, and Marni Nixon dubbed her wonderfully and none of us in the audience thought a single thing about it and in fact were completely unaware of it. Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris are both great, Rita Moreno is a fantastic Anita, Ned Glass and Simon Oakland are great, and all the Jets, Sharks, and their girls are terrific, but especially Jay Norman, David Winters, Elliot Feld, and Tony Mordente. And we can’t leave out the wonderful Sue Oakes, can we? I ended up working with Sue and I worked with David Winters several times.

Natalie Wood

The Digital Bits: Which are the film’s standout songs?

Matessino: Which ones aren’t standouts? I’m mean, you’ve got America, Maria, Tonight—take your pick.

Kimmel: I love ’em all, but Something’s Coming, Maria, Tonight, Krupke, and America are my favorites.

Kennedy: Every single one of them is dazzling. This gets my vote as the best musical score ever. Period.

The Digital Bits: How does the film compare to the source material?

Kimmel: I know there are those who prefer the stage version to the film—I’m not one of them. I love the stage version and its cast album, but Ernest Lehman moved some stuff around and I agreed that those things worked better for a film. And the film has that incredible opening on the streets of New York and while the opening of the stage show is brilliant, it can’t do what the film did.

Kennedy: I memorized the Broadway cast album when I was a kid. Musically, the film is quite faithful to the original. I’ve only seen one professional stage version of West Side Story, a bilingual Broadway touring production, and it was glorious.

Matessino: Again, my view is colored by bringing an impression of the stage show to my view of the film, but it’s overall a faithful adaptation. Of course, you had Jerry Robbins co-directing it with Robert Wise, so the main groundbreaking aspect of the piece—that dramatic tension can emerge from dance rather than dialogue—is intact. There were problems with that arrangement, as has been documented, as Robbins was not really in his element on a film production where things are so technical and take a lot of time. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who’d done a great adaptation of The King and I a few years earlier and would go on to transform The Sound of Music into a film that’s far better than the stage version, did take some liberties with West Side Story, but they do seem to help it play better in the cinema medium. I am, however, partial to the song America being done with just the girls, as it was on the stage.

The Digital Bits: Where do you think West Side Story ranks among roadshow era musicals?

Kimmel: I put it at the very top. I mean, I saw them all and loved most, but the only one that came close as a film was The Sound of Music—same director, same screenwriter. But I loved 70mm (even the blow-ups) and we’ll never see the likes of that era again.

Kennedy: West Side Story arrived when roadshow musicals were flying high. The King and I, South Pacific, and Gigi had done extremely well in the late 1950s. Wise and Robbins are clearly directing for a mass theater audience on the big screen, and they make great use of the roadshow format. The overture and the opening aerial shots of Manhattan, eventually landing among the gangs on the west side, are absolute musical bliss on the big screen. It’s long, 153 minutes, but it doesn’t suffer from overlength as do so many roadshow musicals later in the ’60s.

Matessino: As I said before, it sparked a new wave of them in the early ’60s after a short slump. That particular way of producing and releasing musicals might not have continued for another decade (despite some huge failures along the way) if it hadn’t been for the success of West Side Story.

The Digital Bits: Care to share any thoughts on Spielberg’s recently-released West Side Story film?

Kennedy: I was dazzled by it. Spielberg kept what was so brilliant in the original: the harsh angular beauty of Manhattan, the music and lyrics, the vibrant color palette, and the rough adherence to Shakespeare. It’s set in 1957, the year of its Broadway debut, but infused with modern choices. The cast is far more authentic to language, race, and ethnicity. The choreography is new, but just as stunning. The actors can all sing, dance, and act—not a given in the first movie. There is more political and sociological commentary without sounding didactic. It pays tribute and expands on the 1961 film.

Matessino: We know of Steven Spielberg’s love for Robert Wise’s work, and also of his long-held desire to make a musical, and I think this is a great project for him. If you think about it, no one has really dared to take any movie of any genre that was such a huge Oscar-winning hit and attempt to remake it. Well, they did do a version of Ben-Hur a few years ago and we know what happened with that. But no one has done, say, All About Eve or Lawrence of Arabia or On the Waterfront or The Godfather or Kramer vs. Kramer. These movies just stand the test of time. I think only Steven Spielberg could do this remake, which I don’t really see as one. In my mind it’s no different from a new production of the stage show being mounted and coming to town, and it doesn’t mean the old one will evaporate. Quite the reverse—more people will now see it and appreciate what was done then vs. how it’s done now.

Kimmel: That’s a toughie because my opinion doesn’t toe the party line and it makes people cranky and irritable. I saw it the week it opened in a great theater along with twenty other people (a 1400-seat theater). I thought what I thought, but I gave it a second chance and watched the screener the DGA sent. I’m afraid to say my opinion didn’t change. Parts of it work just fine—Tonight is especially well done and is classic Spielberg. Other parts simply fall flat for me. My main issue begins with the screenplay by Tony Kushner, which I actually find pretty bad. Wasn’t thrilled with the new choreography. Mr. Robbins was a supreme teller of story and character through dance. The new choreography is just a bunch of random, jerky movements that have no storytelling at all, and therefore is just meaningless. This is especially true in the Prologue and more so in America. Setting the latter in the street negates the entire purpose of the number, which, by the way, is the version created for the first film. As done there, it’s a “challenge” number, the girls vs. the boys, each trying to top each other, both in lyrics and in dance. It’s thrilling. In the new film all that is diffused because of the sheer number of people on the street. Spielberg tries so hard with his swirling camera, but that’s not what the number is about. The original film gets it perfect, which is why it always got a huge applause at every showing I attended when the film came out. Not a fan of the cameraman, so I didn’t care for the look of the film. Spielberg’s work varies from excellent to kind of blowing it, i.e. the final twenty minutes of the film carries none of the emotionality of the 1961 film, which is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking because Robert Wise knew just how to shoot and edit that sequence (from the time Tony hears the erroneous news that Maria is dead through to the end of the film), and, for me, Spielberg really blows it in terms of shots and edits. Rachel Zegler’s big speech doesn’t work as well as the original film because it’s been eviscerated by Kushner, had underscore added, and it packs no wallop. The staging of the scene is, for Spielberg, uncharacteristically pedestrian and again has none of the emotional pull of the original film. So, there you have the Minority Report—see what I did there? Aren’t you sorry you asked?

The Digital Bits: What do you think is the legacy of Wise & Robbins’ West Side Story?

Kennedy: West Side Story forever gave us a popular aesthetic for stylized urban alienated youth. It might be the litmus test for tolerance of musicals in general. If a cadre of lean male dancers high kicking in tight pants amidst urban decay turns you off, then perhaps you’re one of those people who dislikes the genre altogether.

Kimmel: The stage show really pushed so many envelopes and was a game-changer. And I feel the same about the film. Perfection is perfection and we don’t get to see it very often and I feel both stage and film version are perfection.

Matessino: Absolutely the legacy is the movie’s spotlighting on the whole issue of racial tension, which sadly is more topical today than ever before. Its other legacy is in the truly groundbreaking way that it used dance to express this tension and to develop character. Robert Wise’s filmography is filled with many pictures that deal with social injustices, as is Steven Spielberg’s, so it’s great that we have had two very influential filmmakers address the subject through their cinematic craft. Maybe one day we’ll all get the message.

The Digital Bits: Thank you—Matthew, Bruce, and Mike—for sharing your thoughts about West Side Story on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.

---END---

A scene from West Side Story (1961)

 

IMAGES:

Selected images copyright/courtesy The Criterion Collection, MGM Home Entertainment, Mirisch Pictures, Robert Morrow collection, National Screen Service, The New York Times, Seven Arts Productions, United Artists.

 

SOURCES/REFERENCES:

The primary references for this project were the motion picture West Side Story (United Artists, 1961), regional newspaper coverage, trade reports published in Boxoffice , The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety, and interviews conducted by the author. All figures and data pertain to North America (i.e. United States and Canada) except where stated otherwise.

 A promotional image for West Side Story (1961)

SPECIAL THANKS:

Jerry Alexander, Don Ayers, Jim Barg, Don Beelik, Raymond Caple, Nick DiMaggio, Sheldon Hall, Bill Huelbig, William Kallay, Matthew Kennedy, Bruce Kimmel, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Doug Louden, Stan Malone, Mike Matessino, Robert Morrow, Gabriel Neeb, Vince Young, Bob Throop, Vince Young, and a big thank-you to the librarians who assisted with the research on this project.

 

IN MEMORIAM

  • Victor Gangelin (set decorator), 1899-1967
  • Fred Lau (sound), 1897-1971
  • Natalie Wood (“Maria“), 1938-1981
  • Simon Oakland (“Schrank“), 1915-1983
  • Robert Thompson (“Luis“), 1933-1984 6-13
  • Ned Glass (“Doc“), 1906-1984
  • William Bramley (“Krupke“), 1928-1985
  • Daniel L. Fapp (director of photography), 1904-1986
  • Boris Leven (production designer), 1908-1986
  • Tommy Abbott (“Gee-Tar“), 1934-1987
  • Tucker Smith (“Ice“), 1936-1988
  • Johnny Green (music), 1908-1989
  • Scooter Teague (“Big Deal“), 1940-1989
  • Jose De Vega (“Chino“), 1934-1990
  • Leonard Bernstein (music), 1918-1990
  • Vinton Vernon (sound), 1899-1991
  • Gilbert Marchant (sound editor), 1928-1992
  • Bob Peak (key art/promotional material illustrator), 1927-1992
  • Irene Sharaff (costume designer), 1910-1993
  • Murray Spivak (sound), 1903-1994
  • Irwin Kostal (musical supervisor), 1911-1994
  • Saul Bass (titles/visual consultant), 1920-1996
  • Saul Chaplin (associate producer/musical supervisor), 1912-1997
  • Linwood Dunn (photographic effects), 1904-1998
  • Jerome Robbins (choreographer/co-director), 1918-1998
  • Rudy Del Campo (“Del Campo“), 1927-2003
  • Andre Tayir (“Chile“), 1935-2003
  • Ernest Lehman (screenplay), 1915-2005
  • Robert Wise (co-director), 1914-2005
  • Suzie Kaye (“Rosalia“), 1941-2008
  • Arthur Laurents (book), 1917-2011
  • Larry Roquemore (“Rocco“), 1938-2016
  • Thomas Stanford (editor), 1924-2017
  • David Winters (“A-rab“), 1939-2019
  • Sid Ramin (musical supervisor), 1919-2019
  • Yvonne Othon (“Consuelo“), 1937-2021
  • Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), 1930-2021
  • Harvey Hohnecker (“Mouthpiece“), 1941-2021

A scene from West Side Story (1961)

 

- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

West Side Story (Blu-ray Disc)

 

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