Recently named as an influence for director Michael Bay and currently celebrating the 50th Anniversary of it’s film adaptation, West Side Story was considered to be radical during it’s 1957 stage performance.
Now, Misha Berson tells the full story of of one of the most inventive, influential, and internationally beloved Broadway musicals of all time in her new book from Applause Books, Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.
From its inception by a brilliant quartet of creators, to its smashing success on film, to its ongoing popularity on stages around the world, to its potent impact on the Great American Musical, this book is the most comprehensive volume on West Side Story yet. Award-winning theatre critic and author Misha Berson takes readers through every phase and angle of West Side Story with chapters on not only the stage musical and film, but also the book, music, dance, Shakespeare influence, juvenile delinquency and bigotry, and pop culture.
After the jump, check out an exclusive excerpt of the book.
WHAT WAS JUST
A WORLD IS A STAR
WEST SIDE STORY THE MOVIE
How did West Side Story become a worldwide hit and perennial cultural icon? That is no mystery. We have the Oscar-showered blockbuster movie version to thank for that.
Made for roughly $6.7 million (or about $48 million in 2010 dollars, a steep budget for Hollywood at the time), the cinematic West Side Story was released in October 1961, not long after the return Broadway premiere engagement of West Side Story closed in New York, and while the debut London production was still running.
A much-touted and instantaneous smash, the movie grossed an estimated $43 million onscreen in the United States alone (the equivalent of $300 million in 2010), won ten 1961 Academy Awards, including best motion picture (making it one of the top Oscar winners of all time), and is rated by the American Film Institute as one of the two best movie musicals ever made, second only to Singin’ in the Rain. West Side Story has also made an estimated $20 million in rentals and sold an unknown (but certainly substantial) number of DVDs and videotapes. It has been deemed “culturally significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress and in 1997 was added to the National Film Registry for preservation.
The movie and the best-selling recording of the movie score enriched the coffers of the show’s creators and backers, in amounts far greater than they could have anticipated. “Our investors are the beneficiaries of that movie sale, which was very small [about $350,000] but with a substantial piece of the gross,” Harold Prince noted. “When we sold [the rights] nobody wanted it. No one cared and then it turned out to be this monumental success . . . but not because of its life on Broadway.”
Prince may be overstating the case here: it’s hard to imagine a high pitch of public excitement and anticipation for the movie, without the hoopla and international coverage West Side Story had generated on Broadway—attention that belied the relatively modest box office receipts. Another reason the movie was so eagerly awaited, surely, was the popularity of the Broadway cast album of the show.
But it’s true that the Broadway reception of West Side Story was a pale shadow of what greeted the film. A majority of critics gushed over the latter, prior to its much-hyped first release in deluxe movie palaces (with reserved seating at premium prices). Pronouncing it a “cinematic masterpiece,” New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther led the full-throated chorus of praise. “In every respect,” he decreed, “the recreation of the Arthur Laurents–Leonard Bernstein musical in the dynamic forms of motion pictures is superbly and appropriately achieved.” The New York Herald Tribune went further, calling it the “film that must not be missed this year” and promising that “the pure animal energy at times overflows the screen.”
Concern arose early on that the youth-gang subject matter might stir up some trouble. At one California showing in a poor, crime-riddled district, a crush of young people turned out and officials feared they might have a riot on their hands. But it turned out to be just an excited bunch of kids eager to see West Side Story.
Among the mostly bowled-over reviewers there were some adamant naysayers. A disdainful Dwight MacDonald slammed the movie in his Esquire magazine column. The uncredited reviewer for Time pronounced the film morally repugnant, declaring hyperbolically that “it goes wildly, insufficiently wrong when it insists that society is entirely guilty, that the teen-age hoodlums are ultimately innocent.” But most damning was Pauline Kael’s thorough trashing of the movie in her New Yorker review. She did acknowledge the depth of fan ardor for the movie years later, by mentioning in a Modern Maturity magazine interview that she “broke up with somebody after I wrote about ‘West Side Story.’ It’s very difficult to disagree on a date.”
Though it brought renewed attention to their labor of love, the co-creators of West Side Story were ambivalent about the film at the least, andat the worst openly reviled it. Laurents, a veteran screenwriter who did not pen the screenplay (Ernest Lehman, who earlier scripted The King and I, did the honors and received an Oscar nomination), was the most openly dismissive, pronouncing it “appalling.”
“In the movie, gangs became boys with dyed hair doing ballet steps down city streets and clothes became costumes. Even the deaths were overblown in rotating color as was the acting,” he complained. “Only the vitality of the music survived.”
Bernstein, who composed some additional passages of music for the film, was reportedly disappointed that the sound mix on the musical track was overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety. Sondheim, obliged to tweak some “objectionable” lyrics at the request of the producers, was pleased about certain changes—the substitution of his original version of “America” and the shifting of the “Gee, Office Krupke” and “Cool” numbers. Still, he, too, has expressed dissatisfaction with the overall product.
And Robbins, who threw himself into the making of the movie and prospered greatly by it? He did not mince words in assessing its shortcomings. After seeing the final cut for the first time, he wrote to a friend, dance critic Richard Buckle: “Some of it is wonderful and exciting (and I don’t mean just everything I did), but some of it gets bogged down in the lack of understanding of what the scenes or the musical numbers were about. And occasionally ‘Hollywood’ rears its ugly head and splatters the screen with the soft lights streaming from Heaven or garish Technicolor or STEREOPHONIC SOUND.”
However, the movie was, all in all, a personal victory for Robbins, if a very conflicted one. He was awarded an Oscar for directing the feature, as was his co-director Robert Wise. And he received an additional, honorary Academy Award for, as the statuette read, “Brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” But Robbins lost control of the filming process, and the experience clipped short a movie career he had long aspired to. (He was probably the most successful first-time Hollywood director to never work again in the medium.)
Legitimate complaints against the West Side Story film were registered (and still are) about the casting of a pair of Hollywood actors who were (to be kind) hardly ideal for Tony and Maria in ability or interpretation. The obvious dubbing of their singing voices and the uninspired editing of some of the musical numbers were also problematic. So were the exaggerated look and accents of the Puerto Rican characters and their makeup, which costar Rita Moreno later complained made them look as if they’d fallen into “a bucket of mud.” (The makeup in general, following Hollywood practices of the day, was ghastly—everyone looked oil-painted and lacquered.)
But one can be thankful for the ways the celluloid West Side Story did succeed. It preserved Robbins’s magnificent choreography (which he ingeniously adapted and in some cases refined and expanded for the screen). It allowed the world to drink in Bernstein’s nonpareil score in its true dramatic context, and nearly intact (unusual in a Hollywood film: hardly any of Bernstein’s music, sadly, was included in the movie of On the Town).
And, despite its minor and larger lapses, the production set a high bar for what a movie musical based on a trailblazing Broadway show could and might be, how storytelling, dance, and music could effectively be synthesized into a visually exciting, semi-abstract framework, and how a tragic tale could (and should) remain tragic for a mass audience, instead of being defiled and defused by a pasted-on happy ending.
Since the 1961 release, the movie has maintained its status as an omnipresent classic and a cross-cultural, universal crowd pleaser. It’s a real munch-your-popcorn, pass-the-Kleenex saga, both camp and cool. Devotees tend to revisit it repeatedly via their home entertainment centers. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s still frequently screened at film festivals and at rep cinemas specializing in classic movies. And it is periodically subjected to musical, political, theatrical, and media-studies analyses by critics and scholars.
Members of the rap/hip-hop generation of musicians and listeners embraced the DVD and computer-streamed screenings of the film nearly as enthusiastically as young viewers seduced by its first release in giant Super Panavision–equipped auditoriums. The long list of notable artists who have proclaimed their love for the film, and its influence on their own work, range from opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa and ballet stars Rudolf Nureyev and Peter Martins, to “king of pop” Michael Jackson and Puerto Rican–American pop star Jennifer Lopez. (In 2009, Lopez told Vanity Fair she’d watched the movie thirty-seven times.)
As we will explore in a later chapter, the film has been referenced, copied, and paid tribute to innumerable times in mainstream media—by celebrities ranging from Carol Burnett and Cher in the 1970s, to rock and hip-hop superstars in a West Side Story–themed promotion on MTV in 2009.
Of course, the vast majority of fans of West Side Story the movie have never experienced the glorious immediacy of the Laurents/Shakespeare love story, Robbins’s galvanic dances, and the Bernstein–Sondheim songs in a live performance. They have no way to compare the stage show and the film, and no interest in being talked out of their enjoyment of the glossy epic. In fact, a less-than-ideal production of the show only convinces them that the movie is far superior to the theatrical version.
If today it sounds like a no-brainer, transforming West Side Story into a motion picture in the late 1950s was a costly, risky, nerve-racking venture for its lead producers, Robert Wise, Saul Chaplin, and Walter Mirisch—and a trial by fire for Robbins.
Though West Side Story had achieved a high level of notoriety in its well-publicized Broadway run, the Bernstein–Sondheim tunes were not familiar to the public at large before the film arrived—except to those who purchased the original cast album. This was an era when radio play was the best sales tool for recordings, and best-selling singers of the day readily covered show tunes from Broadway hits as singles. But there was no stampede by pop artists to cover “Maria” or “Tonight” or “Somewhere” themselves, until after the film came out.
The score as a whole was nearly as daring for the film as it had been for the stage. The late 1950s and early 1960s yielded some extremely hip, sophisticated movie scores by such jazz composers as Lalo Schifrin, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and, yes, the quasi-jazzy Bernstein (for On the Waterfront). But no American movie had such an adventurous wall-to-wall sound palette as West Side Story—every song and nearly every instrumental segment of which (with the obvious exception of the “Somewhere” ballet music) was reprised in the film.
Also, at this juncture, the fate of the Great Hollywood Movie Musical as a popular genre was uncertain. The famous Arthur Freed unit at MGM, which generated such classic tuners as Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face, would turn out its last big hit (the Oscar-winning Gigi) in 1959 and then disband. The field was surrendered to the new wave of low-budget teen movie musicals that were being churned out, spurred on by Elvis Presley’s highly profitable movies, including the 1957 smash Jailhouse Rock. And before West Side Story, the last previous attempt to transfer a serious Broadway musical drama to celluloid was Otto Preminger’s 1959 adaptation of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which drew tepid notices and was a financial dud, earning back only half of its $7 million cost.
Also, lest we forget, some of the social ills both Porgy and Bess and West Side Story addressed were still considered controversial topics for entertainment at the time. The theme of urban poverty was not exactly box office gold. The African American civil rights movement was still gathering momentum and was resisted and reviled in much of the South. The drive for the equal rights of Hispanic Americans was not yet even on the national radar. And the issue of youth violence was more often sensationalized and trivialized by Hollywood than portrayed thoughtfully and truthfully.
Given all these factors, producing a very expensive, artistically faithful West Side Story film was something of a gamble for all concerned—just as mounting the stage show on Broadway had been.
Robbins considered the live version of West Side Story to be his baby and intended the film to be also. Though Robbins was then known in the film world only for his choreography of The King and I and his restaging of Peter Pan for a 1955 kinescope telecast that enthralled legions of little baby boomers, he was eager to work more in the medium and had exercised his prescient contractual option to direct West Side Story for the screen. Characteristically, he wanted (and expected) full artistic control of the production, the last word on the way it would be cast, staged, performed, shot, and edited—a luxury reserved for few filmmakers of that time.
Robbins’s holistic perfectionism was the movie’s salvation—but his own Achilles’ heel. Could a first-time director blessed with such outsized gifts and imaginative reach, an often impolitic control freak with a dictatorial manner, find a place in profit-driven, producer-dominated Hollywood? Not for long. But for a while, at least, he wrote his own ticket. And West Side Story would certainly have been a completely different movie without him.