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Later this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the release of West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961), the landmark American musical film based on the hit Broadway play, with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, respectively, and book by Arthur Laurents. It will also mark the release of the COVID-delayed remake directed by Steven Spielberg for Disney and the recently incorporated 20th Century Studios. In West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic (2020), film historian John Barrios gets in early on the revival. Yet it is not the first making-of book on the much-admired film. There has been West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece (University Press of Kansas, 2013) by Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, which offers a valuable Hispanic perspective on the movie. There has also been a volume of cast reflections, Our Story: Jets & Sharks Then and Now (Outskirts Press, 2011), edited by Robert Banas, and a more academic treatment of the larger phenomenon, West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical (Scarecrow Press, 2011) by Elizabeth A. Wells. Barrios, who has previously published on Hollywood musicals, attempts a more comprehensive history.

Jerome Robbins (left) and Robert Wise (right) share the reins on West Side Story.

West Side Story had the unusual distinction of being credited to two directors: the extremely versatile Robert Wise, who also produced (see my Great Director profile on Wise), and acclaimed dancer, choreographer and theatre producer Jerome Robbins, who originated the show on Broadway. This situation was not unprecedented of course: witness Stanley Donen’s fruitful collaborations with Gene Kelly on the musicals On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Nor was it entirely unprecedented for Wise, who for his directing debut Curse of the Cat People (1944) had to share screen credit with Gunter von Fritsch, whom he replaced during production because of his inefficient working methods. Wise may have even felt a sense of déjà vu on the set of West Side Story, when midway through the shoot Robbins was fired by executive producer Walter Mirisch and his brothers, but not before they talked it over with Wise. His demand for endless retakes on the choregraphed numbers was putting the movie precariously over budget and behind schedule. By all accounts, Robbins was a taskmaster, a temperamental “genius.” 

For me, the big takeaway from Barrios’s engaging account was that the finished film was the result of this unique, often uneasy tension between two creatives at the top of their game. While noting how Wise’s quiet and unobtrusive direction tends to get lost in the long shadow cast by Robbins, Barrios duly acknowledges the pivotal role he played in bringing the film to completion: 

in crucial ways, he had the greater responsibility and as significant an impact. As producer, his was the final word in selecting the cast and crew, for all the preparatory work not concerned with dance, and for the demanding job of assembling and polishing the final product. If often a quiet presence on the set – especially by comparison with the volcanic Robbins – he offered the most competent leadership imaginable, inspiring devotion form the crew and keeping an unwieldy project moving along as steadily as humanly possible. He was as necessary to West Side Story as Robbins, and surely the film turned out as successfully as it did in large part because it was directed by two men who were, in many ways, polar opposites. (pp. 5-6).

If Robbins was removed because of his elusive quest for perfection, then Wise was a perfectionist in his own way, engaging in exhaustive planning and preparation on all his film projects. This can be seen in his scouting for New York locations for the film, recounted in chapter 4. “Along with a small production team and sometimes Robbins, he visited different neighborhoods, took photos, and strategized. Nothing of this sort had ever been attempted before, not even in On the Town, and snapshots survive, in Wise’s archives, showing the kind of look and feel they had in mind: ruined apartments, decaying facades, depressed cityscapes, various bleak urban details” (p. 69). As shot in the 200-block area of West 68th Street on New York’s Upper West Side earmarked for demolition, the film is an important document of a city that no longer exists. Once the footage was in the can, the “buildings were taken down, as planned, and then the street itself was physically erased off the Manhattan map” (p. 71). There is a lot of Wise in these New York scenes, a location he would return to again and again in his career, including in his final theatrical film, Rooftops (1989), which was unfairly compared to West Side Story.

Robert Wise: man of vision.

Still, Barrios could have made more of the documentary realism that Wise brought to a form that is almost by definition stylised, unreal. Noting how the film followed the Hollywood practice of combining locations with soundstages, Barrios records: “Robert Wise wanted New York realism, and Jerome Robbins preferred a less literal studio look. In a way, they both won” (p. 68). Wise’s realism can be clearly seen in his previous films The Set-Up (1949), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), I Want to Live! (1958), and the offbeat crime caper Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which also deals with racial tensions. Barrios writes that the celebrated prologue with its aerial shots of Manhattan was an unintentional “homage to the first real movie musical, Broadway Melody [Harry Beaumont, 1929])” (p. 74). In fact, Wise got the idea from his experience on Odds Against Tomorrow, in which he started wondering what the city looked like from the top of one of the buildings, explaining that on West Side Story, “What I wanted to do was to show a New York that people hadn’t seen, a different look of the city, almost an abstract one. I wanted to put the audience in a frame of mind to accept the kids dancing in the streets without feeling that twinge of embarrassment.”1 Wise would rework this concept in the equally celebrated opening to The Sound of Music (1965). 

Dancing in the streets.

A figure whose contribution gets marginalised by Barrios is screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who collaborated with Wise on a total of four films. As Wise appreciated, he was that rare Hollywood animal who did not feel the need to put his stamp on the material just for the sake of it. He knew when to leave things alone, as shown in his screen adaptation of West Side Story. That said, we must not overlook his unerring sense of story construction, which led to the rearrangement of musical numbers (ditto for his work on The Sound of Music). Under Wise’s direction, that “sense” was dramatically central to the film’s shifting moods and effects. Barrios devotes a couple of pages to the alterations from stage to screen (pp. 143-144). But the book’s scattered references to Lehman underplay his involvement – at least the Academy thought he deserved to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, even if he did fail to win (he never would). 

A highlight is the chapter on the casting of the film. After reading Barrios’s account, one appreciates how the search for “the triple threat” was just as elusive as it is now, inasmuch as it was a common practice in Hollywood to match actors’ performances with other people’s singing voices. As a result, performances in the musicals of the past can seem much more “constructed” by the artifices of film. In the key role of the Puerto Rican Maria, Natalie Wood was led to believe that she would be doing all her own singing, until she was dubbed by the late great Marni Nixon (who had also provided the singing voices for Deborah Kerr in The King and I [Walter Lang, 1956] and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady [George Cukor, 1965).2 Her Caucasian lover, Tony, was played by Richard Beymer, who was also dubbed. (Contrary to legend, Elvis was not a serious contender for the role; just one of many possibilities). Beymer had worked with Wise before, as a juvenile on the women’s picture So Big (1953). Beymer and Wood’s casting is often singled out for its lack of chemistry (it’s true that they didn’t hit if off on set), and it has been a commonplace to disparage their performances (Barrios is no exception). Barrios admits almost begrudgingly: “Mary and Tony work, as a couple, because of the music, writing and direction, not because of the spontaneous combustion that ought to be felt between two great lovers” (p. 102). Yet as lovers it is hard to imagine how the movie works as well as it does if they are so inadequate. While Wood’s accent strains for authenticity, she has some affecting scenes and moments. And for the record she did receive some positive notices at the time. For example, Arthur Knight in the Saturday Review found her “radiant as Maria in love, deeply moving in her tragic moments”. 3

 

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as the star-crossed lovers.

Much more problematic in the twenty-first century is of course Wood’s white passing for Latina, as it is indeed for the other cast members who were chosen with little or no regard to the sensitivities of race or ethnicity. This is particularly ironic in a play/film that purports to be about racial tolerance. A concession to authenticity was made in the Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno, who portrayed Anita, the girlfriend of Maria’s brother, winning a much-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Yet like many of the other actors, her skin was darkened for the part. “With regard to ethnicity,” Barrios writes, “the filmmakers were going with conventions that had been part of film from the very beginning. It was, as Rita Moreno said, ‘a very different time’, and just about everyone who loves old movies has encountered odd or sometimes offensive examples, usually involving Caucasian actors playing other nationalities” (p. 46). Witness Mickey Rooney’s now-infamous portrayal of a Japanese tenant in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961). Barrios acknowledges that “obviously, perspectives have changed since West Side Story was new, and ‘the way things were done’ in 1960 has since acquired a much different complexion” (p. 184). (An ill-advised pun!) He seems content to defer to this explanation, but one wonders what it would have been like if the liberal-humanist Wise, known for a string of social-problem films, had shown a bit more sensitivity, if not backbone.4 A useful point of comparison for West Side Story is Flower Drum Song (Henry Koster, 1961), released in the same year and dismissed by Barrios as inconsequential, no contender for the Academy Awards. Yet this was also a landmark film in its right, if only for its casting of Asian-American actors in a modern-day Asian-American story. (Like West Side Story, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”). While the film has inevitably not been spared criticism for its racial stereotyping or casting choices, Flower Drum Song shows how the issue of “correct” representation was not totally off the radar in 1961. It also points to a road not taken by Wise and co. Spielberg’s more woke remake, with its much-publicised casting of Hispanic actors, seeks to make amends for this lack of opportunity and representation.5

 

Rita Moreno won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the Puerto Rican Anita.

Barrios gives a detailed picture of West Side Story’s marketing and reception. As per the roadshow release format, the incredibly slow rollout of the film seems almost unthinkable today. “Week by week,” he writes, ‘the trade press reported a capacity gross in every city, and the roadshow engagements lasted so long that the wider openings did not occur, in some places, until 1963” (p. 158). It was re-released in 1968, its advertising tagline capitalising on the youth counterculture zeitgeist: “Unlike other classics West Side Story grows younger” (p. 161). By this time, it was competing with Wise’s even bigger hit, The Sound of Music, which also had a very long release, first as a roadshow than as a general release. By the 1970s, the major studios had pretty much abandoned this distribution strategy. West Side Story won a total of 10 Academy Awards, including a Best Picture for Robert Wise and Best Director for both Wise and Jerome Robbins. (Neither mentioned each other in their acceptance speeches). It was also met with near-universal acclaim, with Bosley Crowther calling it a “cinematic masterpiece”, Stanley Kauffmann “the best film musical ever made” (p. 152). Pauline Kael was among the dissenting voices, eviscerating the film on radio before writing up her review in Film Quarterly. Barrios even suggests that her review “was, in a way, the making of Pauline Kael” (p. 152). Or perhaps it was her extremely cynical review of The Sound of Music, which met with such a backlash from readers, that it at least contributed to her sacking from McCall’s, stint at the New Republic, and eventual hiring by the New Yorker. 

The 1968 re-release poster.

One of the undeniable strengths of Barrios’s book – often missing from individual film histories, which take it for granted that the film is great – is that it mounts an enthusiastic case for the artistic merit of West Side Story. For example, Barrios enumerates the unforgettable touches and moments of the film (pp. 190-192). He also tries to pinpoint what is unique about the movie: in contrast to other stage show-to-screen musicals, he writes, “its magic lay in the exciting way the work itself and the filmmaking complement each other. The movie expanded on the show while respecting it and, as a result, both were raised up. That mutual enhancement, the interrelation between the show and the movie, benefited both works.  […] The movie resonated so powerfully that in a way, for millions, it became the show” (p. 174), a feat Wise also managed with The Sound of Music. Despite its dated or problematic aspects, Barrios is right that its detractors – and there are a few – “cannot preclude or deny the invincible spell that the movie casts so powerfully. Even when minimized to home video and parodied to death, it endures, and stays remarkably fresh.” (p. 177)

Drawing on a rich array of resources, including the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the Robert Wise papers at the University of Southern California, Richard Barrios provides one of the most complete accounts of the making of West Side Story, which is a welcome addition to previously published books. Barrios writes expressively, with a penchant for rattling off superlatives that recalls the late Australian critic Bill Collins. One cannot fault the quality of the book production; like other TCM-presented titles it is beautifully designed and generously illustrated with screen captures, film stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and posters/artwork. Highly recommended for fans of the movie and the musical genre.  

Richard Barrios, West Side Story: The Jets, The Sharks, and The Making of a Classic (Philadelphia: Running Press/TCM, 2020)

  1. Sergio Leemann, Robert Wise on His Films: From Editing Room to Director’s Chair (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1995), p. 166.
  2. As was the custom of the time, Nixon’s contribution was kept hush-hush and her name kept off the soundtrack album. Everyone in the industry, however, knew who the ghost singer was. As Barrios documents, she was paid an initial fee without any royalties. When she and her manager contested this arrangement, Bernstein graciously offered her a portion of his own percentage, only to find out that the royalty agreement covered only LPs and not compact discs (p. 159).
  3. Arthur Knight, “Romeo Revisited”, The Saturday Review, October 14, 1961, p. 40.
  4. Wise’s early film noir for RKO, The Set-Up (1949), was drawn from Moncure March’s long narrative poem about a down-on-his-luck black prize fighter. African-American Canada Lee was seriously considered for the role before it was reconceived for a Caucasian actor (played by ex-boxer Robert Ryan). As one scholar recounts: “Wise was very much in favor of casting a black actor in the lead, but Lee was finally rejected by the front office, as were other black actors mentioned in passing, because each lacked the name that would ensure at least a modicum of box-office appeal.” Richard C. Keenan, The Films of Robert Wise (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2007), p. 48.
  5. Martin Scorsese has called Wise “the Steven Spielberg of his time.” Indeed, there are many similarities between the two filmmakers, not least their versatility over a wide range of genres, including a body of social-problem films. As with Wise, West Side Story will mark Spielberg’s first foray into the movie musical. Let’s hope he can do justice to the material.