Musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City, where rival street gangs (the Jets and the Sharks) battle for territory and respect. Is the love affair between former Jets leader Tony, and Maria, sister to Sharks' leader Bernardo, doomed to failure?
Natalie Wood ... Maria
Richard Beymer ... Tony
Russ Tamblyn ... Riff
Rita Moreno ... Anita
George Chakiris ... Bernardo
Simon Oakland ... Lieutenant Schrank
Ned Glass ... Doc
William Bramley ... Officer Krupke
Tucker Smith ... Ice
Tony Mordente ... Action
David Winters ... A-rab
Eliot Feld ... Baby John
Although I think I've seen just about every musical there is from the forties to the seventies, I'd never seen West Side Story until last night. An amazing omission on my part, as having seen it, I just think it's simply wonderful.
I bought the DVD "on spec" in a CD/DVD exchange store in Sydney for $10. I've had it in my hand a couple of times before but have always put it back on the shelf. This time I went through with the purchase and am now wondering what could have come over me, not buying it before.
Those here who have said you really need to watch it on the Big Screen are absolutely right. In my case I watched it using a video projector throwing the image, big, bright and beautiful, onto a 12 foot screen. The photography used the wide screen format uncompromisingly. There was no caution here to frame the action for possible television cropping, or even much consideration given to a 2.35:1 "Cinemascope" presentation. Super Panavision's aspect ratio is not as wide as Cinemascope's 2.35:1, and every square inch of screen space was used for one or another important element of composition.
Bernstein's music is a tour de force. Having watched On The Town only a few days back, it was interesting to contrast the two musicals. On The town is, of course, 15 years or so older than West side Story, but a comparison between the two scores is chalk and cheese. You could tell that Bernstein was holding himself back in On The Town. It wasn't his project. The numbers were almost self-censored. But West side Story was his baby, and it shows.
The sheer brilliance of the music, the enchanting daring of it, its raucous atonality coupled with sweetness of melody are awesomely impressive, as show-stopper after show-stopper is thrown onto the screen to continually up the amazement quotient, time after time.
I played West Side Story loud, very loud. The surround sound knocked my socks off from the opening aerial ambiance of Manhattan streets to the orchestrations themselves. I remember Bernstein in the documentary about the concert version of West Side Story saying, aside to the camera, after "Cool, Boy" was recorded, "You know, this is pretty good..." One of the great understatements, even if coming from the music's creator.
See this film. Play it loud. Watch it on a big screen if you can. If you do you may, like I did, sit there thrilled, swinging your head from one side of the Super Panavision screen to the other, trying to take in the overwhelming avalanche coming at your eyes, your ears and your heart. It was an almost perfect transfer from film to DVD: color, sharpness, depth.
It's been a long while since I've watched a film with a silly grin on my face right through, sometimes gasping at the sheer knock-out brilliance of what film-making can be at its best. West Side Story was one of those times.
Exceptional musical about the gangs--the Jets (Americans) and Sharks (Puerto Ricans) battling it out for a small section in the west side on NYC. Tony from the Jets (Richard Beymer) falls in love with Puerto Rican Maria (Natalie Wood) whose brother Bernardo (George Chakiris) belongs to the Sharks. Can their love survive? You probably know the answer but I won't give it away.
An incredible musical--the songs have become legendary and the dance numbers are easily the most energetic and incredible ones ever caught on the film. The film was (partially) shot on location in NYC which helps and the film is full of color and life.
Unfortunately there are problems here: Natalie Wood hated Richard Beymer--and it comes through loud and clear. There's a unbelievable lack of sexual chemistry between them and Wood gives a rare bad performance. Beymer is tall, handsome, muscular--and a total blank as Tony. The poor guy is trying but Wood's attitude obviously bothered him. Still everything else about the movie is great. I have a few minor quibbles: How did Tony know where Maria's apartment was?; "I Feel Pretty" is actually hilarious--check out Wood's "dancing"; the "Cool" number is great to look at but brings the movie to a screeching halt.
But everything else works. Chakiris and Rita Moreno are just fantastic as Bernardo and Anita--their dancing and acting is just perfect--they richly deserved those Academy Awards they won. Russ Tamblyn is also very good as Riff (leader of the Jets) and shows some incredible dance moves. And look for John Astin in a hilarious bit at the dance.
All the dances and numbers are good and the lip syncing is pulled off by Beymer and Wood pretty well. But the show stopper is "America"--that number comes right out of the screen at you full force. The lyrics are sanitized from the Broadway but who cares? It still works.
This won 10 Academy Awards--including Best Picture and Best Director(s). A true classic musical. I've seen it tons of times and I never get tired of it. A must-see. I give it a 10 all the way.
t is a testament to the musical and theatrical brilliance of "West Side Story" that this teenage urban love story, set to Shakespeare's classic "Romeo and Juliet," has survived its outmoded 50s-style book (Arthur Laurents) replete with "Dead End Kids" posturings and corny, streetwise lingo (I still cringe when I hear the word "daddio"). For nowhere will you experience such electrifying, jaw-dropping choreography (Jerome Robbins). Nowhere will you thrill to a more exhilarating, passionate, full-throttled score (Leonard Bernstein, with Stephen Sondheim providing the libretto). And nowhere will you find a more dynamic, better-crafted musical that arguably surpasses its Broadway stage predecessor from overture to finale.
Maria, a lovely, innocent Puerto-Rican girl ("Juliet") and sister of a formidable gang leader, falls for an opposing though reluctant white-skinned gang member Tony ("Romeo") with tragic results. Set in a tough New York neighborhood where the two disparate groups, the Jets ("the Montagues") and Sharks ("the Capulets"), battle for street territory armed with knives, zip guns and rocks, the determined love affair sets off a calamitous chain of events that, in the end, manage to instill hope in diversity. Topical enough?
The strength of "West Side Story" is that it does not try to hide its stage roots. It still unfolds like a musical play. The film is expanded but the talented cast is not dwarfed by on-location surroundings or panoramic camera work ("South Pacific" fell victim to this). On the contrary, the cast lights up every single playing space with sure-footed aliveness and plenty of 'tude. Co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins stay true to the original, having the sense not to alter or butcher the score ("Man of La Mancha") or haul in a slew of new, untried songs ("On the Town", which actually worked for that musical). In a particularly "Wise" move (sorry), two numbers were repositioned to enhance or intensify the narrative flow. In the film version, the "Officer Krupke" number sparked by a goofy Three Stooges-like levity, is moved earlier into the proceedings BEFORE the serious rumbles start, serving neatly as a light and humorous anti-establishment statement. The tightly-coiled, finger-snapping "Cool" number is pushed way back, giving both song and situation a heightened impact as it goads and ignites the Jet's feelings of pent-up rage and retaliation AFTER their leader is murdered. Smart move, daddio.
The late Natalie Wood has been crucified by critics for her ethnic portrayal of Maria ever since day one. It was not because of any political incorrectness at the time (reigning Hollywood white glamour queen goes Latino) for that hot issue didn't erupt until decades later. It was her limited range as an actress. But over the years, I have grown accustomed to Wood. Yes, despite the melodramatic leanings, the necessity of vocal dubbing (by the incomparable Marni Nixon), the flawed Puerto-Rican accent and the general overuse of Coppertone, I still feel for this Maria. What Wood does offer is utmost sincerity and heartfelt poignancy. So I'm one person who has gotten off the Natalie Wood-bashing wagon. Richard Beymer is another matter. An extremely weak, uncool choice for Tony, his toothy, freshly-scrubbed, chipmunk-like mug and awkward gait reads more like library assistant than gang member. Who would have thought Beymer would be the one to dazzle us much later in the totally cool and offbeat "Twin Peaks"? Still, Wood and Beymer commit themselves 100% and manage to create a credible, if not charismatic, love duet that doesn't get in harm's way.
Since the film's emphasis is really on dance, it's the flashy second leads who provide the real firepower. Rita Moreno's smouldering Anita ("The Nurse") is a spitfire of anger and attitude, while George Chakiris as her Shark leader boyfriend Bernardo ("Tybalt") demonstrates slick, controlled menace. Both Oscar-awarded here, Chakiris, in his debut, proved a lightweight acting talent himself, never finding a role like this again. Russ Tamblyn as Riff ("Mercutio"), the recently inaugurated leader of the Jets, is a hotbed of jaunty, scrappy impatience. Both he and Chakiris are riveting as they demonstrate poetry in motion, leading a pack of Edward Villela-like tough guys into athletic, gravity-defying dance moves.
"Romeo and Juliet vs. the 'Hood" should be required viewing for all grade-school children solely on the basis of art and education. The adults already know the value of this treasure.
* The original stage version of Maria's song "I Feel Pretty" included the lyrics "I feel pretty and witty and bright / And I pity / Any girl who isn't me tonight." In the film this night scene was changed to the daytime, and presumably for this reason, the rhyming words "bright" and "tonight" were changed to "gay" and "today."
* Borrowed its plot from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet".
* Natalie Wood's singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon.
* The actors in the rival gangs were instructed to play pranks on each other off the set to keep tensions high.
* Richard Beymer's singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant.
* Rita Moreno's singing voice was dubbed by Betty Wand only for "A Boy Like That" since it was below her range. Moreno sang "America" and "Quintet" herself.
* Betty Wand sued to get a percentage of the movie-album sales, having dubbed part of Rita Moreno's singing. The dispute was settled out-of-court.
* George Chakiris (Bernardo) had previously played "Riff" in the London production. Tony Mordente (Action) had played "A-rab."
* Opening dance sequences were shot on the upper west side of Manhattan where Lincoln Center stands today. This area was condemned and the buildings were in the process of being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. The demolition of these buildings was delayed so that the filming of these sequences could be completed.
* To date (2000), the only movie to share the Best Director Oscar between its two directors.
* Although the producers tried to keep the different gangs separate during filming to create tension, Russ Tamblyn (Riff), said that he knew of at least one "Jet" who was roommates with a "Shark" through filming.
* The script was originally intended to be a Catholic boy falling in love with a Jewish girl. The working title was East Side Story. After a boom of Puerto Rican immigration to New York in the late 1940s and 1950s, the story was changed.
* Many shots imitate the work of modern American painters of New York City, especially the work of Ben Shahn and Robert Vickery.
* Original plans for the play to involve a Jewish boy and an Irish Catholic girl were abandoned because producer Arthur Laurents felt it too closely mirrored the play "Abie's Irish Rose".
* Director Robert Wise hired New York gang members to control crowds on location, and fought to shoot on location in New York City.
* Film rights to the play were bought for $375,000.
* The interior sets were built six feet off the ground to allow for low-angle shooting with large 70mm cameras.
* The boys' jeans were dyed, re-dyed and "distressed," using special elastic thread to allow for the severity of the choreography.
* Six members of the original Broadway cast appeared in the movie: Carole D'Andrea (Velma), David Winters (movie: A-Rab, Broadway: Baby John), Jay Norman (movie: Pepe, Broadway: Juano), Tommy Abbott (Gee-Tar), Tony Mordente (movie: Action, Broadway: A-Rab), William Bramley (Officer Krupke).
* Jerome Robbins's propensity for filming and re-filming scenes as he strove for perfection led to the movie going over budget and behind schedule. Robbins was fired by Mirisch Pictures, the production company, when the shooting was about 60% finished, and director Robert Wise completed the filming alone (the original arrangement had been for Robbins to direct all of the song and dance sequences and Wise to direct everything else).
* Robert Wise's original choice to play Tony was Elvis Presley.
* Riff and Tony repeat an oath of loyalty to each other: Riff says "womb to tomb" and Tony answers "birth to earth." On stage Tony's original answer was "sperm to worm," but this was changed for the movie because it was beyond the censorship standards of the time.
* Lee Theodore, who played Anybodys in the original Broadway production, served as an assistant choreographer for the film. Russ Tamblyn reports that he and most of the rest of the dancers in the film suffered from shin splints at one time or another, the result of extended dancing on pavement as opposed to a wooden stage or soundstage floor.
* Filmed on-location on West 61st Street.
* Most of the original Broadway cast were rejected for the film as either photographing or actually being too old for the teenaged characters. Since Hollywood was accustomed to dubbing the singing voices of many stars, dozens of non-singing actors and actresses were tested or considered for the leading roles. Among them: Suzanne Pleshette, Jill St. John, Audrey Hepburn, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Elizabeth Ashley, 'Anthony Perkins' , Warren Beatty, Bobby Darin, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain, Troy Donahue and 'Gary Lockwood' .
* Robert Wise wanted the film to have a single rising line of tension, with no light moments after the rumble. Therefore, "I Feel Pretty" was moved earlier, and the positions of "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" were reversed. Those who feel that the sassy, light-hearted tone of "Gee, Officer Krupke" is out of place following the deaths that end the first act prefer the film's ordering of the numbers, but the original creators of the stage play maintained that the stage order was always their intended dramatic structure. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim feels that placing "Gee, Officer Krupke" after the rumble gives it a desperation and anger that it lacks in the film, whereas the film's placement of it prior to the rumble turns it into a conventional musical comedy number, something it was never intended to be. This issue is still heatedly debated among the film's fans.
* The songs "I Feel Pretty", "Gee Officer Krupke" and "Cool" were moved for the movie. The first two originally followed the Rumble, and "Cool" was performed outside Doc's Candy Store. It was felt that the message of "Cool" was more appropriate for how the Jets would handle being approached by the police. The light tone of "I Feel Pretty" was felt wrong for the mood of the piece after the Rumble, so it was moved to the start of the second act.
* Audrey Hepburn was offered the role of Maria, but she turned it down, because she was pregnant with Sean H. Ferrer at the time.
* Throughout the movie, Natalie Wood wears a bracelet on her left wrist, not for any esthetic reason, but because she had injured her wrist on the set of a previous movie, causing an unsightly bone protrusion on her wrist. She wore the bracelet to hide the injury.
* A major controversy developed because Carol Lawrence, who played Maria in the stage version, was passed over for the role in favor of Natalie Wood.
* In the scene on the roof before the musical number "America", when the girls are mocking Bernardo's speech, one of the girls say ,"We came with our hearts open", one of the Sharks says, "You came with your pants open!" This line had to be changed to "You came with your mouth open," for the movie because of censorship standards.
* The stage lyrics for the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" are "My father is a bastard, my ma's an s.o.b. My grandpa's always plastered..." The lyrics had to be changed for the movie to: "My daddy beats my mommy, my mommy clobbers me, my grandpa is a commie..." Also, the stage lyric was, "Dear kindly social worker, they say go earn a buck, like be a soda jerker, which means like be a schmuck." For the film, the lines were changed to "Dear kindly social worker, they say go get a job, like be a soda jerker, which means I'd be a slob."
* Marni Nixon (who dubbed for Natalie Wood) had to do the end of quintet for Rita Moreno. The reason was that Betty Wand and Moreno both had colds and could not sing, so the filmmakers asked Nixon to do the end. So she is singing two voices at once.
* Gus Trikonis who played Indio, one of the Puerto Rican Sharks, is the brother of Gina Trikonis who played Graziella the tough red-haired girlfriend of Riff, leader of the Jets.
* In a few scenes, a poster can be seen for Palisades Park, which was a real amusement park which operated in Cliffside Park (or Fort Lee), New Jersey from 1898 to 1971.
* The lyrics to "America" were substantially changed for the movie. There had been complaints that the Broadway version was too belittling to Puerto Ricans, in that the song mainly ridiculed Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. The movie lyrics emphasize the racism and discrimination that Puerto Ricans were subjected to in America.
* The ship seen in the opening aerial view of the city is the SS United States of the United States Lines. It first sailed in 1952 and was laid up in the late 1960's and has been idle ever since. It was recently bought by NCL to be refurbished as a cruise ship.
* Russ Tamblyn had originally tried out for the role of Tony. It was down to just him and Richard Beymer, and Beymer ended up getting it. But then the casting directors called him back and asked him to read for Riff, and he got the part.
* In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #51 Greatest Movie of All Time.
* Eliot Feld (Baby John) collapsed and ended up hospitalized with pneumonia during the demanding filming of "Cool".
* Even though dubbing Natalie Wood was Marni Nixon's chief assignment, Nixon also did one number for Rita Moreno, which required a relatively high vocal register. Having dubbed Wood as well as Moreno, Nixon felt she deserved a cut of the movie-album royalties. Neither the movie or the record producers would bow to her demands. Leonard Bernstein broke the stalemate by volunteering a percentage of his income, a gesture of loyalty-royalty since Nixon had been a performer-colleague of his at New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra concerts. He ceded one-quarter of one percent of his royalties to her (a generous amount).
* The song "One Hand, One Heart" was written for the earlier musical "Candide," but later discarded by Leonard Bernstein and revived for "West Side Story."
* When filming "The Taunting Scene", Rita Moreno was reduced to tears when she was harassed and nearly raped by the Jets, as it brought back memories of when she was raped as a child. When she started crying, the Jets immediately stopped what they were doing and tried to comfort her, while pointing out that the audience was going to hate them for what they were doing.
* Jerome Robbins completed four numbers -- the Prologue, "Cool", "I Feel Pretty" and "America" -- before he was removed from the project.
* The "America" sequence on stage was conceived as a duet between Anita and Rosalia. For the film, it was altered to be one between Anita and Bernardo.
* Shooting lasted for 6 months, sound mixing and editing for 7.
* The film ran in Paris for a grand total of 249 weeks, making it the longest running film in French history.
* During the entire production, the actors wore out 200 pairs of shoes, applied more than 100lbs of make-up, split 27 pairs of pants and performed in 30 different recording sessions.
* The song "Gee Officer Krupke" was banned by the BBC because of its mentions of drug use and sexual ambiguity.
* The second highest grossing film of 1961, coming in just behind One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).
* With its win of 10 Academy Awards, this became the biggest Oscar-winning musical of all time, beating the record Gigi (1958) set three years before with its nine Oscars.
* At the time, this became the biggest selling soundtrack album.
* Jerome Robbins initially refused to work on the film unless he could direct it. Producer Walter Mirisch was nervous about handing the reins entirely over to the inexperienced Robbins who had never made a film before so he enlisted Robert Wise to direct the drama whilst Robbins handled the dancing. Robbins turned out to rely on making take after take, to the extent that the film quickly ran overbudget and behind schedule. This ultimately led to his firing.
* Jerome Robbins rehearsed with the dancers for three months before shooting began. Once he got on the locations however, he kept revising and revising his original choreography. The dancers all claimed that they had never worked so hard on a dance piece, and most of them suffered at some stage from injuries.
* Shooting in 70mm was prohibitively expensive. After their experiences making this film -- and especially Jerome Robbins' extensive reshooting -- the Mirisch brothers refused to make any more films in the format.
* Russ Tamblyn (Riff) was dubbed for "The Jet Song" by Tucker Smith, who played Ice, his lieutenant in the movie.
* "Cool" was such a demanding number for the performers, Harvey Evans (aka Harvey Hohnecker), who played Mouthpiece, later stated that the actors ritually burned their kneepads upon wrapping the scene.
* In 1962, the Columbia Records soundtrack release commanded the number-one spot on the "Billboard" popular albums chart from May 5 through June 16, and again from October 6 through October 13.