By Dennis Drabelle
The Jets are due to land in December, the Sharks right with them. But where? In theaters retooled for socially distanced viewing (Coronascope?) or in the super-safety of our streamed-into homes?
We’re talking, of course, about the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner version of what originated in the 1950s as a Broadway play with several striking features. There was the chutzpah of converting the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” into a musical; the topicality of replacing the Montagues and Capulets with finger-snapping, street-dancing New York juvenile delinquents; and the stature of the show’s masterminds — composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer and director Jerome Robbins and playwright Arthur Laurents. (Also contributing was a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim.)
After doing boffo business and winning multiple Tonys, “West Side Story” was made into a 1961 movie, which did boffo business and won multiple Oscars. It’s this incarnation that film historian Richard Barrios elucidates in his informative and engaging new book, a co-production of Turner Classic Movies and Running Press.
Barrios traces “West Side Story” back to a 1948 conversation between Robbins and his then-boyfriend, Montgomery Clift. Just as Cole Porter had played fast and loose with Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” in concocting the Broadway hit “Kiss Me Kate,” so, Robbins and Clift thought, something exhilarating might be made of “Romeo and Juliet.” Robbins floated the idea of an update centering on tensions between Jews and Catholics, but Bernstein and Laurents had the aha moment: Both were visiting Los Angeles in the summer of 1955 when articles about street-gang warfare ran in the Los Angeles Times.
Bernstein, Barrios reports, “was as mercurial as his music; Laurents was a master at clever, cutting sarcasm; and Robbins’s outbursts of temper . . . promptly became the stuff of legend.” Thus, their collaboration could easily have succumbed to “toxic combustibility.” But the Three Egos managed to work and play well together, and what started out as “East Side Story” and slouched through its adolescence as “Gangway” grew up to be “West Side Story,” with a pre-Broadway premiere in Washington, D.C., on August 19, 1957.
The film rights went to the brothers Mirisch — Walter, Harold and Marvin — who had just become players by producing Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.” Robbins, who had directed the play, signed on to do the same for the movie, but because his forte was choreography, the Mirisch Company burdened him with a co-director, Robert Wise.
Casting proved to be a drawn-out and fraught process. Larry Kert, the Broadway Tony, “was apparently never under serious consideration,” but Elvis Presley apparently was. (I like to imagine Elvis singing “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Shark Fish” at his audition.) In the end the role went to Richard Beymer, who had achieved what Barrios calls “dreamboat” status in the movie version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” With Carol Lawrence, the Maria of the original cast, deemed now too old for the role, Natalie Wood was chosen for her star power.
For all his dreamboating, the Iowa-born Beymer has admitted that he wasn’t right for Tony. Wood worked hard on her dancing, even harder on her singing. She was led to believe that her voice would be used for all but the highest notes, which Marni Nixon would dub. In fact, management knew all along that Maria’s vocals would be all-Nixon, all the time. Wood had to live with what Barrios calls “a sour conclusion to a difficult professional experience.”
Those were the days when Hollywood enticed folks into movie theaters with spectacles that beggared the small screen of a black-and-white TV. Spectacle doesn’t come cheap, and the film was budgeted at a robust $5 million. Largely due to Robbins’s perfectionism, the production got off to a squandering start. He insisted on take after take for the dance numbers, and instead of the normal shooting pace of “two to four script pages per day, totaling roughly three minutes,” the Mirisches were getting “less than one page and well under one minute per day.” In a section of the book wryly called “The Rumble,” Barrios recounts the firing of Robbins and the ascension of Wise, who holds the dubious distinction of having second-guessed two artistic titans, Robbins and Orson Welles. (When in 1942 “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Welles’s follow-up to “Citizen Kane,” came in too long and gloomy for the studio’s taste, Wise cut it and filmed a new, upbeat ending.)
At any rate, the Wised-up “West Side Story” was a hit, grossing $44 million; winning 10 Oscars plus a special honorary award for Robbins; and pleasing the critics. Most of them, anyway. Two of the greats, Pauline Kael and David Thomson, later filed dissents, she dismissing the film as “frenzied hokum,” he as “pedestrian.”
So there’s room for improvement by Messrs. Spielberg and Kushner. As we wait for their “West Side Story” to arrive via one technology or another, reading Barrios will make us better equipped to reach our own verdict.