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The first order of business in bringing West Side Story to the screen was casting. This was left largely to Robert Wise, who had been chosen as co-director primarily for his work with film actors (stage choreographer-director Jerome Robbins would handle the musical sequences). The Broadway leads, Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence, were deemed too old by 1961, a curious decision considering the "teenagers" in the film were eventually played by people ranging from their early 20s to 30s. For the role of Tony, everyone from Marlon Brando to Elvis Presley was mentioned. Brando, who made his musical debut in Guys and Dolls (1955), was reported by The New York Times as being "very anxious" to do the picture, "however, he wants to play the young lead and is worried at 34 whether this will be plausible on screen." The question turned out to be moot. The producers decided early on not to seek major stars since the project was considered to have enough advance appeal to attract large audiences on its own. Dozens of actors were tested before the male lead was given to Richard Beymer, who had made his mark in George Stevens' film version of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Several of the original dancers from the stage musical of West Side Story were brought to play members of the Jets and the Sharks, although the show's Anita, Chita Rivera, was bypassed in favor of Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican actress known to movie audiences from The King and I (1956). George Chakiris, who played Riff in the London production, was cast as Bernardo. The role of Riff was assigned to gymnastic champ/dancer dancer Russ Tamblyn, even though Arthur Laurents thought the all-American actor "didn't belong" in the picture.
Natalie Wood was Ernest Lehman's choice for Maria, but when it was decided to go with unknowns, she was eliminated, and the long testing process began. Ina Balin was an early favorite, but her deep voice contrasted too much with the soprano requirements of the songs. Barbara Luna was the tentative choice after all the tests, but suddenly Lehman's suggestion was reconsidered. Former child star Wood was just coming off the success of her first adult role in Splendor in the Grass (1961) when she was offered the script for West Side Story and one for Parrish (1961), a melodrama being produced by her studio, Warner Brothers. She thought the latter script was "crap," but knew if she refused it, Jack Warner would make it impossible for her to go to United Artists for West Side Story. So she faked a case of tonsillitis and checked into the hospital to have them removed, effectively ending her obligation to star in Parrish. Her plan almost backfired when she contracted an infection that developed into pneumonia. She was in critical condition for three days, but recovered in time to report to work on West Side Story in April 1961.
The first on-set flare-up occurred because Wood did not like her male co-star. She tried to get Beymer fired from the picture because she didn't think he was strong enough as a singer and a dancer; an odd objection, considering her own shortcomings in the same areas. But Robbins worked Wood 16 hours a day and on weekends to try for the perfection he demanded from his performers. Wood was also having trouble with her Puerto Rican accent and turned to Moreno for help. Exhausted and demoralized from being pushed by a director many have characterized as cruel and sadistic, she even asked to be taken off the picture. The problems were solved by devising simple steps and camera movements to disguise her lack of dance training. Soprano Marni Nixon was brought in to dub her vocals. Other uncredited voiceover talent was also used -Jimmy Bryant to dub Beymer and Betty Wand to enhance Moreno's vocals on one song.
The biggest problems encountered during production, however, came from Robbins. From the beginning, he wanted everything to be done exactly as it was on stage. Mostly he objected to Lehman's repositioning of the songs and placing them in new settings. In scripting the multiple-character song "Quintet," Lehman had tacked cards on his bulletin board with directions, such as "Sharks move toward rumble area," "Maria on the fire escape." Returning from lunch one day, Lehman and producer/scorer Saul Chaplin found that Robbins had scribbled his own comments on the cards: "Jerry vomits," "Jerry leaves town." But the sequence was shot as Lehman wrote it.
No one has ever denied Robbins' brilliance or his great contribution to the film. The dance numbers he devised for the New York location shots were even more powerful and exciting than those on stage, and everyone who watched him work was amazed at his endless stream of great ideas. But he could also be an abrasive and thoughtless collaborator if he didn't get along with his co-workers. And his drive to perfection was often taken out on the dancers that he worked to the point of exhaustion. "They didn't dance out of joy, they danced out of fear," Chaplin wrote later.
Other production headaches occurred during the location shoots in Manhattan, particularly in the area that was then being cleared to build Lincoln Center. Several times rocks were thrown at cast and crew members from the roofs of the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood. Police were on hand, but were of little use in stopping the problem. Finally, the production manager hired a real street gang to help keep order. Meanwhile, Robbins' contract stipulated he would shoot all the musical numbers and the scenes that led into them - which turned out to be almost every scene. That meant Robert Wise would have little to do (and even less, considering Robbins stepped over the line into directing actors in dramatic sequences). A compromise was eventually reached whereby Wise would do the non-musical scenes, but with Robbins' consultation.
One of Wise's major strengths was his experience as an editor. As he watched Robbins shooting scenes from several angles, his editor's eye saw several shots being set up and filmed that Wise knew could never be matched with the other angles. He kept quiet for a while, but as the film began to fall behind schedule and Robbins╒ experiments started eating into the budget, he stepped in with suggestions. But nothing Wise or the producers or production managers said could dissuade Robbins from doing it his own way. At last, United Artists determined the film was already $300,000 over budget with less than a third of it in the can. The decision was made to fire Robbins, over the objections of his only defender - Wise. All the choreography in the film is still the work of Jerome Robbins but the only musical numbers he actually shot were the "Prologue," "America," "Cool," and "Something╒s Coming" (and many consider these the picture's high points). The rest were shot by Wise with Robbins' assistants overseeing his choreography.
by Rob Nixon
West Side Story (1961)
William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has served as the inspiration for countless interpretations of that classic story - from the 1936 film adaptation by George Cukor to the recent interracial musical romance, Save the Last Dance For Me (2000). But West Side Story (1961) is easily the most dynamic and visually exhilarating version of this famous star-crossed romance. From its imaginative staging (a poor neighborhood in New York City's West Side) to the gravity-defying choreography of Jerome Robbins to the beloved music score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story convincingly updates the Shakespeare story for modern times adding the topical issue of racial prejudice for dramatic impact. The Montagues are now identified as the Jets, an Anglo street gang, while the Capulets have been transformed into the Sharks, a rival Puerto Rican gang. The character of Friar Lawrence is now a neighborhood druggist and other updated parallels include Bernardo killing Riff (just as Tybalt killed Mercutio) and Tony killing Bernardo (just as Romeo killed Tybalt). Only the double suicide ending of Romeo and Juliet has been altered.
West Side Story enjoyed a first wave of success on the Broadway stage, with Carol Lawrence and Larry Kent as the leads. Typical of Hollywood, a new cast was assembled for the film version with the exception of George Chakiris, who played Riff, not Bernardo, in the London production. Initially, everyone from Marlon Brando (34 years of age at the time) to Elvis Presley was rumored to be interested in the role of Tony but it was Keir Dullea who originally tested for the part. When he refused to cut his long, wavy blonde hair so he would look like a gang member, former child actor Richard Beymer tested for the part and was hired. The role of Maria was also originally slated for a relative newcomer - Barbara Luna - but when the producers saw Natalie Wood test for the role they knew they had found their Maria. Unfortunately, Wood was not up to the operatic demands of the role. Even though she worked with Jerome Robbins sixteen hours a day to reach perfection and knew all her songs by heart, her voice was eventually dubbed by Marni Nixon, who would later dub Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). Beymer was not a professional singer either and his singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant. Initially Wood campaigned to have Beymer replaced because she didn't like him but the producers refused to honor her wishes and she kept her animosity in check for the remainder of the shoot.
As expected, the film version of West Side Story was an epic undertaking for United Artists so it was decided that two directors were needed. Hollywood veteran Robert Wise was chosen to handle the dramatic and technical end while Jerome Robbins would focus on the musical sequences. However, both men couldn't have been more different in temperament or how they approached their craft and clashed from the beginning. Robbins wanted everything to be completely faithful to his stage production and resisted any changes. In his autobiography, Oscar-winning composer, arranger, and musical director Saul Chaplin discussed Robbins' confrontational personality: "Jerry was by far the most exciting choreographer I had ever watched. He seemed to have an endless stream of exciting ideas...At the same time, he was such an insane perfectionist that it was impossible for any of the dancers to achieve the standards he demanded immediately. To make matters worse, he had a very low tolerance point. When he was displeased, he heaped such verbal abuse on the dancers that the place took on the atmosphere of a concentration camp. They didn't dance out of joy, they danced out of fear....I wondered how he ever got anyone to work for him until I asked one of the dancers. The reply was "How else would I ever get a chance to dance like that?" I didn't invent the notion, but it's further proof that being a successful dancer requires a certain degree of masochism."
Eventually, the studio was forced to remove Robbins when he caused the production to go over budget due to his refusal to stick to the arranged shooting schedule. Other problems included some dangerous location shooting (rocks were thrown at crew members from rooftops during filming around an abandoned section of West Sixty-eighth street) and ineffectual police surveillance while shooting on a rundown section of 110th Street (the crew eventually hired a local street gang for protection). Yet somehow Robert Wise completed the film, despite having to assemble Robbins' unfinished "Prologue" number, which became one of the most important sequences in the film.
When West Side Story opened theatrically, it quickly became the number two box office hit of the year (101 Dalmatians took the number one spot). Hollywood was wild about the film too and awarded it ten Oscars including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Color Cinematography, and Best Director. The latter category brought Wise and Robbins together again to accept the award though neither acknowledged the other in their acceptance speeches. As for Natalie Wood, she created quite a sensation at the Oscar ceremony by appearing with Warren Beatty (Their romance broke up the Natalie Wood-Robert Wagner marriage). Ironically, she was up for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Splendor in the Grass, not West Side Story, but lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women.
Producer: Robert Wise
Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Production Design: Boris Leven
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Costume Design: Irene Sharaff
Film Editing: Thomas Stanford
Original Music: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein (also songs)
Principal Cast: Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Simon Oakland (Lt. Schrank), Ned Glass (Doc), William Bramley (Officer Krupke), Tucker Smith (Ice).
C-152m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford