In 1997 the Library of Congress selected West Side Story for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Its most recent home media release (on Blu-ray Disc) was in 2011.
For the occasion of the film’s recent anniversary, The Bits features a multi-page article consisting of a Q&A with a trio of roadshow and musical authorities who reflect on the film, plus box-office data and statistics, passages from film reviews, and a reference listing of its theatrical roadshow presentations.
WEST SIDE NUMBER$
- 1 = Number of cinemas playing the film during its opening weekend
- 1 = Rank among top-earning films released in 1961 (lifetime/retroactive)
- 1 = Rank among top-earning films during the 1962 calendar year
- 2 = Box-office rank among films directed by Robert Wise (adjusted for inflation)
- 2 = Rank among UA’s all-time top-earning films at close of first run
- 2 = Rank on AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals
- 5 = Peak all-time box-office chart position
- 10 = Number of Academy Awards
- 11 = Number of Academy Award nominations
- 41 = Rank on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies
- 77 = Number of weeks the longest-running engagement played (domestic)
- 218 = Number of weeks the longest-running engagement played (international)
- $7.0 million = Production cost
- $19.0 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1962)
- $25.0 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1968)
- $28.1 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1970)
- $25.0 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1972)
- $19.5 million = Domestic box-office rental (adjusted earnings through 12/31/1975)
- $44.1 million = Box-office gross
- $63.5 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
- $181.5 million = Box-office rental (adjusted for inflation)
- $409.6 million = Box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
PASSAGES FROM A SAMPLING OF FILM REVIEWS
“West Side Story is a beautifully-mounted, impressive, emotion-ridden and violent musical which, in its stark approach to a raging social problem and realism of unfoldment, may set a pattern for future musical presentations. Screen takes on a new dimension in this powerful and sometimes fascinating translation of the Broadway musical to the greater scope of motion pictures. The Robert Wise production, said to cost $6,000,000, should pile up handsome returns, first on a roadshow basis and later in general runs.” – Whitney Williams, Variety
“Panavision 70 expands the dances to the realm of the spectacular.” – Henry T. Murdock, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“While all elements are top-notch, it is Robbins’ choreography that makes West Side Story a film landmark and a threat to the Gigi Oscar record for musicals.” – James Meade, The San Diego Union
“West Side Story, in spite of its brilliant production, is not a picture that will appeal to the general public. Its tragedy, rooted in senseless brutality, never really touches the heart.” – Mildred Stockard, Houston Chronicle
“There is one false note artistically. It is one that worked discordantly in the film version of Oklahoma! It is the mixture of studio fantasy and real life in the settings. On the stage, the sets for ’unrealistic realism’ always can maintain their flavor of stylization. There is nothing you can do, though, to tone up a hideous Manhattan playground when the scene is that playground itself.” – John Rosenfield, The Dallas Morning News
“West Side Story sizzles with dynamic action. It shrieks with suspense. It gleams with young romantic love—Romeo and Juliet live again. It roars with the hatreds of street battle. It twinkles with joyous motion which turns into fierce agitation as the stresses of misunderstanding speed the players into uncontrollable maelstrom. The Leonard Bernstein score has beauty and strength—the music swells into a definite and necessary part of the story. Put all these excellencies together and the result is a picture which if it isn’t perfect entertainment, is so close that there will be few detractors.” – Marjory Adams, The Boston Globe
“West Side Story begins with a blast of stereophonic music that had me clutching my head. Is the audience so impressed by science and technique, and by the highly advertised new developments that they accept this jolting series of distorted sounds gratefully—on the assumption, perhaps, that because it’s so unlike ordinary sound, it must be better? Everything about West Side Story is supposed to stun you with its newness, its size, the wonders of its photography, editing, choreography, music. It’s nothing so simple as a musical, it’s a piece of cinematic technology.” – Pauline Kael, Film Quarterly
“Director Robert Wise and his co-director, choreographer Jerome Robbins, have achieved a fascinating combination of realism, stylization and impressionism.” – Myles Standish, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“West Side Story will be the American picture to watch at Oscar time, for it restores something of the glory that was Hollywood—and Academy voters are a chauvinistic bunch.” – Philip K. Scheuer, Los Angeles Times
“It is such a busy, noisy film that the tender love story is often obscured by other action and it’s less a modern Romeo and Juliet than it is Murder, Unincorporated. The central theme of the original Shakespeare play, that it is better to have loved and won than never to have loved at all, is almost lost in the roar and growl.” – Louis Cook, Detroit Free Press
“What they have done with West Side Story in knocking it down and moving it from stage to screen is to reconstruct its fine material into nothing short of a cinema masterpiece.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
“Transferred to the screen, West Side Story remains a work of art. The Uptown should be home to this arresting dazzler for months to come.” – Richard L. Coe, The Washington Post
“The volume of sound sometimes exceeds the comfortable level for the ear, reducing the effectiveness of the superb Bernstein score. One wonders whether Hollywood’s sound technicians aren’t slightly deaf.” – Louis R. Guzzo, The Seattle Times
“Color and choreography exhilarate the viewer, almost exhaust him. A Leonard Bernstein musical score completes the wallop. You’re wrung dry emotionally by the time that jet-age Juliet follows the body of her young lover off-camera. Acting of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris is as special as their dancing.” – Marjory Rutherford, The Atlanta Constitution
“The unfolding of the romance and the tragedy which grows out of it in terms of ballet and song, without losing the necessary and original emotional impact, and at the same time adding action, suggests that there has been the closest association between the film director and the choreographer, a most happy rapport, to bring West Side Story to that high plane where it seems likely to sweep the ’Oscar’ board.” – W. Ward Marsh, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“Social significance, with song and dance, just about sums up this beautifully photographed modern tragedy. It’s a cleverly stylized and dramatized depiction of a bloody story which probably will appeal most to those who like lengthy musicals, and to the younger generation who are fascinated by ’rumbles.’ Their elders may find it depressing.” – Mae Tinee, Chicago Tribune
“For the most part, the young men and women of the cast could not be better, with special plaudits for Tucker Smith in the potent role of Ice, Eliot Feld as Baby John, George Chakiris as the smoldering Bernardo and Rita Moreno as the spicy Anita. Russ Tamblyn is a fine, but rather flashy dancer. Regrettably, the principals were out of their league. Natalie Wood was the little Puerto Rican Juliet and, except for a formidable chin quiver, can do little for a tragic part. Richard Beymer, as her star-crossed lover, looks so clean-cut and well-soaped that I could hardly picture him starting a pillow fight at Boys State, let alone a rumble with switchblades.” – Don Morrison, The Minneapolis Star
“West Side Story is 2½ hours of crackling action, beautiful music, magnificent photography, good acting (in some cases, excellent) and spectacular dancing. It is original, inspired, fascinating and technically near-perfect. It is a great motion picture—one of the best I ever have seen.” – Bob Walters, The Oregonian (Portland)
“West Side Story is the most musical musical to ever come out of Hollywood. It is also the most dramatic and melodramatically actionful. In spine-tingling tempo, with eye-dazzling color and ear-teasing music it recites no corny backstage drama but cuts instead a meaty parallel to the Romeo and Juliet tragic romance. The Ernest Lehman script from Arthur Laurents original musical book retains all the abrasive drive of the stage original, but the unusual style of its telling lifts it above the rank of an ordinary switch-blade and the tire-chain meller-drama” – George Bourke, The Miami Herald
“Explosive choreography by Jerome Robbins and direction by Robbins and producer Robert Wise keep the tautness and drama of the original, adding to them the scope and sweep of the screen.” – Paine Knickerbocker, San Francisco Chronicle
“The modern musical version of Romeo and Juliet has a deep emotional impact, with comedy, tragedy, love and hate relayed masterfully through outstanding individual performances and excellent technical qualities such as choreography, photography and sound effects.” – Carl E. Cooper, The Kansas City Star
“There are few, very few, stage productions which fairly cry out for the broader scope offered by the filmed medium. Recently this was noted about Flower Drum Song, and now the same thing must be said of West Side Story. Here is a production that is big in every sense of the word. The Panavision screen is simply enormous. The score, by Mr. Leonard Bernstein, magnificently reproduced on a multi-track sound system, is brilliant. The color breathtaking. But above all the screen play, by Mr. Ernest Lehman, and the choreography by Mr. Jerome Robbins, are truly worthy of all this treatment in the grand style.” – Win Fanning, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
THE ROADSHOW ENGAGEMENTS
What follows, for historical record and nostalgia, is a chronological reference listing of West Side Story’s North American reserved-seat “roadshow” engagements (otherwise known as Phase One of its release cycle). These were special, long-running, showcase presentations in major cities prior to the film being exhibited as a general release. The roadshows featured advanced admission pricing, reserved seating (typically sold in advance), and an average of ten scheduled screenings per week (one per evening, plus a matinee on weekends, Wednesdays and holidays, though this policy varied by locale and/or was modified during the latter phase of engagement).
Most roadshows during this era included an overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music (or some combination of those components). In the case of West Side Story, the overture included imagery and was played with curtains open, and the intermission and entr’acte were optional. Instead of exit music, Saul Bass’s main credits played at the end. Souvenir roadshow programs were sold as well.
Out of all of the feature films released in North America during 1961, West Side Story was among only six given roadshow treatment by their respective studios. (The other 1961 roadshows were El Cid, Judgment at Nuremberg, King of Kings, La Dolce Vita, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses.)
Roadshow presentations, compared to general release and the average moviegoing experience of the era, typically were booked into the best cinemas and offered a superior overall moviegoing experience. Although West Side Story’s distributor, United Artists, elected not to explicitly promote the film’s presentation tech details, it is understood that many of West Side Story’s roadshow presentations were presented in 70-millimeter and, at a time when most motion pictures were monaural, all of the film’s reserved-seat presentations featured stereophonic sound: 4-track magnetic for 35mm prints and 6-track magnetic for the coveted 70mm prints.
West Side Story’s anniversary offers an opportunity to namedrop some well-known cinemas (most of which no longer exist), to provide some nostalgia for those readers who saw the film during this phase of its original release, and to reflect on how motion picture production and exhibition trends have evolved over the decades.
Premiere Date … Locale — Cinema (duration in weeks)
- 1961-10-18 … New York – Rivoli (77)
- 1961-11-01 … Boston – Gary (49)
- 1961-11-07 … Philadelphia – Midtown (52)
- 1961-11-14 … Washington – Uptown (42)
- 1961-12-13 … Los Angeles – Chinese (58)
- 1961-12-14 … Miami (Miami Beach) – Sheridan (52)
- 1961-12-14 … San Francisco – United Artists (46)
- 1962-01-18 … Honolulu – Kuhio (8)
- 1962-02-22 … Montreal – Alouette (31)
- 1962-02-21 … Seattle – Music Box (40)
- 1962-02-20 … Chicago – Michael Todd (38)
- 1962-02-16 … Minneapolis – Mann (28)
- 1962-02-15 … Dallas – Esquire (20)
- 1962-02-14 … San Diego – Capri (36)
- 1962-02-14 … Detroit – Madison (36)
- 1962-02-14 … Cleveland – Ohio (19)
- 1962-02-14 … Baltimore – Mayfair (17)
- 1962-02-08 … Pittsburgh – Nixon (32)
- 1962-03-01 … St. Louis – Mid-City (17)
- 1962-03-14 … Milwaukee – Strand (31)
- 1962-03-14 … Portland – Music Box (36)
- 1962-03-15 … Buffalo – Teck (15)
- 1962-03-21 … Kansas City – Plaza (13)
- 1962-03-21 … Salt Lake City – South East (39)
- 1962-03-21 … Vancouver – Stanley (29)
- 1962-03-22 … Cincinnati – Valley (25)
- 1962-03-28 … Phoenix (Scottsdale) – Kachina (15)
- 1962-03-29 … Atlanta – Rhodes (23)
- 1962-04-04 … Albany – Hellman (10)
- 1962-04-04 … Houston – Tower (15)
- 1962-04-04 … New Orleans – Civic (10)
- 1962-04-04 … Tampa – Florida (11)
- 1962-04-05 … Rochester – Riviera (26)
- 1962-04-05 … Syracuse (DeWitt) – Shoppingtown (16)
- 1962-04-10 … Hartford – Strand (21)
- 1962-04-11 … Des Moines – Capri (16)
- 1962-04-11 … New Haven – Whalley (26)
- 1962-04-11 … Omaha – Admiral (15)
- 1962-04-11 … Providence – Elmwood (15)
- 1962-04-11 … Toledo – Esquire (10)
- 1962-04-13 … Asbury Park – St. James (24)
- 1962-04-13 … Newark (Upper Montclair) – Bellevue (36)
- 1962-04-13 … Long Island (Syosset) – Syosset (38)
- 1962-04-13 … Youngstown – State (10)
- 1962-04-18 … Richmond – Willow Lawn (13)
- 1962-04-19 … Oklahoma City – State (13)
- 1962-05-02 … Denver – Denham (28)
- 1962-05-02 … Tucson – Catalina (10)
- 1962-05-17 … Toronto – Tivoli (31)
- 1962-06-21 … Columbus – Cinestage (25)
- 1962-06-27 … Indianapolis – Lyric (11)
- 1962-06-27 … Louisville – Brown (14)
- 1962-06-27 … Winnipeg – Garrick (6)
- 1962-06-28 … Dayton – McCook (23)
- 1962-06-28 … New City/Rockland Co. (Nanuet) – Route 59 (19)
On December 5th, 1961, in connection with the release of West Side Story, Natalie Wood immortalized her hand and foot prints in the courtyard of the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
It should be noted the engagements cited above represent only a fraction of the thousands of total bookings throughout the many cycles of distribution over the course of West Side Story’s release. As such, this work does not include any of the film’s reserved performance (i.e. modified roadshow), general release, second-run, re-release, etc.
A roadshow policy was implemented as well on West Side Story’s initial release in key overseas markets. Researching and citing all of them is beyond the scope of this work, though some noteworthy examples worth mentioning include lengthy, successful runs in Paris (George V, 218 weeks), London (Astoria, 94 weeks), Sydney (Mayfair, 67 weeks), and Tokyo (Piccadilly, 66 weeks).
Matthew Kennedy is the author of Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2014). His other books include Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (University of Mississippi Press, 2007), Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), and Marie Dressler: A Biography (McFarland, 1999). He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit Film Series at Mechanics’ Institute San Francisco.
Bruce Kimmel is the screenwriter/composer/lyricist/co-star/co-director of The First Nudie Musical (1976). He is also the president of Kritzerland, a record label specializing in limited edition soundtracks and Broadway show albums.
Mike Matessino worked for Robert Wise Productions from 1994 through 2004 during which time he produced and directed The Sound of Music: From Fact to Phenomenon and served as Post-Production Supervisor on Star Trek: The Motion Picture—The Director’s Edition. He also produced soundtrack albums for Star Trek, The Sand Pebbles and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The interviews were conducted separately and edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think West Side Story ought to be remembered on its 60th anniversary?
Bruce Kimmel: As a groundbreaking movie, brilliantly done, and still one of the greatest movie musicals ever made.
Mike Matessino: It should be simply recognized as the classic that it is, and we couldn’t ask for a better way to do that than to have the release of Steven Spielberg’s new version, even though that was originally supposed to debut last year. Any time any movie has a remake or a sequel, people learn about and see the original. Especially for young viewers, any time you can get people to watch and appreciate a 60-year-old film, it’s a good thing for the preservation of movie history. It’s also a big anniversary year for Robert Wise films… the 80th of Citizen Kane (which he edited), the 70th of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the 50th of The Andromeda Strain, which has an added resonance when you look at it in light of the Covid pandemic.
Matthew Kennedy: West Side Story should be remembered as a great example of the Event Musical. Director Jerome Robbins updated Romeo and Juliet and set it among rival gangs in a tough New York neighborhood, with the ensuing drama largely sung and danced. How absolutely brilliant is that idea? Engage genius collaborators, composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and creative sparks will fly. United Artists reengaged Robbins for the film’s choreography, promoting him to co-director with Robert Wise. That was a smart move, ensuring West Side Story would become pound-for-pound the greatest dance movie of them all. If that’s hyperbolic, I’m hard pressed to put forth any serious competitors. Prologue, Dance at the Gym, America, Cool… I rest my case.
The Digital Bits: What was your first impression of the film?
Kimmel: I saw the film during its opening week at the Chinese Theater, maybe even on its second or third day, at a matinee (only one matinee and one evening show a day). I was bowled over by it in every way—the story, the dancing, the songs, the performance, the clarity of the 70mm image, the sound—I went back the next day and saw it again and then once a week for the next fourteen weeks. Maybe I was a little obsessed with it.
Matessino: I did not have any special first viewing of this film. It was a commercial TV airing sometime long after I’d first seen The Sound of Music. So while I love the score for West Side Story, I had no great initial impression of the film as it seemed rather stagey by comparison. In 1980 I saw the Broadway revival and loved it, so I carried that impression into my first viewing of the movie in 35mm about 10 years later. It was only a few years after that when I started working with Robert Wise, and I was with him for the first video transfer that was done from 65mm for LaserDisc (and then again later for DVD). That’s when I started to really appreciate the quality of the film, particularly in the genius of the compositions and the editing. I still prefer the stage show, and Bob knew that, and that feeling hasn’t changed.
Kennedy: I don’t have a clear memory of the first time I saw West Side Story. It was probably on one of its commercial TV airings at prime time, way back long before VCRs or DVDs or Turner or streaming.
Kimmel: I know it’s become fashionable to call the film out for various things, which I find incredibly irritating—“It’s dated”… “Richard Beymer sucks”… “Natalie Wood is white”… “they’re all so old, playing young people”… and on and on. Well, it wasn’t made today, folks, so, oh, well. My opinion of the film has never changed—I loved it then, I love it now. It’s not dated because it doesn’t take place now. Funny how that works. I know lots don’t like Beymer but I liked him just fine and already knew him from The Diary of Anne Frank and High Time. Natalie Wood is at her best as Maria and that’s considerable. As to they’re all so old, I did a comparison of the ages of the original film and the remake—where critics are idiotically saying “How great to have actual young people.” Well, Natalie Wood was twenty-two as opposed to Rachel Zegler is twenty. Richard Beymer was also twenty-two as opposed to Ansel Elgort’s being twenty-seven. Oops. I believe the Anita and Bernardo are the exact same ages as Rita Moreno and George Chakiris were. And I’m pretty sure that most of the Jets and Sharks were younger in the original.
The Digital Bits: In what way is West Side Story a significant motion picture?
Kennedy: It’s a bit surprising today, considering West Side Story’s lofty reputation, but the stage version was not a massive hit. My Fair Lady and The Music Man were on Broadway alongside West Side Story, and both ran much longer. Despite some missteps in adapting it to the screen, it was a bigger hit on film than on stage. It won ten Oscars, more than any musical before or since. So the film stands as a prime example of successfully rendering a stage musical in cinematic terms.
Kimmel: Like the stage version, it pushed where the film musical could go, it was very relevant to its time period, and it had everything you’d ever want in a movie.
Matessino: The film version of South Pacific was a huge hit in 1958 and played for several years, but after that, there was sort of a slump when it came to Broadway musical film adaptations to the point that the prevailing feeling was that audiences were losing interest in them. So one of the most significant things about West Side Story is that it proved this was not the case. Of course, the show on which was based was a game-changer in musical theatre, but when the film version went on to become the top hit of the year and win multiple Oscars, producers and studios had more confidence about the genre. Once My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music came a few years later, it was clear that musicals could be huge moneymakers. What happened after that is a different story, of course, but West Side Story definitely lit that spark.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- Michael Coate