West Side Story: Music and Story of the Best American Musical
West Side Story has an abundance of rich romance and gripping drama. This American Musical was adapted from a Broadway Musical that was released in 1957 and had a similar title as the movie. The film was released as a feature in 1961 and was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The film stars Richard Beymer, Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn. Leonard Bernstein composed the music for the film and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for the songs.
Although the film was a direct adaptation of a Broadway musical, the true story is that the Broadway musical itself was inspired from Romeo and Juliet, which is an exceptional play written by William Shakespeare. The film occupies a special place in the heart of the critics not just because it became the highest grossing film of 1961 or it won ten of the eleven Academy Awards it was nominated for but also, for the special editing process that was implemented first during those times. The editor of the film, Thomas Stanford, was awarded with an Academy Award for Best Film Editing because he edited the film in a very abstract way that leaves an emphatic impact on the audience.
In the beginning, Jerome Robbins was enlisted for the task of directing the film as he had already choreographed and directed the stage version of the film. But because Robbins had no experience in filmmaking, Robert Wise was hired as a co-director for the film. Robbins had the responsibility of directing the dance and musical sequences and Wise had to take care of the drama and the romantic elements of the film.
However, the film was running behind schedule by 24 days, after completion of shooting for 45 days. This proved to be a tipping point for the producers to dismiss Robbins and asked Wise to direct the remaining film. But looking at the considerable contribution of Robbins, Wise shared the directorial credit with him and also, asked for his advice, recommendations, and suggestions regarding the production and editing of the film.
Elvis Presley was also considered at one point for playing the role of Tony in the film, but his manager turned down the offer from the production house.
The story of the film revolves around romance, drama, and gang wars in the New York City in 1957. Two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks are constantly at each other's throats to gain complete control of the Upper West Side. In order to settle their beef, the Jets throw a challenge of rumble to the Sharks.
Tony from the Jets comes up against the Sharks in a rumble where he instantly falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of the Sharks’ gang leader, Bernardo. He warns Tony to keep away from his sister. But soon, the two get closer to each other and start fantasizing about their wedding.
Obviously, this relationship did not go well with Bernardo as the two gangs met under a highway to settle their differences. Incidentally this led to a knife fight where Bernardo gets killed by Tony, in revenge to the death of Riff, Tony's best friend and the leader of the Jets.
Tony then goes to Maria and asks for her forgiveness, who is devastated with the news but at the same time in unconditional love with Tony. Eventually, they were met by Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend. The couple convinces Anita to help them elope and also manage Maria’s fiancé from an arranged marriage regarding the present situation.
In the meantime police appear in the apartment as Tony flees through the fire escape. Maria sends Anita to Tony to let him know about her situation but Anita lies to him that Chino has come to know about Tony and therefore has killed Maria. Enraged and distraught, Tony goes out on the streets hunting for Chino as he spots Maria in a nearby playground.
They run towards each other and when Tony is in Maria’s arms, he is shot by Chino. In the end, a funeral procession for Tony goes out with all gang members and Maria, while Chino gets arrested by the police.
Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the film, was not at all pleased with the original orchestration of the film which was worked on by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin. In fact, these were the two musicians who composed the orchestra for the original musical that was running at Broadway. With over 150 musicians, the music of the film “lacked texture and subtlety and was overbearing,” according to Mr. Bernstein.
The lyricist Stephen Sondheim on the other hand, did not like the sequence of the songs used in the Broadway musical. In the film, he placed the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” before the sequence of the rumble and in place of the song “Cool”, with the latter being sung after the rumble. The song “America” was placed between the two love songs “Tonight” and “Maria”, which were otherwise sung consecutively at the Broadway run. Also, the song “I Feel Pretty” was placed in the sequence after the rumble instead of before, which was not the case in the original version.
The dream sequence of “Somewhere” which is a ballet, originally planned for the film was eliminated from the final cut and also, some reprise lyrics were removed from the songs "A Boy Like That," and “One Hand, One Heart. ” keeping censorship in mind, some lyrics were changed from the songs “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and “Jet Song.”
In fact, the phrase “Womb to Tomb, Sperm to Worm” was changed to “Womb to Tomb, Birth to Earth” for the sake of censorship.
The musical supervisors Johnny Green and Saun Chaplin used Mani Nixon’s voice for Wood’s character and Wood’s original voice was only used in the “Somewhere” reprise song, which was in the sequence of Tony succumbing to his death. When Nixon came to know about the fact that her signed contract does not mention any terms regarding participation in the recording sessions and therefore, she demanded a share of the LP record. In relation to this demand, she was given 0.25% of the album royalties by Bernstein and to this date, this obligation stands as the forefather of contractual terms, when any ‘ghost singer’ is involved in a film.
Musical Numbers Used in the Film
- "Gee, Officer Krupke"
- "Something's Coming"
- "Jet Song"
- "Maria (violin)"
- "Dance at the Gym: (Blues, Promenade, Mambo, Cha-cha, and Jump)"
- "One Hand, One Heart"
- "The Rumble"
- "Somewhere" (reprise)
- "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love"
- "I Feel Pretty"
- "Tonight Quintet"
Awards and Honors
In the film world, the year 1961, is marked by the landslide success of the film, West Side Story. Be it the highest grossing film of the year or the record-holder for the most Academy Award Winners as a Musical – this film is at the top echelon of critical as well as box office success.
This film also became the first instance where the Best Director Award was shared by two deserving creative minds. When it comes to the list of accolades, this film has one which is lit by scintillating success:
- Got nominated in the category of Academy Awards Best Screenplay (based on the material from another medium)
- Won Academy Awards for - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Sound
- Got nominated in the category of British Academy Film Awards Best Film
- Won Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures from the Directors Guild of America Awards
- Won Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress
- Won Grammy Awards for Best Soundtrack Album or Recording of Original Cast
- The Library of Congress deemed the film as a piece of art that has huge historic, cultural, and aesthetic significance. It was inducted in the National Film Registry of the United States in 1997.
Usage in Pop Culture
- In 2009, the film inspired renowned photographer Mark Seliger in recreating some of the scenes from the film for the shoot of Vanity Fair, the popular magazine
- The film had also been a source of inspiration for the musical videos of “Bad” and “Beat It,” by Michael Jackson
- In 2021, a second adaptation of the musical got released which was choreographed by Justin Peck and directed by Steven Spielberg. This film also got nominated for six Academy Awards, including that of the Best Picture but won one Academy Award for the performance of Ariana DeBose, who played the role of Anita.
A cinematic masterpiece that captures the real emotions of love and war
When true love gets tied to the tumultuous times of gang wars with a perfect blend of breathless drama, mesmerizing music, and exuberant dance, what we get is a dynamic form of motion pictures that is presented superbly, and thoughtfully. The film is a pinnacle of American middlebrow culture that develops in the alleys of the post World War II era where sophistication gets mixed with street fighting and ballet gets mixed with blood.
The film does a fantastic job in taking the essence of “Romeo and Juliet” and bringing it to the newly discovered issues of juvenile delinquency that mixes ethnic intolerance with irresistible love. As a result, the audience is served with a plethora of emotions that are rich yet nuanced, subtle yet bold, real yet fantasizing, and old yet surprising. And what else could bind a story well than a melodic rhythm and a charming dance? In order to feel and admire the seeming innocent reality of New York of 1957, you need to immerse yourself in the cry of sympathetic people and imbibe the unrealistic liberal sentiments that are very well portrayed throughout the film.