The One about Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story”

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“West Side Story”, a musical classic that has entertained and awed generation after generation.

What began as a 1957 Broadway musical directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, because the storyline dealt with urban street gangs, needless to say, at first the story was not as well-accepted by viewers that year, despite winning a 1957 Tony Award for choreography. But when the film adaptation was made in 1961, the film co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins would try to accomplish something different than any musical on the big screen.

The film would star actress Natalie Woods (“The Searchers”, “Splendor in the Grass”, “Rebel Without a Cause”), Richard Beymer (“The Diary of Anne Frank”, “The Danny Thomas Show”), Russ Tamblyn (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “The Haunting”), Rita Moreno (“Singing’ in the Rain”, “The King and I”, “Zorro”), George Chakiris (“The Young Girls of Rochefort”, “633 Squadron”).

The film would also feature the talent of Leonard Bernstein for music, Stephen Sondheim for lyrics, award winning costume designer Irene Sharaff (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, “The Taming of the Shrew”, “Hello, Dolly!”, “The King and I”, “Cleopatra”, “Guys and Dolls”), cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp (“The Great Escape”, “The Unsinkable Molly brown”, “One, Two, Three”) and production designer Boris Levin (“Anatomy of a Murder”, “The Sound of Music”).

And needless to say, the film was a major hit all over the world! The film would be nominated for eleven Academy Awards and would win ten (including “Best Cinematography”, “Best Costume Design”, “Best Director”, “Best Film Editing”, “Best Art Direction”, “Best Music”, “Best Picture” and also an award for both George Chakiris and Rita Moreno for their supporting roles).

Created with a budget of $6 million, the film would gross over $43 million (which was tremendous in 1961) and would be deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1971. The film was also #2 in AFI’s “Greatest Movie Musicals” and #41 in AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies”.

“West Side Story” is a groundbreaking, visually fantastic and memorable musical film that will continue to live on for many generations to come.

Like many of those who grew up and were fascinated with this film from its debut back in 1961 to 2011, this film still puts people in awe because of its music, its talent, its cinematography but also its awesome choreography.

Watching this film and seeing the choreography and cinematography working in sync together is amazing but its the testament to the talent of this film and those responsible from the film’s direction, its cinematography, the tight editing, the vibrant costume design and of course, the music and lyrics that continue to make this film a beloved classic for many who are exposed to it.

“West Side Story” is a film like no other. One would have to remember that back in the ’60s, musicals were happy stories. People got their happy ending but for a story such as “West Side Story”, inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”, you knew that this film would be tragic.

Despite the memorable dance scenes and how fun this film is to watch, you know that the story is tragic and that this film is features multiple deaths of characters. It’s not an action film but a musical that showcases the problems of gang violence.

“West Side Story” was created with magnificent detail within its choreographed moments of visual magic through clever cinematography (for the dancing in the streets, the filmmaker dug a hole in the streets of NY enough to get the camera to shoot from the ground up) to a determined cast who braved through long hours in order to achieve the perfection of Jerome Robbins and also the kindness of Robert Wise. These two were literally oil and water, complete opposite in approach. But both respected each other and it was through Jerome’s perfectionist attitude, things had to be tough on the set in order to achieve complete efficacy.

Robbins who worked as the cinematographer and director of the Broadway play, expected perfection and these musical scenes were shot many times, repeated for many hours straight to the point of exhaustion. In fact, the opening Jets and Shark scenes were shot during 110 degree weather and they were done multiple times. Definitely not easy!

Including the Jets car garage sequence, shot in a very warm area, many times to the point of exhaustion and even one dancer was rushed to the hospital. That was how Robbins’ approach was, so much to the point that after that shot was created, the dancers/talent burned their knee pads and let Robbins know about how they felt.

Needless to say, it was that perfection and tough direction that led to Robbins being fired from “West Side Story” (the constant reshooting and longer schedule due to Robbins’ trying to achieve perfection was driving costs and investors were not happy), but at the same time, for co-director Robert Wise, to recognize how much Robbins meant to not only the actors, the dancers and the talent, he was brought back by Robert Wise for his input for advice but also to aid in editing the final cut.

Everything required perfection by Robbins. He demanded it and because of this demand on his dancers, many of the surviving dancers believe that it was because his determination of achieving perfection, it’s what made this film become a classic but also extended its longevity towards newer viewers but also extending to plays in theater, high school plays and even inspiring choreographers of today who watched the film and were just shocked of how elaborate the choreography was for the film and feel the same way today.

And as the music and cinematography were quite special, one also must be surprised at that time to see what was accomplished with cinema technology because “West Side Story” had a look and feel that was visually bold with its colors and lightning, it was unique for its time. But also cinematography that captured life on the streets of New York between these two gangs.

Where as the play, characters are restricted to a stage, but in “West Side Story”, we have characters from New York City running and dancing around. May it be dancing near a wall or crossing the street, the film also showcases overhead shots, very low shots (as mentioned, they dug a hole 6 ft. deep on actual streets to get those dance shots) and the performance by the talents and the dancers are phenomenal. Everything seemed as if they were in sync.

I used the word “as if” because big choices had to be made throughout the film, from redubbing the singing portions of Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer and Rita Moreno but also, behind-the-scenes, the lead talents Wood and Beymer were not-so friendly towards each other. As one talented mentioned on the documentary, the two did not get along on the set.

But whatever challenges the cast and crew had on the set, no matter how difficult things were to make this film…to have a film that has achieved such a unique status of being a memorable classic is a testament to the perseverance of the crew and talent towards this film. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make this film and it paid off.

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Dennis A. Amith