by Allison Singer
"I was introduced to West Side Story back in the summer of 1962 at a day camp out west," a fan reminisces on the Leonard Bernstein Online discussion board. "A girl in the group I was in had just received an LP album of the soundtrack to the original Broadway stage production as a birthday present."
"I fell in love with the music right then and there," she continued.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's 1957 production of West Side Story, a play that touched on hot topics of its time including gang warfare and racial tensions. The marriage of play and politics, of song and strife took hold of American hearts in 1957 and continues to impact audiences today as schools across the nation prepare to present their own interpretations of Bernstein's masterpiece.
The play's female protagonist, Maria, is a Puerto Rican immigrant who has moved to America in hopes of making a better life for herself. Working in a women's dress shop and living with her older brother, Bernardo, Maria encounters Tony, the American boy of her dreams, at a school dance. The two immediately fall for each other and live happily ever after.
What would a romantic musical be without conflict? Bernardo is a member of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, while Tony is a former member of the all-white, all-American Jets. Their love forbidden by society, Maria and Tony are doomed from the start.
West Side Story broke through people's expectations of a Broadway musical. At the time, Broadway was overflowing with feel-good stories of love, lust and fun. In an interview with CBS , Chita Rivera -- the original Anita, Bernardo's sister -- commented on the boldness the play had when dealing with issues other productions dared not touch.
"I remember looking at the script for the first time -- a musical with a dead body being carried over the heads at the end," Rivera said. "Well, this just can't work."
But it did work. Audience members in 1957 were left weeping and leaping to their feet with applause. Fifty years later, the nation's high schools and colleges are scrambling to relay the passion of the play to a new generation.
Tony Matthes, a teacher at Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota, is one of the many people who have taken on the challenge of directing a school's production of West Side Story in the show's anniversary year. In his director's note, Matthes touches upon his young cast's desire to "emphasize the affects that violence in all forms has on our society."
In order to ensure his young actors understand and appreciate the themes of this musical, Matthes urged his students to do their research.
"Many in the cast have read the book The Shook-Up Generation (by Harrison E. Salisbury) and watched the History Channel's documentary on gangs," he said. "They are really connecting with the message. The kids totally identify with the characters in this show, and it has been an amazing experience."
At a high school in Connecticut, however, students are having trouble grasping the intensity of the play, according to student Maddie Eggers. Eggers, who has undertaken the role of Anita in her school's production, feels her supporting cast often misses the larger picture she feels the play wishes to paint.
"I don't think the other students realize what this show really means," she said, frustrated with what she sees as her classmates' lack of awareness.
Another young actress, 18-year-old Lindsay Cooper of Bolivar High School in Springfield, Missouri, has found her classmates eager to immerse themselves in the play.
Cooper, like Eggers, has taken on the role of Anita in her high school's production of the musical. She feels that while many of her peers have seen the movie adaptation, something about seeing the musical performed live is hitting home with her fellow students.
"I think that over half of (high school students) have seen the movie, but not the actual musical," she said. "Seeing kids our own age participate in this type of musical allows us to see even further into the story. The music is very universally written to attract a wide range of viewers, adult and children alike. I feel that kids my age are familiar with a lot of the songs -- whether they realize it or not -- and seeing a live performance will enhance the music even further."
In an attempt to reach out to young audiences who are unable to make the connection between their culture and that of the musical, a non-profit theater company associated with Smith College in Massachusetts is updating the play's music and choreography.
"Our production is actually going to be quite the breakaway production," said David Fried Oppenheim, PACE Theater's director. "We will be using a combination of hip-hop, capoeira, martial arts and other traditional and non-traditional forms of dance and movement to create a new vocabulary that will hopefully resonate with a younger audience."
Oppenheim's choice of modernizing Jerome Robbins' classic choreography is undoubtedly intriguing, yet incredibly risky among Robbins and Bernstein's loyal fan bases. How far can the original play be pushed into a new age before it loses its classic appeal?
The answer lies in the play's origin.
West Side Story is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's timeless Romeo and Juliet, a story about two "star-crossed lovers" who, despite their deep adoration for each other, are unable to be together due to outside influences. The pressure society puts on the pair is too great for their love to exist, and the tragic hero and heroine both lose their lives as a result.
Though the end result of West Side Story differs from Shakespeare's telling of the tragedy, the message remains the same. The final scene is a testament to the immense strain that violence, racial tensions and pure ignorance forces on innocent people's everyday lives. These themes remain as deeply ingrained in society today as they did fifty years ago, and Oppenheim, for one, believes it would be a disaster to lose the musical's message to the generational communication gap.
"It is my belief that the show was written as a modern piece," he said. "If it is not treated as a modern piece, but instead as a 'period' piece, it is in danger of alienating the very people to whom it most hopes to speak."
50 years of West Side Story
Impossible rhythms, lack of money, a show full of 'hatefulness and ugliness'... the musical to end all musicals, which opened in Britain in 1958, had a difficult birth. Here, the original cast give Horatia Harrod the inside story. Plus read about the real-life gangs of New York - and see exclusive rehearsal photographs of the new London production
50 years of West Side Story: the real Gangs of New York
'Something's coming... something good'
In January 1949, the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein took a phone call that changed the face of musical theatre. On the other end of the line was Jerome (Jerry) Robbins, who had already choreographed Fancy Free and On the Town to Bernstein's scores. Robbins had an idea for a tragic musical based on Romeo and Juliet: 'East Side Story' - as it then was - would be set among the fractious communities of Jews and Italian Catholics in New York's Lower East Side. Robbins wanted Bernstein to write the score, and Arthur Laurents (then best known as the author of Home of the Brave and as a Hollywood screenwriter) the book. All three were gripped by the idea but were drawn away by other commitments. It was six years before they could once more take up the idea seriously.
Arthur Laurents (writer) In 1955, the three of us met again in another building which has since been torn down... we found ourselves discussing a headline aspect: juvenile delinquency. Several months later, Bernstein and I were both in Hollywood finishing tax-paying projects, and serious talks began. In Shakespeare, the nature of the conflict between the two houses is never specified. We had begun with religion, but that was dropped. Instead, the racial problems of Los Angeles influenced us to shift our play from the Lower East Side of New York to the Upper West Side, and the conflict to that between a Puerto Rican gang and a polymorphous self-styled 'American' gang.
Leonard Bernstein (writing in November 1955). A young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim came and sang us some of his songs today. What a talent! I think he's ideal for this project, as do we all. The collaboration grows.
Stephen Sondheim (librettist) There are legions of lyrics that I kind of regret. Particularly a number of the very purple-prose lyrics in West Side Story: 'It's alarming how charming I feel.' Coming from a Puerto Rican girl - what, is she studying Noël Coward?
Carol Lawrence (the original 'Maria') It was an attack on society. It was attacking gangs and intolerance and bigotry and feuds that meant nothing. And Jerry said the subtext was, this kind of bigotry is intolerable. It's not to be accepted. And this is the only way we can say that forcefully, beautifully, touchingly, movingly and, hopefully, successfully.
Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard Bernstein) I have a general memory of my father being in his studio with a bunch of people all working in a cloud of cigarette smoke; that was the image of my father working at home back when I was very little. Whether he was working on West Side Story or Candide I couldn't really tell you because they were being written almost simultaneously, and in fact there was some cross-pollination between the two shows. One Hand, One Heart was actually written for Candide, but it wound up in West Side Story, where it sits perfectly.
Harold 'Hal' Prince (producer, Broadway production) Arthur Laurents created a kind of language for the kids that was not real. It was essential language, it was the essence of gang language, but it was not a real street language, because these kids were dancing and singing operatically, and acting and singing.
Arthur Laurents The dialogue is my translation of adolescent street talk into theatre: it might sound real, but it isn't. The music has the feeling of juke box, of transplanted Puerto Rico, but the expression is pure Bernstein. The movement resembles jitterbugging in some places, street-fighting in others, but it is all Robbins in dance.
Jamie Bernstein Jerry would stand behind my father while he sat at the piano, with his hands on his shoulders, and it was almost as if he were channelling through my father, asking him to write the bars that he needed for the dancing.
'Keep coolly cool, boy!'
In 1957, preparations for West Side Story were in full swing. But on 22 April, it was almost dealt a fatal blow: Cheryl Crawford, the celebrated Broadway producer, told the creative team that she didn't feel she could raise money for the show. The year before she'd backed Bernstein's Candide, which had flopped, and she didn't have the heart to continue with this new, difficult project.
Hal Prince I was on the road with a show of my own, called New Girl in Town, and we were in Boston, and the show was in a certain amount of trouble. Steve Sondheim and I used to talk to each other on the phone a lot - we still do - and I called for some comfort. I blathered on for about 20 minutes. And then at the end of it I said, 'Oh, and how are you?' And he said, 'Oh, just fine. I've lost a producer, and we have no show.'
Leonard Bernstein I don't know how many people begged me not to waste my time on something that could not possibly succeed... a show full of hatefulness and ugliness.
Hal Prince I said, give me a minute to think. And I said, we don't rehearse this Sunday; is there anything in my partner Bobby Griffith and I flying into New York to meet with you and Lenny and Arthur and Jerry, and talk about the show, taking it over? So we made the arrangements, and we flew in on Sunday morning from Boston, and met at Lenny's apartment in the Osborne. And it was Lenny playing the piano, Steve singing lyrics, Arthur sitting listening, Jerry sitting listening, and the only other guest was old Gus Schirmer, the music publisher, who was quite an old man, quite rotund, and he sat in a very comfortable chair, dead centre in the room, and Bobby Griffith and me. Now I had heard the entire score of West Side Story, I knew every note of it, because Steve would play it at home or up at my apartment. But he said, 'Don't give me away, I'm not supposed to have played any of this music for anybody! So don't let Lenny know that you've heard it.' I said, 'fine'. So we sat down, and they told the story, which I had read. And they sang the musical material. Lenny was extremely nervous, and was pounding the piano; it wasn't a very large room, but really pounding the piano. About halfway through the audition, I started to sing along with the material. And Lenny stopped and said, 'Oh, that's what I've always wanted, a producer who's musical!' Meantime, Mr Schirmer slept through the whole thing; and if you could sleep through the decibels of noise that were reverberating in that room, boy, you really were sleepy! At the end of the whole thing, Bobby and I looked at each other, and we said, without hesitation, 'We'll do it!'
'Let's get crackin'
With new producers on board, West Side Story was back on track. Hundreds of hopefuls auditioned for a part. Each had to be able to sing, dance and act, but above all the creative team was looking for 'kids' with street attitude and not too much polish. They were searching for two romantic leads: Tony, a semi-reformed member of the American Jet gang, and Maria, a sweet Puerto Rican girl. Maria's brother, Bernardo, leader of the Shark gang, was another crucial figure, along with his fiery girlfriend Anita; and Bernardo's Jet counterpart, Riff. All the gang members were individually fleshed out too, and there were around 40 parts up for grabs. Among those who auditioned were Suzanne Plechette ('Hoarse'); Warren Beatty ('Good voice - can't open his jaw - charming as hell - cleancut'); and Jerry Orbach ('Good read. Good loud bar[itone]').
Carol Lawrence I did 13 auditions. That is a record. Jerry Robbins was such a perfectionist that he could not make up his mind. He auditioned people for 2½ years. You could get too old for the part - no, truly, he was insisting that you look 14. So, looking as young as possible, I continued to come back for these auditions. He auditioned people in London, Florida, New York, Los Angeles. He even had a group of people in a gym in Puerto Rico, in the heat of that island, and realised after an hour that they didn't speak English, he didn't speak Spanish, and it wasn't going to work. So he came back to New York and continued his quest.
Chita Rivera (the original 'Anita') We were all in a bar at the corner of 50th Street and 6th Avenue, right at the corner of the Winter Garden, where we eventually opened. Larry [Kert, the original 'Tony'] came in screaming that he had gotten it. And then Carol came in. So we all celebrated. And then I think Larry said something hysterical: 'Now we'll probably go out and get hit by a cab.'
Gerald Freedman (assistant director, Broadway production) We went to dances and gymnasiums in some of the other boroughs, in Harlem and the Bronx. And there were reports in the newspapers all the time. Current events in New York, gang affiliations and altercations. What is fascinating is the escalation of that culture to what it is now, where we're talking about guns and shootings, it started out that one of the most severe things was... well there were some knifings... but whipping people with a radio antenna stolen from a car, that was the level of violence that escalated into what we know now.
Grover Dale (the original 'Snowboy') I lived on West 92nd Street and West 84th Street; the block was one of the most gang-infested areas in New York. Of course that's all gentrified now. But in those days, you stayed away from that block. You could recognise the gang members just by the way they would look at you, and if you were smart you looked straight ahead and just walked past, hoping that you didn't get a kick in the butt or worse.
Carol Lawrence In the beginning, we broke a lot of Equity rules. A month before rehearsals began, Gerry Freedman took the principals, Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino, to this tiny little garret, so hot I can't tell you, for no pay at all, eight hours a day, and we would dissect the characters, talk for hours about why they did the things they did.
Gerald Freedman None of them had any acting. That was a big job. They all had talent and charisma, it's then: how do you get them to act and not perform? I got them to personalise and hunted around in their backgrounds for ways to find a more direct line to their emotions.
Chita Rivera One of the wonderful times was when we did A Boy Like That. Just a song, until Gerry Freedman, who was also assisting Jerry with the book, guided me through it and reminded me that I had two brothers of my own. And when he planted that in my head it became very strong for me. So we learnt everything about acting and so much about ourselves in West Side Story.
Carol Lawrence I interviewed Puerto Ricans, I recorded their accents on tape, and then I would practise my words against theirs. I would ask them to say, 'te amo Anton' and all that, so that the accent was today's Puerto Rican, not Spanish.
'Now it begins, now we start'
Rehearsals began in earnest on 8 July, 1957. For the dancers who had been chosen, the next few months of their lives would be dominated by one man: the towering figure of Jerome Robbins.
Carol Lawrence He was part devil, part God, and part Jerry Robbins, and the combination was frightening everybody. I later found out that he loved when people stood up to him, but he presented this façade of brutality, sarcasm, detonating words.
Grover Dale I thought that in order to get a show, you had to dance well, and you smiled, and I didn't have a clue about injecting an objective into the movement, which is what West Side Story required. So it opened a whole new world. I thought all I had to do was memorise my nine lines of dialogue and I'd be fine, but that wasn't true at all. Within the first couple of days, Robbins was asking us, 'Well, what's your family like? Why are you on the street? Why are you getting together with these guys? Why have they become your family instead of your real family?'
Chita Rivera It was very difficult because Jerry insisted that the Sharks and the Jets not speak to each other, which we did not; in rehearsals we did not, we stayed separate.
Gerald Freedman That was Jerry's idea, of pitting one group against the other. And it worked to a certain extent. And it extended for quite some time. But there was a lot of, so to speak, 'cheating' going on all the time too. Outside of rehearsal. Well the fact is that Chita Rivera, who was a Shark, married Tony Mordente, who was a Jet, shortly thereafter, so you can make your own conclusions from that.
Chita Rivera It's kind of like a bad kid deliberately doing something their parents told them not to do. But Jerry Robbins loved it. As a matter of fact, he gave us our wedding dinner.
Hal Prince There was one character in the show called Anybodys, who wanted to be a member of the Jets, but they shunned her. And so did the cast. So that when they broke for lunch in rehearsal, she was always alone. Her name was Lee Becker; she's since died. She coped. However, it was strange. I respected that whole element of commitment to the seriousness of the subject. So that when I did Cabaret in 1966, I introduced to the cast a lot of material from the Civil Rights disputes in our country.
Grover Dale The Cool dance is the most difficult choreography I've ever experienced. It was six minutes long, and we had seven versions of it that we had to remember. So Robbins would say, 'We want version D... no, go back to version E.' Each movement was unpredictable because even if you were a trained ballet dancer, and you knew what an attitude turn was, and you knew what a relevé was, you'd never had to infuse it with such extreme emotion. And that was a dance about getting out of your skin, and punching out your rage against the world.
Carol Lawrence People say, well, look at what he wrought! And I would have to say, you know who wrought it, it was Leonard Bernstein, who would come to us when we were bleeding emotionally, put his arms around us and say, 'C'mon, let's work on the balcony scene'. He was a teacher, he was an encourager, and if he hadn't been around, I'm not sure we would've made it.
Chita Rivera When he created the cha-cha, [Jerry Robbins] took me out of the rehearsal with the Sharks and Peter Gennaro, and brought me into the room with the Jets. I had no idea what he wanted me for, and he placed me in a chair and he did the cha-cha... tears started to roll down my face because I just couldn't believe how beautiful, how close to Shakespeare it was, how close to the story, and how genius it was. So I started to tear up. And he said, when it was over, 'OK, you can go back to rehearsal now.' I'll always remember that. It's wonderful that he chose me to come in; I was kind of like the barometer or something.
Carol Lawrence Peter Gennaro, who was his assistant choreographer, was really the reason the Spanish was so good, because he did all of Chita's numbers: the mambo in the gym, I Feel Pretty, America, the things that stopped the show. But Jerry Robbins could not share fame. He enlisted the finest people to help him, so he got Peter Gennaro, the best little Spanish dancer that ever lived. And so he stole from Peter Gennaro, he stole the knowledge that Gerry Freedman had of acting, and then he took credit for it. I'm sorry, for that I do not appreciate him or respect him at all.
Chita Rivera I called him Big Daddy. Everybody else was scared of him. He was like my father, so I did everything to please him. If Jerry told me to jump off a two-storey building, land on my left foot, take two steps forward and lunge, or whatever, do it, because it can be done. It can be done.
'Tonight, tonight, tonight, this very night, we're gonna rock it tonight!'
The show's try-out run - before it hit Broadway and the press - began in Washington on 19 August, 1957.
Hal Prince We did a run-through, what we call a 'gipsy' run-through, with no scenery... and it was historic. All the kids on Broadway from other shows came, and friends, and they were knocked sideways by it. Just the sound of it, and the movement, and just the whole thing was something no one had ever seen before.
Carol Lawrence We just did it in leotards and practice clothes; the gun was a pencil, my bed was a piano bench. So you had to imagine what was happening. But it was so electrifying that it was, everybody has said, the most exciting performance of the show ever given. And people like Lena Horne were screaming 'Bravo!' at the end and putting their arms around you and crying and sobbing, and saying, 'I can only imagine what it's going to look like with sets and costumes... and a gun!'
In Washington, the show was a hit. Bernstein lunched at the White House, where: 'All were talking of nothing but West Side Story. I think the whole government is based on it.' But it was New York that would make or break the show. The original Broadway production opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on 26 September, 1957.
Carol Lawrence That opening night of critics and all of the experts of New York society, they're all in the audience with their arms crossed and their eyes squinting, and saying, all right, you're going to show us this epic that breaks all the rules. We're looking at kids in blue jeans and sneakers killing each other with switchblades and singing opera and dancing too much... well, for the first third of the show, they just sat on their hands. It was perfunctory applause. And then America. Chita did America, and stopped the show cold. It had never stopped the show as coldly as it did that night. They didn't know what to do. Jerry's backstage and he's saying, 'Get off the stage, go and change your costumes for the next number!' We continued. At the end of the show, the curtain came down with the tolling of the bells, and they're carrying off ?Tony's body, and I'm sobbing, walking behind him, and ran to the footlights. And the curtain went up, and we looked at the audience, and they looked at us, and I thought, 'Oh my God, they hate it. They didn't get it. It's a bomb, everybody that was snobbish and so knowing was right.' And then, as if Jerry Robbins had choreographed it, they leapt to their feet, screaming and sobbing and stamping their feet and applauding. It was a sound I'd never heard before. Truly. And they would not, would not, stop. And I started to cry, because it was everybody's dream come true. By that time, Lenny had worked his way back to the stage, and he walked to me and put his arms around me and we were both sobbing. And that was the opening night. Yeah.
Walter Kerr (The New York Herald Tribune, 27 September, 1957). Director, choreographer, and idea-man Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons...
Grover Dale It was a reception like I had never experienced, I don't think any of us knew anything like it. It was explosive, but the show didn't find its success until after the movie came out. Some nights there were 70 to 100 people leaving the audience, because this was not a musical. This was new territory for theatre-goers.
Carol Lawrence We had juvenile delinquents that were brought in by their counsellors who couldn't get through to them, and they would come backstage crying and saying, 'You're telling the story as it is.'
Chita Rivera We did hear - and this kind of scared the boys, I'm afraid - that some gangs had heard about this show, and I was told that they would hang around the stage door and take a look at the guys who were coming out of the theatre. But there was no trouble. They just wanted to see what the guys who were imitating them looked like.
'Tonight, tonight, won't be just any night'
West Side Story ran for nearly two years (772 performances). It toured the States for just under a year, returning to New York in 1960 for another 253 performances. Meanwhile, in 1958, the musical had its European premiere at the Manchester Opera House.
Hal Prince I had taken a plane and by sheer chance I sat next to the head of an airline company. I said to him, 'We're bringing a cast of West Side Story over to Manchester, have you ever thought of making some kind of public relations deal, where you give us a plane and we get to Europe on your plane?' And he said, 'Well, we've never landed in Manchester.' And I said, 'Well, we're opening there before London. Can you?' And he said, 'I suppose anything's possible, we'll see.' Well, that's exactly what happened. He put a piano on the plane, and the kids danced and sang the whole way across the Atlantic. And we arrived in Manchester, a very public arrival, and stayed there for a month.
Chita Rivera When we opened there [in Manchester], we didn't know what hit us. The audiences went wild, and it was glorious. Of course we looked very strange in Manchester. I know the Teddy Boys had sideburns, but we really looked a mess! I looked like a gun moll, and then Tony, with all of his Italian hair, and those sideburns... I know we looked as though we were gonna destroy Manchester.
Ron Simmonds (first trumpet, British production) Most of the score of West Side Story is written in split time. Some of the bars would be, for instance, in alternate 2/4 and 4/4 time. This would only be annotated at the very beginning, so that you had to remember it all the way through Sometimes every bar would be in a different time. The jazz sequences were written in 12/8, which was supposed to make it easier on the classical woodwind players, and the string players, to help them to swing, and so on, but it created hell with the jazz players. One of the violinists was almost in tears.
In December 1958, the show transferred from Manchester to Her Majesty's Theatre, London, where it ran until 1961.
Chita Rivera When you're sitting in your dressing-room and you hear a rap on your door and you say, 'Who is it?', and somebody says, 'Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall', I mean, you could just faint. You think somebody's kidding. John Gielgud used to watch our rehearsals. Judi Dench used to take class with us. We would have class before our rehearsal and she would warm up with us.
Grover Dale I was in the dressing-room with the Jets, during the intermission one night in Paris, and the staging manager called out on the loudspeaker, 'Grover Dale, there's a gentleman by the name of Noël Coward who's coming to see you after the show.' So everybody roared, they thought that was the funniest thing they'd ever heard... and I did too, because everybody thought it was a big joke. And then after the show was over, there was this knock at the dressing- room door, and there was this man with this hat and a scarf wrapped round his neck, introducing himself to me and saying, 'Would you please come to supper with me and my friends, I want to talk to you about playing the juvenile lead in Sail Away?'Thirty minutes later I was sitting at a table with Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich and Alain Delon.
As West Side Story became an international hit, talk of a film version began. In 1960 the movie went into production, with Jerome Robbins taking the helm alongside co-director Robert Wise, with a script by master screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest). Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer played the leads, a source of some controversy as neither had a strong enough voice to sing their own songs. Shooting lasted six months, and the film was released in the States on 25 January, 1961. The film became the second biggest box-office draw of the year (after One Hundred and One Dalmatians), and won 10 Academy Awards.
George Chakiris ('Riff', London production; 'Bernardo', film version) We heard that there was going to be a film version of West Side Story. None of us ever thought anything other than just hearing about it, because we heard names like Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley and so on, so none of us ever dreamt we'd get anywhere near it. One day, five of us got letters from United Artists, asking us to do film tests in London.
Carol Lawrence Of course I wanted to do it. But it was at a time when they wanted an international star above the title, and Natalie Wood had been in the business from the time she was five, and had worked with Robert Wise many times, and he loved her. And the auditions and screen tests, of which I had never taken part, were very foreign to me.
George Chakiris Chita, the original Anita, who was extraordinary, I mean in New York everybody went wild over Chita. In London, Good Lord, the reviews she got! She was the toast of London. And she ended up not being in the film. I was told that Robert Redford tested for this film, a lot of testing went on...
Rita Moreno ('Anita', film version) I always feel that - and I hope this doesn't seem arrogant - I could've played Anita with my eyes closed at any time in my life because I was that girl. I wasn't a gang member but I understood what it was like to live with that kind of racial prejudice because I lived with it for a good part of my life in New York City. So it wasn't new to me. It wasn't anything that I had to go and research. They made me use an accent, which I wasn't thrilled about because a lot of us, obviously, don't have them. The thing that really bothered me the most was that they put the same very muddy, dark-coloured make-up on every Shark girl and boy, and that really made me very upset. And I tried to get that changed, and I said, 'Look at us. We're all, you know, many, many different colours. Some of us are very white, some of us are olive-skinned, some of us actually have black blood, some of us are Taino Indian,' which is the original Puerto Rican. And nobody paid attention, and that was that. And when I saw the film recently and saw George Chakiris, this beautiful guy, Greek guy, who looked like he had fallen into a bucket of mud, I just started to giggle.
George Chakiris I never like anybody disparaging anything that Natalie did, because I think she's so wonderful in the role, and the fact that it ended up not being her voice, to me made absolutely no difference. I know that she was disappointed that her voice was not used. Marni Nixon's voice was a wonderful choice for Natalie, because the transition from the speaking voice to the singing voice was perfect.You didn't notice the difference in the voice.
Marni Nixon (voice of 'Maria', film version) It was mayhem. Saul Chaplin, who was supervising the whole recording, said to me, 'Well, Marni we didn't hire you for your voice, we hired you for your iron nerves!' I think ego-wise she [Natalie Wood] was very fragile. After they recorded her singing, everybody would listen to the playback, and the producers and everybody would swarm around Natalie and tell her how wonderful it was, how wonderful she was, and that they thought the track was pretty good, and did she approve, and yes she approved... and then all the time, when they had a chance, they would turn to me and wink, like 'hang on in there'.
Carol Lawrence Jerry Robbins, at the end, was asked in a Time interview, what do you think of Miss Wood's portrayal of Maria? And his statement was, 'Well, she just never was Maria.'
George Chakiris In the film version, I don't remember Jerry being a difficult man at all. It turned out the people who found him 'difficult' were the producers: filming was taking longer and the budget was increasing, because he always wanted to do more takes, try something different. I don't remember how far into the film-making it was, but he was fired. I just couldn't believe that they did that, but thank God that he was there as long as he was. Of course it was hard work and all of that, and I know, for example, when the guys, the Jets, did Cool [the dance number], evidently Jerry was being a little tough on some of the people during the filming. And because they had to do knee work, they did wear kneepads, and one of the stories I heard, and I'm sure it's true, was that after they finished filming Cool, all the guys took off their kneepads, took them over to Jerry's dressing-room, and outside of his dressing-room they burnt their kneepads.
Jamie Bernstein I think my father regretted that the film wasn't better. But he was such a busy guy, he just wasn't going to sit around snuffling over something that had happened in the past.
Chita Rivera There's no comparison in doing the movie and doing the show. To be there when those geniuses created that show was something that is a blessing, you know. It's something that you can never, ever forget. Thanks to the subject matter, the demands that it makes of its performers and the seamless fusion of song, dance and narrative, West Side Story has become the seminal modern musical. The original cast was reunited for the first time last year at a Broadway charity evening.
Grover Dale When we walked out onto the stage for the final song, what came back to us reignited everything we had cared about, and it was like this explosion that happened inside each of us?. And the energy... we held hands together, and the energy that went through those links was amazing. So that was the pay-off. That's the reward, that we were all together again. I'm never gonna forget that moment.