West Side Story (1961)

Directors: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The United States is a young country with an old history. Rising to the highest heights of power in the blink of an eye through rapid expansion across a broad land rich in natural resources, achieving unity more than 100 year before the much more ancient Europe even made a start at it, and now prematurely gray as it struggles to adapt to a global economy and a shattered self-image, the American story has been a tough one to tell. The mirrors held up to Americans have often been fractured and one-dimensional, and perhaps with the exception of the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn, no work of art has broken through as a wide-ranging reflection not only of who we want to be, but also of who we really are. So it may be a bold declaration to make, but if I had to pick the one work that has been and will continue to be the greatest telling of the Great American Story, it would be West Side Story.

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The enduring legacy of West Side Story could not have been predicted based on its reception when it premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1957. It garnered generally good reviews and had a respectable initial run of 732 performances, but that was nowhere near the 2,717 performances of My Fair Lady during the same Broadway season. Its hold on the imaginations of an international audience would not be secured until it was in a form that could be disseminated widely. When the film, codirected by its theatrical director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, came out in 1961, it was a smash hit, earning the equivalent of $300 million in today’s dollars in the United States alone and winning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The huge audience for the film has made WSS a perennial favorite of school, amateur, and professional theatrical companies the world over. What is it that has attracted so many admirers across time and continents to this musical?

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The extremely high standard of the classical/popular score spanning styles from mambo to opera, the tight choreography that comes from life itself, and the sarcastic/tragic lyrics that offer not platitudes, but truth, place West Side Story in a class by itself. However, WSS’s power does not come from its technical virtuosity alone. Riding on the timeless popularity of tragic love as rendered by William Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet while delivering that play’s crucial message about the costs of hate, West Side Story also poses a direct challenge to the complacent belief in the American Dream and the elusive principle for which it stands, “liberty and justice for all,” through the most American narrative of all—immigration. Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—all members of despised and persecuted groups in American society—crafted a coming-of-age tale for America itself and those who would lose themselves in its myth through its focus on adolescents struggling to mature and find a place for themselves in the world.

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Some people may be familiar with WSS’s original working title, “East Side Story,” as the musical was first conceived by Robbins in 1948 as a tale of rival Jewish and Irish-Catholic gangs on New York’s Lower East Side. However, it would take eight years for the embryonic idea to come to fruition, during which time the team would jettison their outdated conflict for an updated approach that would reflect the sharp rise in Latino gang violence in America’s big cities. The creative team centered the rivalry among the children of poor European immigrants precariously established in New York City and those from the American territory of Puerto Rico arriving during “The Great Migration” of the 1950s. As Sondheim’s lyrics to “America” ironically suggest (“Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America”), the members of the Sharks might have an earlier claim to being American than do the teens who make up the Jets. This conflict already distinguishes WSS from Shakespeare’s blood feud of two aristocratic families as a pointedly American concern.

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Laurents, who was brought in to write the book based on the strength of his treatment of anti-Semitism in the play Home of the Brave, quickly took to the new focus. Robbins made exploratory trips to Spanish Harlem to study the dance styles of Puerto Rican youths, and Bernstein’s love of Latin rhythms fed his creativity as the men continued to work on an array of projects before they were free to turn all of their attention to their theatrical masterpiece. When Bernstein realized that he would be unable to write lyrics for WSS while under pressure to compose Candide (interestingly, another musical that tracks, albeit satirically, with WSS’s themes of true love and striving for success in an Enlightenment version of the American Dream), up-and-comer Stephen Sondheim was contacted and persuaded to join the team despite his misgivings about this “step down” from composer to lyricist.

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The film version of West Side Story features a magnetic cast of dancers and actors, with George Chakiris and Rita Moreno as standouts. Natalie Wood was put in the unfortunate position of being an Anglo playing a Latina and disliking costar Richard Beymer, the man she was supposed to be passionately in love with, but her professionalism (if not her dismal Puerto Rican accent) carried the day. All of the singing was dubbed, with veteran singing double Marni Nixon taking on Maria’s songs and Jimmy Bryant taking on Beymer’s. This is understandable considering the difficulties of the Bernstein score and does not, in my opinion, detract from the overall effect. The film takes few liberties with the stage version, with the notable and welcome exception of moving the panicked “Cool” from before the fateful rumble between the Jets and the Sharks to just after it, thus bumping the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier, more appropriate location after the first encounter the Jets have with the cops. In addition, Wise opens up the otherwise soundstage-bound film by shooting the opening “Prologue” on location in New York, thus creating a mise en scène of the contested turf that lingers in the audience’s mind as the rest of the film progresses.

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Robbins, comfortable with stage choreography, manages to combine the best of both worlds throughout the film. He opens up his choreography in the “Prologue” to illustrate the Jets’ exuberant dominance of their turf. The ultimate gesture of cool—finger snapping—begins the “Prologue,” as the Jets survey their domain. Robbins moves them wordlessly from playground, to street, to basketball court in a combination of random, everyday movements by individual Jets that build to a coordinated dance. Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) whoops happily as some children run past on the street and leaps joyfully with his gang, only to run immediately into Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris). Bernardo handles their taunts, only to strike an obviously symbolic red stripe on a wall with his fist. Robbins dances Bernardo and two Sharks down a narrow gangway, snapping their fingers in a show of their own cool as they run over the word “JETS” painted on the street. Small gestures again build, only this time aggressively, and the “Prologue” ends in an all-out brawl. Camera cuts, overhead shots, close-ups of smug and resentful looks form a dance of their own, one the dancers assault by running directly at the camera lens, forcing it to cut away. Robbins may have been a novice filmmaker, but his dancer’s understanding of space and how a frame can open and choke it is second only to Gene Kelly’s.

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Against the sense of belonging gang life provides to kids whose untethered home lives are mentioned in passing (“Gee, Officer Krupke”: “Dear kindly Judge, your Honor/My parents treat me rough/With all their marijuana/They won’t give me a puff./They didn’t wanna have me/But somehow I was had.”), the possibility of a real connection between Bernardo’s sister Maria (Wood) and former Jets leader Tony (Beymer) is hopelessly fragile. Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight during “The Dance at the Gym”; in an otherwise statically shot dance sequence (Wise, left on his own when Robbins was fired during the shoot, conservatively follows Fred Astaire’s philosophy of full-frontal framing), the lyric “I saw you and the world fell away” from the enthralling love song “Tonight” is produced visually, as all but the lovers fade into a white haze.

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Another superb sequence is “Cool,” in which the Jets struggle to regain their composure after the murders of Riff and Bernardo. The song and dance take place in a dark, low-ceilinged parking garage to mirror the very dark turn of the plot and how trapped the gang is. First, Ice (Tucker Smith), a new character added to fill in for Riff as the Jets’ leader once the song had been moved, sings in barely covered shock at the harm they have just witnessed about how the Jets need to keep cool “‘Cause, man, you got/Some high times ahead/Take it slow and Daddy-o/You can live it up and die in bed!” The gang struggles to contain their emotions, doing a parody of the polite dancing they engaged in earlier at the community dance where Maria and Tony met. Finally, the gang moves in crouched unison like a soft crab hiding in its hard shell, their solidarity reinforced, their desire for vengeance deferred but not defused. Belonging is more important than living, and so the cycle of violence is doomed to repeat itself.

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One of the great challenges for Robbins and his terrific crew of dancers was to hit their beats to the multiple time signatures contained in Leonard Bernstein’s majestic symphonic score. Moreno, who played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, said that dance coordinator Betty Walberg had to count the beats out loud for the dancers as the music played. Since I’m no music expert, I will quote from Misha Berson’s valuable book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination about some of the hallmarks of the score:

1) The frequent use of minor chords

2) Melodies that don’t neatly resolve but hang suspended

3) Fingers snaps and claps, as prominent percussion elements

4) Driving rhythms from a trove of percussion instruments (including trap drums, xylophone and vibraphone, timbales, and bongos)

5) Cross-rhythms that overlap two signatures to create a sense of agitation and unease

6) Swiftly cascading and ascending string lines

7) Jazzy bursts of brass and winds

8) Latin accents

In addition, many music scholars have commented on Bernstein’s use of tritones—playing a key note followed by a note three whole tones away from the key note—which is an important method of introducing dissonance in Western harmony. Berson comments that during the Middle Ages, tritones were considered diabolus in musica (“devil in music”) for being hard to sing in tune. While many people consider “Maria” one of the most beautiful songs in the score, it is sobering to realize that its first two notes form a tritone; considering that Maria’s admonishment to Tony to stop the rumble ends in the deaths of her brother, Tony’s best friend, and Tony himself, she certainly does seem to have done the devil’s work, however unwittingly.

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Bernstein’s operatic elements are my favorite parts of the score. Anita and Maria’s duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is a cry of anguish, one for a lost love, the other for a love she is helpless to deny. Anita’s minor-key “A boy like that wants one thing only/And when he’s done he’ll leave you lonely/He’ll murder your love/he murdered mine” counterpoints with Maria’s “I hear your words/And in my head/I know they’re smart/But my heart, Anita/But my heart/Knows they’re wrong.” Reminiscent of Mozart’s operatic quartets, the “Tonight Quintet” offers musical variations on “Tonight” with lyrics that cleverly interweave the word “tonight” with the expectations of each party—the Sharks and Jets getting ready to rumble, Anita dolling herself up for a post-rumble tumble with Bernardo, and Maria and Tony planning for an endless future.

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Again and again, the songs and characters of West Side Story communicate the need to belong. “The Jets Song” affirms “You’re never alone/You’re never disconnected” when you’re a Jet. The Shark boys and girls are torn between their longing for their first-class status in Puerto Rico and their newfound opportunities in “America.” The girls assert “Here you are free and you have pride,” to which the boys respond “Long as you stay on your own side.” “Life is alright in America/If you’re all white in America.” Maria and Tony, caught in the ethnic divide, find their sense of place in each other, which they affirm in the moving “Somewhere,” a place that is destroyed when Tony is gunned down by Maria’s formerly gentle suitor Chino (Jose De Vega). And a very interesting character nicknamed Anybodys (Susan Oakes) exemplifies a different kind of exclusion; dressing and acting like a boy, she rejects her sexual identity and is, in turn, rejected by the Jets. But she refuses to go away or give up on being a part of the action.

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In the end, when violence has claimed three lives and ruined Maria’s, Anita’s, and Chino’s hopes and prospects, the creators of West Side Story decided that shame would bring the Sharks and Jets together to carry Tony’s lifeless body away. This note of hope may seem unrealistic. But it does recall another American Dream, one elucidated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that, in fits and starts, has started to come true. Perhaps West Side Story helped Americans find a new and more worthwhile image for a more mature and realizable Great American Story.

  • Patrick spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 10:25 am

    Cinema person that you are, I’m sure you saw that Marni Nixon died yesterday, she did the voice for Natalie on I Feel Pretty, plus a bunch of other stuff (which I did not know until I read the obituary).

  • lewis lorton spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 10:37 am

    I remember this very well as I was dating – and eventually married – a young Puerto Rican girl.
    This film was met with derision in PRican movies because the dancing and singing was so un-macho.
    IMO, Richard Beymer was wrongly cast for this; his aspect and behavior was too soft for the role. Although I can’t think of a better screen actor I would have preferred Larry Kert, the Tony from the stage production.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 10:51 am

    Patrick – That’s why I put up this post. Nixon made so many musicals work with her wonderful, expressive singing. Apparently, Wood was upset that all of her singing was dubbed – she’d hoped some of it would remain – but after hearing her vocalizations, I’m very glad the studio did not give in.

    Lewis – It’s really sad that the audience was too macho to appreciate the great athleticism of these dancers. Macho has killed a lot of joy over the years. As for Beymer, your opinion is often stated. I personally thought he was fine, softened by his love for Maria and looking more like a regular guy than a movie star.

  • Patrick spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 11:06 am

    Well I wondered if it was more than a coincidence, but didn’t think you could write such a thorough review so quickly after her death.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 11:18 am

    Patrick – I wrote this quite some time ago for another site, but never posted it here. It’s actually one I put a lot of elbow grease into, so it didn’t need much tweeking to get it ready for today. I am really sorry to hear about Nixon’s passing. She was a real talent.

  • Frank Gibbons spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 11:36 am

    At the age of 12 or 13, I strongly identified with the character of Riff (I guess he looked Irish to me). I thought he was a stand-up guy who looked out for his crew. I was devastated when he is killed by Bernardo. Tony was too pure (did he ever really lead a gang?) and Bernardo had a hint of the devil in his looks. In the picture you posted above, he resembles the devil at the end of the “Twilight Zone ” episode, “The Howling Man”.

    I was also bugged at that time that Chakiris and Moreno had won Oscars and Russ Tamblyn seemed to be an afterthought. I would later learn that Tamblyn had already been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Peyton Place”– hence his higher billing over the two Oscar winners. In his later years Tamblyn related that unlike the other dancers in WSS, he was not classically trained. He was more of “an acrobat that became a dancer’. You can see his amazing athleticism in the “Officer Krupke” sequence. Tamblyn was embarrassed by his dancing in WSS until Fred Astaire told him that he liked it.

    I have always enjoyed the end credits in WSS. They are very elegiac — sorrowful and hopeful.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 12:05 pm

    Frank – Tony was trying to straighten up by this time, and gangs weren’t peopled with professional gangsters at this time. As I said, I think Beymer was fine.

    You can see the acrobatic talents of Tamblyn, probably more acutely in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I really enjoyed his work in this, but then I always have liked him.

  • Win Grundy spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 2:24 pm

    I started crying halfway through your sweet review and skipped straight to the comments to say that I second-to-last watched WSS on demand in the middle of the night in a hospital where I was recovering from open heart surgery (Agent Orange). I felt myself dying, then living again. My PTSD from Vietnam Army combat kicked in, and was gently mollified – perhaps with the help of Percoset – but surely by the grace of God. Indeed, There are only a few movies I would ask my grandkids to watch with me on my deathbed. Providentially, a few days later my seventeen year old granddaughter came to give me home care, and I talked her into it. I did not die, but the movie almost killed her. Thanks again for a splendid review which I shall finish ASAP!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/07/2016 to 2:34 pm

    Win – Wow, what an incredibly moving story and what a legacy to pass on to the next generation. Thanks so much for sharing this important moment in your life.

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