Saturday, October 13, 2018

West Side Story (1961)

Dedicated to the memory of my darling Vanessa Marquez (it was her favourite musical besides The Wizard of Oz)

Among the most popular and critically acclaimed movie musicals to emerge from the Sixties is West Side Story (1961). Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, it made $44.1 million at the box office and won ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture). To this day it remains the musical to win the most Oscars.

For those unfamiliar with West Side Story, it was inspired by William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. It centres on  two warring gangs, the Jets (a gang composed of whites) and the Sharks (a gang composed of Puerto Ricans). Tony (played by Richard Beymer) is a former Jet who falls in love with Maria (played by Natalie Wood with her singing voice provided by Marni Nixon), the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks.

The book for the play West Side Story was written by Arthur Laurents, with the music written by famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim. It was in 1947 that choreographer Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about a collaboration that would update Romeo and Juliet to modern times. Initially the conflict would have been between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Arthur Laurents wrote his first draft of the script, which he titled East Side Story. It was afterwards that the three men realised that it would be little more than a musical exploration of themes that had been explored in countless plays before, most notably Abie's Irish Rose. The project was then shelved for years.

It was in the mid-Fifties that Arthur Laurents was hired to write a remake of The Painted Veil (1934). At the same time Leonard Bernstein was conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. The two men met at the Bevelry Hills Hotel. Their conversation eventually turned to the phenomenon  of juvenile youth gangs, then a popular topic in various news outlets. It was Leonard Bernstein who suggested that they rework East Side Story so that it was set in Los Angeles, with Chicano youth gangs at the centre of the conflict. Arthur Laurents felt he was more familiar with Puerto Ricans and Harlem, so the story would be set in New York City and would centre on a conflict between a white gang and a Puerto Rican gang. The two men contacted Jerome Robbins and what would soon become West Side Story was in development.

West Side Story opened on September 27 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre. It received largely positive reviews. It also won the Tony Awards for Best Choreographer for Jerome Robbins and Best Scenic Designer for Oliver Smith. It was nominated for Best Musical, but lost to the juggernaut that was The Music Man.

Given the success of West Side Story, it was inevitable that it would be adapted as a motion picture. Robert Wise, the former film editor who had directed such films as The Body Snatcher (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), was hired to direct the feature film adaptation. Robert Wise had no experience directing musicals, so Jerome Robbins was retained on the project to direct the musical sequences. The leads from the Broadway musical, Larry Kent and Carol Lawrence, were deemed by the producers to be too old to play teenagers, so they were not considered for the parts they had originated on stage. It was also decided to cast actors who were not well known, although there would be two exceptions. While Natalie Wood was initially not considered because she was too famous, she was cast in the role of Maria after Ina Balin and Barbara Luna had been considered. Rita Moreno, who was already somewhat familiar to movie audiences, was cast as Anita.

The rest of the major cast was made up of actors who were not yet well-known. Richard Beymer was cast as Tony. He had only made a few films prior to West Side Story, including The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Russ Tamblyn was cast as Riff, leader of the Jets. He had been a child actor, but as an adult had played primarily supporting roles in films starring older actors. Mr. Tamblyn's singing voice was provided by Tucker Smith. George Chakris had played Riff in the London production of West Side Story, but for the film he was cast as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.

West Side Story proved to be smash hit at the box office. In fact, it was the no. 1 movie of the year in the United States. And as mentioned earlier, it won a number of Oscars. In addition to Best Picture, it also won Best Director for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, Best Supporting Actor for George Chakris, and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno. Today it is considered a classic and has a 94% rating at the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

I believe I first saw West Side Story when I was in second grade, and I have loved the film ever since. That having been said, I do think it has some flaws. The one that sticks in my mind is the casting. Out of the major cast, only Rita Moreno is actually Puerto Rican. While I adore Natalie Wood and she does well as Maria, to a degree she seems incongruous with the role she is playing. Perhaps more so than any other actor in the cast, it is obvious that she is not a Latina. It was years ago that I developed my own backstory for Maria, in which she was left as an infant on the Nunez doorstep by a Russian family who could not afford to keep her...

That having been said, the casting is the only real problem I have with West Side Story. The cast, whether they are Puerto Rican or not, give good performances over all. The standout for me has always been Rita Moreno as Anita. As played by Miss Moreno, Anita is strong-willed and takes nonsense from no one. She is also sexy and sultry (which explains why I have had a crush on Rita Moreno for most of my life...). Richard Beymer is also impressive as Tony, the Romeo in this variation of Romeo and Juliet, bringing out the character's idealism. George Chakris also gives a good performance as the hot-headed Bernardo, who seems to be the Tybalt of West Side Story.

West Side Story also benefits from good direction, particularly when it comes to its musical scenes. Jerome Robbins truly earned his Academy Award for Best Director (shared with Robert Wise). That having been said, the film would not be particularly easy for Jerome Robbins to make. He came into conflict with screenwriter Ernest Lehman over how the screenwriter had utilised the musical's songs,  moving them in their place in the plot and even putting some of them in different settings. Jerome Robbins did not particularly get along with some of his other co-workers either, wanting everything in the film exactly as it had been on stage.

Another asset of West Side Story is the cinematography of Daniel L. Fapp, for which he won an Oscar. Largely shot on location in New York City, West Side Story is an incredible looking film.

Both a box office hit and a critically acclaimed film upon its release, West Side Story has since become regarded as a classic. In 1997 it was selected for the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute ranked it at no. 2 in its list of AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals. The film remains wildly popular to this day, and there is little doubt to believe it won't continue to be so.


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