Musical Monday: West Side Story (1961)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.

In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

west side story6This week’s musical:
West Side Story (1961) – Musical No. 1

United Artists

Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins

Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer, Ned Glass, Simone Oakland, William Bramley

Sharks: Jay Norman, Jose de Vega, Eddie Verso, Gus Trikonis, Jamie Rogers, Larry Roquemore, Robert E. Thompson, Nick Covacevich, Rudy Del Campo, Andre Tayir

Jets: Tucker Smith, David Winters, Eliot Feld, Tony Mordente, Bert Michaels, David Bean, Robert Banas, Anthony Teague, Harvey Evans, Tommy Abbott

The Girls: Susan Oakes, Carole D’Andrea, Gina Trikonis, Yvonne Wilder, Suzie Kaye, Joanne Miya, Maria Jimenez Henley

In a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the story is set in the west side of New York City. The feud is between the American gang, the Jets, and the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. An American, Tony, falls in love with a Puerto Rican, Maria, who is also the sister of the Sharks’ gang leader, Bernardo.

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  • Film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical.
  • Several actors were in the original Broadway cast, such as: William Bramley as Officer Krupke, David Winters (who plays A-Rab in the film but Baby John on stage), Jay Norman, Larry Roquemore, Rudy Del Campo, Tucker Smith, Tony Mordente (who played A-Rab on the stage), Gina Trikonis, Carole D’Andrea (who played Anybodys on stage)
  • Some actors were on the West End production, such as: George Chakiris (as Riff), Yvonne Wilder, David Bean
  • Irene Scharaff created the costumes for both the film and Broadway productions.
  • The character of Ice, played by Tucker Smith, was created for the film.
  • Jimmy Bryant dubbed the singing voice of Richard Beymer. Marni Nixon dubbed the singing voice Natalie Wood. Tucker Smith dubbed Russ Tamblyn during the “Jet Song.” Betty Wand partially dubbed Rita Moreno in “A Boy Like That.”
  • Several people were considered while casting this film:
    • Tony: Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, Richard Chamberlain, Bobby Darin, Gary Lockwood, Troy Donahue, Tab Hunter, George Preppard, Scott Marlowe
    • Maria: Anna Maria Alberghetti, Denise Alexander, Ann-Margret, Pier Angeli, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Ashley, Diane Baker, Suzanne Pleshette, Angie Dickinson
  • In his autobiography, Tab Hunter wrote that he really wanted the role of Tony and passed up roles for it, especially with his musical experience in “Damn Yankees.” He hoped he would get it, especially since and Natalie Wood had been “America’s Sweethearts” in the late-1950s.
  • Rita Moreno was unhappy that the makeup used for the Puerto Rican characters was all the same shade of brown. “Puerto Ricans … are born with a broad palette of skin colors, from outright white to true black,” she wrote in her autobiography.
  • Natalie Wood hoped she could do her own singing, and arranged for vocal lessons. Robert Wise remembered agreeing to “try and see,” according to Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad.
  • Tony Mordente worked one-on-one with Natalie Wood on her dance numbers, according to Suzanne Finstad.
  • The scene where Maria waits on the roof for Tony after the “Rumble” was not in the Broadway play, but was created for Natalie Wood, according to biographer Gavin Lambert.
  • Jerome Robbins was eventually fired from the film, according to Rita Moreno’s autobiography. According to her, he had impossible standards and was such a perfectionist that he would never say “It’s a print!” after a scene.
  • Jerome Robbins choreographed every dance but the mambo, according to Moreno.
  • Won 10 Academy Awards.
  • Filmed on location in New York City.

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  • The set design and colors
  • Jerome Robbins’s choreography
  • Leonard Bernstein’s score

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Notable Songs:

  • Jet Song” performed by Russ Tamblyn, dubbed by Tucker Smith, and the Jets
  • Something’s Coming” performed by Richard Beymer, dubbed by Jimmy Bryant
  • Maria” performed by Richard Beymer, dubbed by Jimmy Bryant
  • America” performed by Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and the Sharks
  • Tonight” performed by Richard Beymber (dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) and Natalie Wood (performed by Marni Nixon)
  • Gee, Officer Krupke” performed by Russ Tamblyn and the Jets
  • One Hand, One Heart” performed by Richard Beymber (dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) and Natalie Wood (performed by Marni Nixon)
  • I Feel Pretty” performed by Natalie Wood (performed by Marni Nixon), Suzie Kaye, Yvonne Wilder, and Nobuko Miyamoto
  • Quintet” performed by Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer (dubbed by Jimmy Bryant), Natalie Wood (dubbed by Marni Nixon), Russ Tamblyn, Tucker Smith, George Chakiris, The Jets, and The Sharks
  • Somewhere” performed by performed by Richard Beymber (dubbed by Jimmy Bryant) and Natalie Wood (performed by Marni Nixon)
  • Cool” performed by Tucker Smith
  • A Boy Like That” performed by Rita Moreno (partially dubbed by Betty Wand) and Natalie Wood (dubbed by Marni Nixon)

My review:

There would be no Musical Monday feature without WEST SIDE STORY (1961). There maybe wouldn’t be a Comet Over Hollywood.

I was 14-years-old when I first watched WEST SIDE STORY with my parents in March 2002. I already liked Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn films, so they thought I would enjoy this musical.

“While watching you watch the movie, I thought, ‘This was going to be Jessica’s new favorite movie,’” my mom said when I recently discussed that first viewing with her.

As the credits started to roll, I found myself thinking of the film constantly. I felt overwhelmed with how much I loved the film. I was OBSESSED in all capital letters.

Because of this, I sought out other movie musicals to see if any other film made me feel the way WEST SIDE STORY did—which is why I’ve seen so many musicals.

Magnificent Obsession

The obsession lasted about three years, though I continue to love the film.

Shortly after that March 2002 viewing, I made my parents drive me to Best Buy so I could purchase the CD and later received the 40th anniversary special edition DVD as a gift. I tried to learn the dances (which makes me laugh now), learned how to snap because of this film, plastered my room with West Side Story images, and listened to the soundtrack constantly. I brought the film up to anyone who would listen, including classmates.

This week, I polled friends and family for a testimonial to see their memories of this time:

Adrien Wamboldt, friend and former childhood classmate:

“Oh my gosh, Jessica was crazy about West Side Story. I had no idea what she was even talking about it, but it made her happy so I was pro-West Side Story too.”

 Lisa Pickens, my mom

“I remember you being glued to the television during the movie and teary at the ending. I knew right away that you loved the movie. The next day I could tell that you were thinking about the movie a lot. When you weren’t thinking about the movie, you were talking about it. You found lots of pictures of the movie online and printed them and covered your closet door with them. You got the soundtrack CD and played it over and over, even listening to it in the shower. You watched the movie a lot and tried to learn the dance steps and hoped to use the dance moves at the eighth grade dance. You read everything you could find about the movie and all the actors, and you watched other movies that starred the West Side Story actors. You also knew the names of every dancer, and followed their careers. In your Spanish class your name was Julieta. You hoped every year that marching band would perform the music from West Side Story.”

Bill Pickens, my dad

“My sister Katy and I watched older movies growing up, and West Side Story was one of our favorites. When Jessica started watching West Side Story and became a very enthusiastic fan of the movie and soundtrack, it made me very happy that she enjoyed something I also liked.”

Erin Pickens, my oldest sister

“I wasn’t really living at home when you had your West Side Story ‘phase,’ but I do remember continuous watching of the movie on repeat, always talking about it, many pictures and conversations about it and a lot of singing of the songs.”

The film

Though WEST SIDE STORY was my gateway drug into movie musicals, I’ve held off reviewing it since I began Musical Monday reviews in 2013. The reason for the delay is simple: It’s such a personal film, and I have so much to say that I worried it wouldn’t be enough. As I wrote this, I revised and reorganized this review many times. I still maybe didn’t say everything I wanted to share.

I think it’s obvious from what I’ve already said that I love this film. The music, the choreography, the colors are mesmerizing. For a 2 hour and 45 minute film, it doesn’t feel that long. It moves at a brisk pace with each song arriving to help move along the story.

The film is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” However, the story isn’t a carbon copy just set in contemporary times. It is a story all its own (another example of a Shakespeare adaptation that does this well is “All Night Long,” a retelling of Othello).

In this adaptation, the story is set in the west side of New York City. The feud is between the American gang, the Jets, and the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. An American, Tony, falls in love with a Puerto Rican, Maria, who is also the sister of the Sharks’ gang leader, Bernardo. While the two gangs hate each other, they also have one common enemy: the law enforcement. Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke don’t try to understand the problems of contemporary teens and are racist against the Puerto Ricans moving into the neighborhood. The racial issue was a timely topic, especially for the 1960s.

This film is what made me a fan of all of its stars and I sought out other films of Natalie Wood (Maria), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Russ Tamblyn (Riff) and Richard Beymer (Tony) — who was also a crush of mine for a while after this film.

Even more than our lead performers, I’ve come to enjoy watching the performances of the dancers in the Jets and the Sharks (who I highlighted in this 2016 article, click here to read).

I’ve heard reviews of the film saying it is silly, because gangsters are performing ballet and modern dance in the streets and during fights. But if you are at all interested in dancing and athletics, these dancers are extremely athletic and the choreography is difficult. This is why I laugh at my teen self, trying to learn these dances — I didn’t take into consideration that these were professional dancers with years of experience.

By today’s standards, some of the casting isn’t perfect. Several actors were in brown face, like American actress Natalie Wood, Greek actor George Chakiris and Greek-American actor Gus Trikonis. Other issues are Asian-American actors performing as Puerto Ricans, like Filipino actor Jose de Vega or actress Nobuko Miyamoto (billed as Joanne Miya) as one of the Shark girlfriends, Francisca. Vega and Miyamoto later created The Great Leap, Inc., to work to end racial stereotypes in films.

Also, a downside for some is that several of the actors didn’t perform their own singing and were hired for their acting and dancing abilities. Wood and Beymer were both dubbed, and Russ Tamblyn was even dubbed during “The Jet Song” by fellow Jet, Tucker Smith.

My hot take: Elvis Presley was considered for the role of Tony. Today, we remember him for bright, colorful fluff films, but Presley wanted to be a serious actor. If allowed to act as a serious performer, I think Presley would have been an excellent Tony (even though I love Richard Beymer). I also feel Michael Callan, who was in the original Broadway cast, could have been a great lead member in this film.

But acknowledging those flaws, I still love this film. Even grouchy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it a “cinematic masterpiece.”

It’s difficult to pick a favorite song, because I love all of them in their own way. I think that the “Quintet” is one of the most innovative and interesting sequences performed on screen.

My favorite scene hands down is “The Dance at the Gym.” It’s an excellent showcase of all of the dancers in the film, as they also get to demonstrate different dance forms — from contemporary jazz to the mambo. As an aside: This was a dance I practiced, because it could happen at the eighth grade dance. You never know!

A work of art

As a teen, I loved the movie for the romance, choreography and gorgeous score. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve studied the movie with a more critical eye. I spot something new every time I watch this film.

I equate this film to a work of art. The camera movements, the set design and costuming are just as much a part of the storytelling as the music and script. One of my favorite moments that demonstrates this is at the beginning, as the Jets and Sharks chase each other. The camera has the effect of spinning to the next scenario of the gangs battling in the streets, and the camera work moves with the notes of Leonard Bernstein’s score. I love when the camera zooms in on Baby John (Eliot Feld) painting “Sharks Stink” on the wall, with it zooming in with every music que.

Once years ago, after watching this film with a friend, I was discussing performances of actors and symbolism in the set design. I mentioned the window that looks like a cross above Tony and Maria during “One Hand, One Heart,” and the looks of empathy when Lt. Schrank (Oakland) is harassing the Sharks in Doc’s Candy Store.

“You’re thinking too much about it. It’s just a movie,” they said.

With any film and with any competent filmmaker, everything is there for a reason. These things don’t happen by accident. Every shot and scene is carefully planned, just like details in a painting.

While I love this film and generally oppose remakes, I will most likely see the new WEST SIDE STORY, set to be released in Dec. 2021. After all, this is an adaptation of a Broadway stage play, so even the 1961 version isn’t original. I also feel that the story is in the capable hands of director Steven Spielberg and composer David Newman, son of 20th Century Fox’s musical director Alfred Newman. Both have demonstrated a love and understanding of classic films over the years.

In conclusion, I hope I appropriately conveyed how important this film is to my classic film love. While I recognize “Since You Went Away” as my favorite film now, WEST SIDE STORY is still one of my top films.

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