West Side Story is a 1961 American romantic musical tragedy film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The film is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was inspired by William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. It stars Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris, and was photographed by Daniel L. Fapp, A.S.C., in Super Panavision 70. Released on October 18, 1961, through United Artists, the film received high praise from critics and viewers, and became the second highest grossing film of the year in the United States. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture (as well as a special award for Robbins), becoming the record holder for the most wins for a movie musical.
In the summer of 1960 in the West Side's Lincoln Square neighborhood in Manhattan, there is tension between a white American gang, the Jets, led by Riff Lorton, and a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, led by Bernardo Nunez. After a brawl erupts, Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke arrive and break it up. The Jets decide to challenge the Sharks to a rumble at an upcoming dance for neighborhood control.
Riff decides that his best friend Tony Wyzek, the co-founder of the Jets who left the gang, should join them for the rumble. Riff invites Tony to the dance, and Tony is uninterested, but eventually agrees to come. He tells Riff that he senses something important will happen in his life, which Riff suggests could be related to the dance.
Bernardo's younger sister, Maria, tells her best friend and Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita Palacio, with whom she works at a bridal shop, how excited she is about the dance as they work on altering Maria's dress. She also complains that she has no interest in Chino, the young Puerto Rican man Bernardo brought to the U.S. for her to marry. At the dance, the gangs and girls refuse to intermingle. Tony arrives and he and Maria fall in love at first sight. Bernardo angrily demands Tony stay away from Maria and sends her home. Riff confronts Bernardo about meeting to arrange the fight.
At home, Bernardo admonishes Maria for being naive, and he and Anita argue that he is being overprotective. They and their friends debate the advantages and disadvantages of America.
Tony quietly meets Maria on her fire escape, where they reaffirm their love. At Doc's store, both gangs agree on a one-on-one fist fight rumble the following night under a highway. When Schrank arrives, the gangs feign friendship. Schrank forces the Sharks out and unsuccessfully tries to discover information about the fight.
The next day at the bridal shop Anita accidentally tells Maria about the rumble. Tony arrives to see Maria, revealing their romance to Anita who initially objects and warns them that Bernardo would never approve, but later agrees to keep it secret. Maria has Tony promise to prevent the rumble. Tony and Maria fantasize about their wedding ceremony.
The following night, the Jets and Sharks meet under the highway and the fight begins as planned. Tony arrives to stop it, but Bernardo antagonizes him. Unwilling to watch Tony be humiliated, Riff initiates a knife fight. Tony tries to intervene, which leads to Bernardo killing Riff. Tony kills Bernardo with Riff's knife in retaliation and a melee ensues. Police sirens blare and everyone flees, leaving behind the dead bodies.
Maria waits for Tony on the rooftop of her apartment building when Chino arrives and tells her what happened. Tony arrives and explains what transpired and asks for her forgiveness before he turns himself in to the police. Maria confirms her love for him and asks Tony to stay with her.
The Jets have reassembled outside a garage with their new leader, Ice, having them focus on keeping cool no matter how emotional they feel. The tomboy Anybodys arrives and warns them that Chino is now after Tony with a gun. The Jets split up to find Tony.
Anita arrives home after learning of Bernardo's death. Maria and Tony quickly and quietly agree to meet up at Doc's and run away. Anita catches Tony leaving and tells Maria she should let him go since he is a killer, but Maria changes her mind. Anita tells her of Chino's plans and Maria tells her Tony is headed for Doc's store. Schrank arrives to question Maria about the disagreement at the dance. Maria fakes having a headache and asks Anita go to Doc's store for medicine and to tell Doc she has been detained. Knowing Maria's real meaning, she agrees.
At Doc's, the Jets harass Anita, despite her pleas that she wants to help. After Doc breaks things up, Anita proclaims that Bernardo was right to hate them and says that Chino killed Maria when he found about her and Tony.
Doc delivers getaway money and Anita's message to Tony who then bursts into street, yelling for Chino to kill him too. Maria arrives and they run to each other in the middle of the playground. Just before they embrace, Chino shoots Tony and he dies in Maria's arms. Maria takes the gun from Chino and blames the deaths of Riff, Bernardo, and Tony on all of them and their hate for each other. Schrank, Krupke, and Doc arrive as the Jets and Sharks, together, carry Tony's body away, forming a funeral procession with Maria following. The police arrest Chino and lead him away.
Veteran director Robert Wise was chosen to direct and produce because of his experience with urban New York dramas such as Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Since he had no experience directing a musical, Wise agreed that Jerome Robbins, who had directed the stage version of West Side Story, would direct the musical and dance sequences. After about one-third of the movie had been shot, the Mirisch Company, concerned that the production was running over-budget, dismissed Robbins. According to Saul Chaplin, Robbins nearly suffered a nervous breakdown during the time he worked on the film. The remaining dance numbers were directed with the help of Robbins' assistants. Recognizing Robbins' considerable creative contribution to the film, Wise agreed that Robbins should be given co-directing credit, even though Wise directed the greater part of the film. The opening titles and end credits sequences were created by Saul Bass, who is also credited for "visual consultation" on the film.
Exterior shots used the buildings of Lincoln Square, which were vacant and about to be torn down, allowing them to be used as a set.
Because the producers wanted actors who looked believable as teenagers, they did not consider 30-year-old Larry Kert, the first Tony on Broadway, or 29-year-old Carol Lawrence, the first Maria, but some had experience in stage productions. Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab on stage, was cast as Action in the film, and George Chakiris, Riff in the London stage production, played Bernardo in the film. Tucker Smith, who joined the Broadway production several months into its run, played Diesel, renamed Ice for the film. David Winters, the first stage Baby John, played A-Rab, Eliot Feld, an ensemble member and understudy for Baby John on Broadway, played Baby John. Jay Norman, Juano on stage, appeared as Pepe. Reprising their stage roles in the film were Carole D'Andrea as Velma, Tommy Abott as Gee-Tar, and William Bramley as Officer Krupke.
Elvis Presley was approached for Tony, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, strongly believed the role to be wrong for Elvis and made him decline in favor of other movie musicals. According to legend, the Colonel didn't want Elvis associated with gang warfare and knife crime, although three years earlier, Elvis' character Danny Fisher stabbed and killed the small-time gangster 'Shark' played by Vic Morrow in the movie King Creole. When the movie became a hit and earned 10 Oscars, Elvis regretted having given up the part. Others who auditioned for the part included Warren Beatty, Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins, Russ Tamblyn, Burt Reynolds, Troy Donahue, Bobby Darin, Richard Chamberlain, Dennis Hopper, and Gary Lockwood.
Bobby Darin made a strong impression on the producers at his audition and was, at one point, in talks for the role. However, he turned it down due to his concert and recording commitments. Tab Hunter, then 30, and Burt Reynolds, nearly 26, were also considered, due to their Broadway and singing credits, but they were dismissed because of their age. Richard Chamberlain was also thought too old at age 26. The producers settled on their "final five": Warren Beatty, Anthony Perkins, Russ Tamblyn, Troy Donahue, and Richard Beymer. Although he was 28 before filming began, Perkins' boyish looks and Broadway resume seemed to make him a contender for the role, and he was trying to avoid getting typecast after the success of Psycho. Robert Wise originally chose Beatty for the role, figuring that youth was more important than experience. Ultimately, Beymer, the most unlikely of the candidates, won the part of Tony. Tamblyn, after several callbacks, impressed the producers and was given the role of Riff.
Natalie Wood was filming Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty and was romantically involved with him off-screen. The producers were considering her for the role of Maria. When Beatty went to screen test for the role of Tony, Wood read opposite him as Maria as a favor because she had been practicing with him. The producers fell in love with the idea of Wood as Maria but did not cast Beatty.
Jill St. John, Audrey Hepburn, Diane Baker, Valerie Harper, Elizabeth Ashley, and Suzanne Pleshette were among the many actresses who lobbied for the role of Maria in the film. However, Hepburn later withdrew because she became pregnant.
West Side Story holds a 94% "Certified fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 62 reviews for an average rating of 8.3/10; the site's critical consensus states: "Buoyed by Robert Wise's dazzling direction, Leonard Bernstein's score, and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, West Side Story remains perhaps the most iconic of all the Shakespeare adaptations to visit the big screen."
Its ten Academy Awards make it the musical film with the most Academy wins, including Best Picture. Three other films (Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) won 11 Oscars, but they were not musical films.
American Film Institute lists:
Leonard Bernstein was displeased with the orchestrations for the movie, which was the work of Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had orchestrated the original Broadway production. That show had been orchestrated for roughly 30 musicians; for the movie, United Artists allowed them triple that, including six saxophone parts, eight trumpets, five pianos and five xylophones. Bernstein found it "overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety."
Stephen Sondheim, who did not like the arrangement of the songs in the Broadway version, had the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" being sung before the Rumble in place of the song "Cool" which is sung instead after the Rumble; the song "I Feel Pretty" is also sung before the Rumble instead of after. In addition, the song "America" was sung in-between the two love songs "Maria" and "Tonight", instead of having the two love songs being sung consecutively. The "Somewhere" Ballet was omitted, because it slowed down the pace of the film, and was sung instead by Tony and Maria. Reprises of the lyrics were omitted as well, especially in the songs "One Hand, One Heart" and "A Boy Like That". Some lyrics were changed in order to avoid censorship, especially in the songs "Jet Song," "Gee, Officer Krupke", "America" and the "Tonight Quintet." Even the phrase "Womb to Tomb, Sperm to Worm" between Riff and Tony had to be replaced with "Womb to Tomb, Birth to Earth" between Riff and Tony near the beginning of the film and "One-Two-Three, One-Two-Three" between Riff and Diesel in the Quintet.
As provided in her contract, Wood prerecorded her songs and allowed the production team to decide whether to use her voice or not. She found the songs challenging, but was allowed to film her scenes lip-synching to her own vocals and was led to believe that these versions would be used, although music supervisors Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green had already decided to use Marni Nixon's voice. Wood's singing voice is only heard during the reprise of the song "Somewhere" when Tony dies. Though Nixon had recorded the songs in the same orchestra sessions as Wood, she had to re-record them to synch with Wood's filmed performances. Even the one song for which Wood had lip-synched to Nixon's voice, "One Hand, One Heart", had to be recorded again because Wood's lip-synching was unsatisfactory. When Marni Nixon learned that she had not signed a contract for participating in the recording and demanded a percentage of the LP record, she was told that all percentages had been allocated. Bernstein gave her 0.25% of his album royalties. This set a precedent for all future "ghost singers".
Beymer's vocals were performed by Jimmy Bryant. Tucker Smith, who played Ice, dubbed the singing voice of Riff in "Jet Song", instead of Russ Tamblyn. Tamblyn's own voice was used in "Gee, Officer Krupke" and the "Quintet". Rita Moreno was dubbed by Betty Wand in the song "A Boy Like That" because the song needed to be performed at a register that was too low for her. However, Moreno sang her own vocals in "America". Marni Nixon sang some of Moreno's parts in the "Quintet" when illness prevented Moreno from doing so. Wand was also ill on the day of final recording, and so Nixon recorded Anita's vocal line as well.
For the 50th anniversary of the film's 1961 release, a score closer to the Broadway version was created by Garth Edwin Sunderland of the Leonard Bernstein Office to be performed live at screenings of the movie with the score removed, but with the original vocals maintained. The score's New York City premiere was presented at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, built atop the original film locations, which were razed in a late 1950s urban renewal project.
The Stan Kenton Orchestra recorded Kenton's West Side Story, an entire album of Johnny Richards' jazz orchestrations based on the Bernstein scores in 1961. It was previewed at Capitol Records by the producers of the motion picture during the editing and mix down who lamented that, had they known of its existence, it would have been used as the musical foundation of the new film. The Kenton version won the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Recording by a Large Group. A still picture from the movie is the front cover of the Kenton LP.
In 2009, photographer Mark Seliger re-created scenes from the film for magazine Vanity Fair called West Side Story Revisited, using Camilla Belle as Maria, Ben Barnes as Tony, Jennifer Lopez as Anita, Rodrigo Santoro as Bernardo and Chris Evans as Riff. Portraying the Sharks are Minka Kelly, Jay Hernandez, Natalie Martinez, Brandon T. Jackson and Melonie Diaz. Portraying the Jets are Ashley Tisdale, Sean Faris, Robert Pattinson, Cam Gigandet, Trilby Glover, Brittany Snow and Drake Bell.
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