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The film begins with a whistled phrase of three notes, which recurs throughout the score and is later revealed to be the Jets' signal to one another. Many of the songs in the score are based on the musical intervals in this phrase. A four-and-a-half minute overture then plays against an abstract drawing of Manhattan skyscrapers, at the end of which the title appears. The drawing dissolves into aerial shots of New York City, showing locations from the Battery to the upper West Side, while repetitions of the whistled phrase, traffic noises, and bongo riffs are heard on the soundtrack.
The camera moves into an urban, concrete playground, where members of the Jets are leaning against a fence, rhythmically snapping their fingers. They strut around, looking for trouble, and gradually begin to dance. When the Sharks appear, the conflict between the two gangs is represented by stylized dancing. The dance builds to a choreographed fistfight, which ends with the arrival of "Lt. Schrank" and "Officer Krupke," after which the film's dialog begins. An intermission occurs at approximately one hour and twenty minutes into the film. Many end credits appear to be handwritten on a wall, like graffiti. All cast members' names are listed, followed by "as" and their respective character names. Although most reviews state that West Side Story's running time is 155 minutes, which is the approximate length of the print viewed, the film's copyright record incorrectly lists the duration as 251 minutes.
As noted in Filmfacts, the stage version of the musical play opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 to critical and popular acclaim. The show ran for an initial 732 performances, followed by a successful national tour, another 249 performances in New York City and a two-year run in London. West Side Story was directed and choreographed by the innovative Jerome Robbins, who stated in an added feature presentation in the 2003 DVD release that he had been interested in creating a contemporary version of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet since the late 1940s and that Arthur Laurents, the show's writer, and composer Leonard Bernstein added the gang theme to the story. The show marked the first Broadway success of composer Stephen Sondheim, who was the lyricist for West Side Story. The show was innovative on many levels, as it featured Robbins' mixing of contemporary popular dance with classical styles and integrated the dance sequences seamlessly into the songs and action of the story. The gritty, urban tenement setting, the use of street language and the serious exploration of societal problems such as bigotry and juvenile delinquency were a marked change from the standard musical of the time. Several songs from the show ("Tonight," "Maria," "I Feel Pretty," "America" and "Somewhere") became standard repertoire for singers and other musicians, and the song "Quintet" was notable for its presentation of the points of view of five sets of characters.
A November 1959 Daily Variety news item reported that producer-director Robert Wise planned to make the film as a joint venture of his B & P Productions, The Mirisch Company and Seven Arts Productions, for release by United Artists. A December 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Robbins would co-direct with Wise. Although Robbins and Wise are listed as co-directors onscreen, Robbins was asked to leave the production early during the shooting. Filmfacts reported the rumor that Robbins was taking too much time with the dances, and that the two directors had disagreements. Providing a more diplomatic explanation, Wise stated in a December 1960 Daily Variety article that Jerome's departure was not due to artistic differences or his co-director's personal failings, but because it was taking too long to coordinate their respective ideas, and because Wise had been with the film project about a year longer than Robbins, it was he who remained. By the time Robbins left, he had completed choreographing all but two numbers, and several of his assistants, Margaret Banks, Tommy Abbott and Tony Mordente, remained with the production, assuring that Robbins' basic choreography, which was mostly retained from the theater production, was executed correctly. Robbins also retained film editing rights, although the extent and length of time of his participation during post-produciton has not been determined.
Although none of the leads from the Broadway show were re-cast in the film, William Bramley ("Officer Krupke") and Abbott ("Gee-tar") reprised their Broadway roles in the film, and Mordente ("Action") and David Winters ("A-rab") had appeared in the Broadway production in other roles. George Chakiris, who played "Bernardo" in the film, had portrayed "Riff" in the London production. According to the December 1960 Daily Variety article, eleven members of the film's cast had appeared in one of the stage productions, while several others had never acted professionally before being cast in the film. Irene Sharaff served as costume designer for both the film and the Broadway production, and Mordente, Abbott and Howard Jeffrey served as dance assistants for both versions. According to a December 1991 Variety article, actress Stefanie Powers, who was then going by the name of Taffy Paul, was hired as a dancer for the film, but soon dropped out, as she was underage and by law required on-set tutoring and a shortened shooting schedule. According to a February 1961 Los Angeles Mirror article, the only school-aged cast member in the film was Susan Oakes, who portrayed the tomboy "Anybodys." Modern sources add Christopher Culkin, Elaine Joyce, Lee Theodore and Lou Ruggerio to the cast.
As noted in Filmfacts and the Variety review, Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon dubbed the singing voices of the leads, Richard Beymer ("Tony") and Natalie Wood ("Maria"). According to a featurette about the film on the 2003 DVD release, Tucker Smith, who portrayed "Ice" in the film, also served as a singing double for Russ Tamblyn for at least one song. February 1963 Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Herald Express news items reported that professional ghost singer Betty Wand filed a $60,000 damage suit against B & P Enterprises, Inc., the producers and the Columbia Broadcast System, claiming that she had provided the singing voice for Rita Moreno ("Anita") on two songs, "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love," on an emergency basis and that, without her knowledge, her voice was used in the soundtrack album. A cross suit filed by CBS asked that B & P be held liable for any damages on the grounds that the company released the soundtrack album believing that Moreno sang the songs. According to the Los Angeles Herald Express news item, Wand's suit was settled out of court, although the amount of the settlement was not reported.
As noted in the December 1960 Daily Variety article, only a few changes were made to the theatrical script. Among them, the prologue was lengthened from four-and-one-half minutes to eight minutes. In the song "America," which originally was sung only by the Puerto Rican women, the men's point of view was added. Two numbers, "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke," were moved to other positions within the story; some of the lyrics of "Krupke" were altered slightly; and the character of Krupke is not seen onscreen during the song, as he was in the staged version.
According to the studio production notes, when the film began production in August 1960, the women were rehearsing in Hollywood at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios, while twenty-two actors were taken to New York City to film the prologue in the areas of 68th Street, which was demolished shortly after filming to build Lincoln Center, and 110th Street in the Puerto Rican district. According to a September 1960 Los Angeles Times article, the troupe shot on the New York streets for five weeks. The article reported that Robbins felt that the film necessitated more realistic sets than the stage production's stylized sets, and that he adapted his stage choreography to match the more realistic settings in the picture. In the DVD release's additional material, cast members reminisced that Robbins, for whom they had fond memories, worked them very hard, and described injuries from dancing on the street pavements. They also recalled that Eliot Feld, who portrayed "Baby John," caught pneumonia after they returned to shoot the rest of the film at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.
According to the Variety review, the film cost $6,000,000 to produce. An October 1961 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that, because of the film's extraordinary box office and critical success at its New York opening at the Rivoli Theatre, there was discussion about moving forward the film's domestic and foreign release. Most reviewers praised the film with superlative descriptions, such as "a cinematic masterpiece" (New York Times), "a milestone in movie musicals"(Hollywood Reporter) and "a triumphant work of art" (Saturday Review (of Literature)), and Senator Clair Engle, according to a July 1962 Hollywood Reporter news item, lauded the film for its American flavor "in type, character and spirit." A March 1962 Daily Variety news item stated that the film was proving itself to be the strongest box office hit in many areas overseas in United Artists' history. May 1966 Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety news items reported that the film ran for four years at Paris' George V Theatre, the longest run in French motion picture history at that time.
August 1961 Variety and Daily Variety articles reported that a different style of subtitles were to be used for foreign bookings. The articles reported that song lyrics, which were usually left out due to "dubbing difficulties," would probably appear in italics. A March 1962 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the United Artist exhibition contract carried a clause that required an extra monthly inspection of prints and equipment, to ensure that the reproduction of sight and sound in the theaters would maintain the same quality as when they were recorded. The news item quoted Wise as stating that United Artists hired a projection technician, Bill Betcher, to check the theaters. A September 1961 Variety article reported that music arrangers, who had made similar complaints about Flower Drum Song, criticized the film for not giving onscreen credits to arrangers and that committee members from the Music Branch of AMPAS had been petitioned to review the matter. According to a September 1961 Hollywood Reporter news item, while West Side Story was still in its roadshow engagement, Columbia Records released its soundtrack album, which would later win a Grammy award. In addition, the news item reported that Capitol Records was producing a recording by the Stan Kenton Orchestra and by the dual piano team of Ferrante and Teicher, and that single records of the songs from the film were expected to be released.
In early December 1961, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Wood's footprint was the 136th to be imprinted in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. West Side Story won ten Academy Awards, the second highest number of Oscars received for an individual film at that time. Besides Best Motion Picture, the film also won Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Chakiris), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Moren0), Art Direction (Boris Leven and Victor A. Gengelin), Cinematography (Daniel L. Fapp), Costume Design (Sharaff), Best Director (Wise and Robbins), Best Film Editing (Thomas Stanford), Best Musical Score (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) and Best Sound. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay (Ernest Lehman). West Side Story won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy, Best Supporting Actor (Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Moreno). Beymer was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor-Musical or Comedy, and Wise and Robbins were nominated for Best Director. Among the many other awards the film received were the Directors Guild of America Award (Wise, Robbins and assistant director Robert E. Relyea), the Writers Guild of America's Best Written American Musical and the Newspaper Guild's 1962 Page One Award in Motion Picture for the "vivid and eloquent picturing of a phase of [New York] city's life." According to a January 1962 Box Office article, West Side Story was on the top ten best movies of 1961 lists for the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics and seven other New York daily newspapers.
According to a May 1966 Daily Variety news item, Mirisch rejected a record $3,000,000 offer from a television network to broadcast the film because the company had plans for a theatrical re-release within the next few years. An August 1968 Variety news item reported that United Artists was reissuing the film that fall. An October 1979 Variety article reported that United Artists was ordered to pay nearly $400,000 to the original authors of West Side Story as their share of $4,000,000 in U.S. network and foreign television packaging revenues. The ruling was made after an eighteen-month audit and a two-and-a-half years of arbitration by the American Arbitration Association.
Several moments from West Side Story, as well as the songs and phrases from the song, have become iconic in other motion pictures, television shows and commercials. The fingers snapping of the defiant youths, the three-note signature phrase, the "rumble" and the love scene on the fire escape are a few of the moments from the film that have often been referred to or parodied in other works over the years. Many artists have recorded songs from West Side Story, and in 1961, Bernstein composed an orchestral work, "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story", based on his film score.
In 2007, West Side Story was ranked 51st on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies-10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films. The film was also ranked 3rd on AFI's 100 Greatest Love Stories, 2nd on AFI's Twenty-five Top Musicals, and the songs "Somewhere," "America" and " Tonight" were ranked 20th, 35th and 59th, respectively, of AFI's 100 Top Movie Songs of All Time.