The film version of West Side Story was unconventional in many ways including the selection of its director and the casting of the two leads. It also employed groundbreaking music tempos and choreography. These elements were necessary to tell this tragic love story encased in social conflicts and the restlessness of the American youth of the time. Although the film did stick to many facets characteristic of movie musicals, it broke with many traditions resulting in it becoming the most highly awarded musical of all time.
Robert Wise was chosen to direct the film, and later went on to direct the highly successful The Sound of Music. He was an unconventional choice since, at that time, he hadn’t done a musical before. He had however edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and was considered a Hollywood veteran (Frost).
The casting for the film was also unconventional. Many Hollywood actors auditioned for the male lead Tony. The list included Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds, Troy Donahue, Bobby Darin, Richard Chamberlain, Dennis Hopper, Gary Lockwood and Russ Tamblyn (who would be cast as “Riff” after impressing the film’s producers). Strangely enough, Richard Beymer, a former child actor, who was considered the most doubtful among the contenders, won the part of Tony (Wikipedia).
Natalie Wood, who had never done a musical before, had not originally been considered by the producers of West Side Story for the part of Maria (Frost, Wikipedia). At the time, she was dating Warren Beatty and was also his onscreen romance in Splendor in the Grass. Wood had been practicing reading lines opposite Beatty and accompanied him to the screen test for the role of Tony. When the producers of the film heard Wood read the part of Maria, they decided to cast her in the lead role, but not Beatty (Wikipedia). These unexpected casting choices contribute to the uniqueness of West Side Story as a film musical.
At the films beginning, the fighting and confrontation of the two gangs is characterized by stylized dancing. Later in the opening, the dance becomes a choreographed fistfight (TCM). The story’s original scriptwriter, Arthur Laurents had outlined the prologue to not include dialogue, which allowed the films choreographer and co-director Jerome Robbins to introduce the street gangs. This establishing of the street gang allowed Robbins to show “their pecking orders, celebrate their swagger in the street, demonstrate their physical grace, and establish their hostility…” (Ebert). Right off the bat, the ‘dance-fighting’ occurring between the Caucasian Jet’s gang and the Puerto Rican Shark’s gang on the streets of New York in the opening of West Side Story is unconventional to the musical genre.
The street fights, which were smoothly choreographed dancing, showed violence which was never present in the musicals made in the years of the 1930’s to the 1950’s (Frost). Also, the music in the film reveals the reasons for the street gags’ angst which was a big change in the genre of musicals (Frost). When the characters verbalize the reasons for their unhappiness and discontentment through use of lyrics, it breaks with the tradition of singing upbeat songs typical of musicals. Turf wars, problems at home, and violence are among many of the unconventional topics explored in this musical (Frost).
The cast filmed on the streets of New York for five weeks (TCM). Location shooting had been done for musicals before, but was still not the norm (Frost). Robbins thought that the film needed a more realistic setting and didn’t want to utilize the stylized sets that were used for the stage production. Robbins adapted his stage choreography to match the locations used for the film (TCM). The look and feel of West Side Story is not as safe and shiny as many other musicals, because the location shooting and realistic sets provided a more raw and earthy feel. “The gritty, urban tenement setting, the use of street language and the serious exploration of societal problems such as bigotry and juvenile delinquency were a marked change from the standard musical of the time” (TCM).
West Side Story confronts many grim social problems and has a cynical tone because it is depicting a society on the verge of explosion. Issues from racism, to the widening generation gap, to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to authority, and to violence were explored in the film (Frost). This film goes beyond the conventions of the musical genre because it defies the “Boy Meets Girl” formula ever present in traditional movie musicals (Frost). Moving into the 1960s, the musical had evolved. No longer was it just a place for escapism, but for dealing with social issues (Frost). West Side Story was a catalyst for change because it broke with so many traditions and propelled the genre into a new, more meaningful role.
The musical and dancing styles of West Side Story were truly non traditional for the time period. Laurents put it best. “You couldn't have a story about murder, violence, prejudice, attempted rape, and do it in a traditional musical style.” (Ebert). Leonard Bernstein, who composed the music, employed wacky time signatures such as 5/4 time, 6/8 time, and 25/6 time. Rita Moreno who was cast as Anita found them “crazy” and said the music was difficult to dance to, because it didn't “make dancer sense.”(Ebert). Bernstein's irregular rhythms and Robbins' precise choreography created a genuinely new kind of movie dancing, (Ebert). The differences in musical style were a necessity because of the nature of the plot and topics of the story.
Throughout West Side Story, dance was used to convey dramatic action and not only used for courtship purposes (Frost). Robbins incorporated the dance sequences flawlessly into the songs and action of the story and combined modern popular dance with classical styles (TCM). The dancers featured in the “Cool” number said that they never had, and would never again, work so hard on anything. It is not surprising that there were hold ups because the dancers were injuring themselves and collapsing (Ebert). In fact, Robbins’ challenging choreography was so difficult that no scene was ever able to be filmed all the way through (Ebert). It is obvious that West Side Story employed dance styles never before used because these experienced dancers struggled to keep up.
The final distinction of West Side Story as a film musical is the fact that it won more Academy Awards than any other film musical (Wikipedia). At the Oscar Award Ceremony, West Side Story took home ten of the eleven awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture for 1961 (Wikipedia). Fifty years later the record holds true, which goes to show that the creation of the film was truly unique and groundbreaking for its genre. Other outstanding achievements include the soundtrack album which created more revenue than any other album had previously. The film was also the second highest grossing film of 1961 in the U.S. (Wikipedia). Revolutionary on many levels, West Side Story is not only distinctive from other musicals, but an exceptional achievement for a feature film.
As significantly different and innovative that West Side Story was, the film still did adhere to many aspects typical of the musical genre. Traditional musicals highlighted musical artists and dancing stars which was a category that Rita Moreno fit into (Frost). Great choreography for screen and orchestration often was typically used to enhance the musical numbers in this genre (Frost). Robbin’s choreography is a stand out element of the film version and a credit to its entertainment value and success. The film also took home an Academy Award for Best Original Score (Wikipedia). The musical score and the dance routines increased the strength of the musical pieces in the film. By 1955, the musical genre had stagnated and original scripts were being abandoned (Frost). This led to Broadway adaptations being brought to the screen (Frost). West Side Story is among many of the successful adaptations.
Film producer Arthur Freed, whose credits include film musicals such as The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, and Gigi, believed that the songs should be integrated into the plot of the story to advance the narrative and cause progress (Wikipedia, Frost). Emphasize on full-scale song and dance routines in a significant way, usually with musical or dance performance as part of film’s narrative, was typical of musicals (Frost). The lyrics of musicals often supported the storyline of the film and characters acted out familiar social conflicts through song and dance; oblivious to the camera or the audience (Frost). This change brought to musicals by Arthur Freed grounded them in reality and made the musical devices employed by West Side Story and other musicals more meaningful and effective in the telling of their narrative.
Many of the actors voices were dubbed or professional dancers stood in for them at times in movie musicals (Frost). Both Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer attempted to do their own singing for the movie, and Beymer does sing the opening lines of the song “Maria” in the film. However, both of their voices were inadequate, and the voices of Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon were dubbed over their singing parts in the film. Wood did pre-record all her songs, but struggled with the challenging soprano role. Music supervisors decided that Wood’s singing voice would be completely dubbed by Marni Nixon (Wikipedia).
Tucker Smith who played “Ice” in the film, dubbed the singing part of “Riff” in “The Jet Song”. However, Russ Tamblyn's own voice was used in “Gee, Officer Krupke” and the "Quintet". Betty Wand, Rita Moreno’s vocals in the song "A Boy Like That" because the song was in too low a register for Moreno. She did sing her own vocals in "America" and had intended to sing her parts in the musical number “Quintet” herself, but couldn't due to illness. Coincidently, Moreno’s voice stand in Betty Wand was also ill on the last day of recording, so Marni Nixon stepped in to record Anita's vocal line resulting in Nixon singing both Maria's and Anita's vocal parts (Wikipedia). dubbed
The theme of West Side Story and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, of which it is loosely based on, is “two lovers thwarted by circumstances beyond their control”(Gottlieb, Wikipedia). Many thematic devices were used to convey the theme of the film. The melancholy sounding song “Somewhere,” which reprises several times in the film, employs descending note patterns which manipulate the viewer’s emotions. Neither Maria nor Tony were directly involved in the conflicts between the Jets and Sharks gang at the start of the film. In fact, Tony tried to stop the “rumble” between the two gangs, but the boys on both sides were eager to fight one another. Also, toward the end of the film there is a scene in which Anita goes to Doc’s store to deliver a message to Tony from Maria of where to meet her. Anita is manhandled by the Jets gang and in her anger she tells the boys that Maria is dead. This turn of events, which is beyond Maria and Tony’s control, leads to Tony’s reckless behavior and eventually his death (West Side Story, 1961).
The tension filled climate and the racism occurring in the film is representative of what was happening at that time in the United States. “In the 1960s & '70s, African-American and Puerto Rican political activism banded together to battle the common problems of racial discrimination, poverty and under presentation in many urban areas across the US like in New York City” (Wikipedia). Since West Side Story takes place on the streets of New York City and showcases the restlessness of Puerto Rican youth in the 1960’s, the film is a realistic representation of the climate in America during that time.
“Arthur Freed.” Wikipedia. Web. 9 March 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Freed.>
Ebert, Roger. “West Side Story (1961).” Rogerebert.com. Web. 9 March 2011. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040215/REVIEWS08/402150301/1023>
Frost, Jacqueline. “The 60’s Musical Takes on Issues.” Cal State University Fullerton. 22 Feb. 2011. Lecture.
Gottlieb, Jack. “West Side Story Fact Sheet.” Web. 9 March 2011. <http://www.westsidestory.com/site/level2/archives/fact/fact.html>
“Racism in the United States.” Wikipedia. 9 March 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_United_States.>
“West Side Story (film).” Wikipedia. 9 March 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story_%28film%29/>
“West Side Story (1961).” Turner Classic Movies. Web. 9 March 2011. <http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/23623/West-Side-Story/notes.html>
Wise, Robert, and Robbins, Jerome, dirs. West Side Story. MGM. 1961. Film.