George Chakiris (au centre) dans le rôle de Bernardo, le leader des Sharks
George Chakiris (au centre) dans le rôle de Bernardo, le leader des Sharks © Getty

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About... West Side Story

Tonight, America, Maria…. Who hasn't sung one of the great tunes from West Side Story? It’s been a hit since its release. Even before becoming a film it was a successful Broadway show.

West Side Story was born from collaboration between four men – the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, the composer Leonard Bernstein, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, the librettist. The first performance was given at the Winter Garden Theatre in Broadway on the 26th of September 1957. Four years later, due to the enormous success of the show (performed 732 times on Broadway a film version of the musical was made by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, it won 10 Oscars. 

The story is well known, a version of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York. Tony and Maria are caught up in the rivalry between two warring West Side teenage gangs. Tony is part of a gang of young, white Americans called the Jets; Maria is the sister of Bernardo the head of a gang of Puerto Ricans called the Sharks. 

This modern version of the tragedy incorporates a variety of musical styles – classical and jazz music mix with mambo. 

Richard Beymer et Natalie Wood dans les rôles de Tony et Maria
Richard Beymer et Natalie Wood dans les rôles de Tony et Maria © Getty

Shakespeare in Downtown New York 

Even in the 1940s Jerome Robbins was already thinking of making a contemporary musical adaption of Romeo and Juliet. The impetus came from the actor Montgomery Clift. In 1949, the young actor was chosen to act the role of Romeo but he had difficulty identifying with his character, considering him “passive”. 'Jerry' advised him to imagine Shakespeare’s play transposed to modern New York, against the backdrop of hatred among the neighbourhood youth. 

There are many references to the original play in West Side Story. The song “Tonight” is performed on a fire escape, mirroring the famous balcony scene. “One Hand, One Heart” was originally meant to be sung at this point, but it was judged to be too tender, it was instead used during a later scene when Tony and Maria imagine their marriage in the bridal shop where Maria works. 

Arthur Laurents did not want to stay entirely faithful to the original. He made some changes. He got rid of some characters such as Rosaline, Romeo’s fiancé, and the parents of the two lovers. Another key modification occurs at the end of the play, Juliette, or Maria, survives and performs the speech on hatred usually spoken by the Prince. As Arthur Laurents wrote in his memoirs, “This girl was strong enough to keep from killing herself for love”. 

The Origin of 'I Like To Be In America' 

Jerome Robbins had the idea of reimagining Romeo and Juliet, but it was Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein who came up with the idea that the action should centre on the confrontation between Puerto Ricans and Americans  (with Irish, Polish and Italian heritage). 

Robbins had initially wanted to show conflict between Irish Catholics and Jews during Easter. Religious rather than ethnic or cultural tensions were originally going to be explored, but it was less than a decade after the Second World War and the subject matter was deemed too delicate. 

During this period, the issues of Puerto Rican immigration and gang fights were however frequently in the headlines. It was here that Bernstein and Laurents got their idea. 

Portrait du compositeur Leonard Bernstein vers 1960
Portrait du compositeur Leonard Bernstein vers 1960 © Getty

All that they needed now was a form for the work. Bernstein wanted it to be an “American Opera” but his collaborators refused. He backed down, writing in his diary that all three of them sought to “create a musical that tells a tragic story using the codes and techniques of the musical without falling into the traps of Opera”.

Jerome Robbins, A Demanding Director

Robbins was extreme in his direction of the actorsLaurent Valière, director of the Radio France show 42e rue, explains “He did everything possible to get them ready. He, for example, asked the actors from the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, to not speak at meals or in between rehearsals”. 

Le chorégraphe et metteur en scène Jerome Robbins, 1962
Le chorégraphe et metteur en scène Jerome Robbins, 1962 © Getty

Details mattered to Robbins, he needed emotion in each take. Amanda Vaill wrote about this in her biography of Jerome Robbins. Take the opening scene where the Jets snap their fingers in unison. Robbins felt that it did not work rhythmically unless one of the clicks before the ball bounces of the fence was removed. 

Robbins felt that the fight scene was “over-danced” he reminded the actors that “it does not matter if all the steps are not performed as they are meant to. The important thing is to tell the story of this terrifying knife fight, which is a matter of life or death for these young people”. Laurent Valière sees Jerome Robbins as “a great director: he was both a director and choreographer, which is very rare in musicals”. 

Robbins' fastidious style however soon clashed with the demands of the Mirisch Company, the film’s production company. Being a Broadway director is very different from being a film director. Robbins was so thorough that the project was beginning to fall behind and become very expensive. The Mirisch brothers therefore decided to fire him. He nevertheless continued to share his suggestions with his replacement Robert Wise and at the 34th Oscars Ceremony in 1962, they both received the sought after golden statuette. 

From Broadway to Cinema

Adapting a musical for the screen is no small challenge and some changes had to be made. The choice of actors, for one thing, had to be closely considered. At the time it was very rare for Broadway stars to transfer to film. The Mirisch Company were instead looking for film stars. Natalie Wood had the perfect profile to become Maria; she was only 22 but had already appeared in more than 30 films. This child star was not even 10 years old when she got her first major role in the George Seaton’s 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street. Even Warren Beatty had auditioned to play Tony, but finally it was Richard Beymer who was chosen to play opposite Natalie Wood. 

Natalie Wood et Richard Beymer dans le film West Side Story
Natalie Wood et Richard Beymer dans le film West Side Story © Getty

Though musical theatre actors need to be able to dance, sing and act, this is not always the case for their Hollywood counterparts. Some of the singing was therefore entirely dubbed. Natalie Wood recorded all of Maria’s songs but some of her high notes were too weak. They finally decided to replace her voice with that of Marni Nixon

Some of the scenes had to be rearranged, so that the sequence of the songs would make sense. “I Feel Pretty”, the song where Maria sings cheerfully about Tony, originally appeared after the fight scene in the 1957 Broadway version. The film’s lyricist found it strange that this song came between two deaths, which is why it was moved to an earlier point in the story line. 

Despite these changes, “all of Robbins’ choreography” was kept intact, Laurent Valière argues that “this is what makes the film so rich”. 

A Masterwork

Laurent Valière feels that “West Side Story is a perfect example of a musical”. Sometimes dances are just used to “look pretty” but “here, each of them has a meaning”. In the fight scenes speech is eradicated leaving room for onomatopoeia. The sport-like, urban-influenced dances clearly express the character’s feelings. “It’s a masterwork” Valière argues “because everything contributes to the narrative, be it the songs, dances, or music”. 

West Side Story is arguably as innovative as it is masterful. It was, as Arthur Laurents recounts in his memoirs, the first time a musical had dealt with serious topics such as ethnic hatred or murder. 

The use of a concluding monologue was not very common on Broadway. The final scene confronts the audience with “a devastated Maria, mourning the death of her brother, her lover and the hope of a bright future”, Amanda Vaill says. Bernstein felt that this scene had a “great need for music” but he could not write the perfect song. In the end the unaccompanied, spoken monologue was kept, giving it all the more impact.