‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic
I have been fortunate enough to interview several film legends and with this story I landed a biggie in the person of the late Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning producer-director who made two of the greatest screen musicals in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, though as my piece points out he was a versatile enough filmmaker that he made memorable movies of all different genres, including horror, crime, Western, and science fiction. My story appeared on the eve of a revival screening of West Side Story at the restored Orpheum Theater in Omaha some eight or nine years ago. The event was organized by local impresario Bruce Crawford. For the story I interviewed Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn, who came to the showing, and Crawford. Though Wise was not a great filmmaker or auteur he was certainly one of the most commercially successful prodcuer-directors of his era. His career also spanned an incredibly long period, from the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood well into the 1980s, and intersected with scores of great talents. It was a distinct privilege to speak with him. Flm lovers should note that this blog is full of my stories from my work as a film journalist.
‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Before becoming the home of Omaha’s performing arts in the 1970s, the Orpheum Theater reigned as the grandest movie palace in the city. It’s only fitting then the newly renovated downtown Orpheum will, for one night only, on Monday, November 11, showcase a national cinema treasure – West Side Story – in a special screening benefiting the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Omaha
The event is the latest in local impresario Bruce Crawford’s series of annual film revivals presented in the manner of Hollywood premieres. This time, he’s arranged personal appearances by three West Side Story notables — its Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn and vocalist Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Also, a choreographed work by Robin Welch of the Omaha Theater Ballet will pay homage to the dance numbers in the film. Wise, Tamblyn and Nixon will speak prior to the film and sign autographs afterwards.
Crawford said he’s secured “an archival print” for the showing, which will offer audiences a rare chance to see the film in all its 70 millimeter Super Panavision glory on the big screen. In the opinion of Crawford, a devotee of film music, West Side Story “broke the mold” as far as the American musical is concerned. “I consider it a modern opera. Maria,Tonight, In America – these are not just show tunes, these are almost operatic arias,” he said. “I think it transcends the musical genre and is the most unique of all film musicals, hands-down.”
Released by United Artists in 1961, West Side Story became a huge box-office hit and one of the most honored films in Academy Award history, winning 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and co-director Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). As successful as the film was, it owed everything to the original stage production upon which it was based. Boldly transposing the forbidden romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the New York gang milieu and exchanging the Montague-Capulet feud for the gang warfare between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins covered new ground in American musical theater with their honest depiction of racial issues.
The modern, socially-conscious drama became a Broadway phenomenon soon after opening at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957. Brimming with an urgent passion and intellect, the show ran more than 700 performances before going on tour. Sensing a hot property when they saw one, producers ponied-up to buy the film rights. In the changing landscape of American cinema then, old-line Hollywood studios were giving way to brash new independent film companies, one of which — Mirisch Pictures — acquired the rights to the play and, in association with Seven Arts Productions, launched the much-anticipated screen version.
To helm the film, veteran Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me) was signed and, in an unusual arrangement, Broadway’s Robbins was given co-directorial responsibilities. The plan was for Wise to direct the dramatic scenes and to shape the overall story for the camera and for Robbins to develop the demanding dance and music numbers. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, The King and I, Sweet Smell of Success, North By Northwest) wrote the film adaptation. Bernstein and Sondheim again provided the powerful music and lyrics around which the entire spine of West Side is built. In preparing the film, Wise-Robbins elected not to use any leads from the Broadway show and instead cast five fresh-faced young players under contract to various studios.
As the souful, starcrossed lovers whose romance defies family, ethnic and gang codes of honor, Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, the Polish-American boy, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the Chicano girl. Newcomer George Chakiris took the showy part of Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Sharks. Plucked from the obscurity of previously decorative bit parts, Rita Moreno won the role of Anita, the fire brand mate of Bernardo. And, finally, for the cocky role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, Russ Tamblyn got the call.
In recent phone interviews from their California homes, Wise and Tamblyn spoke about making the film and the artists they collaborated with. After 56 years directing some of the most famous features in movie history, 88-year-old Robert Wise is finally retired from picture-making, although movies are always on his mind. The venerable Wise is the last of the old guard of Hollywood filmmakers. In a distinguished career that saw him transition from the editing room at RKO, where he cut such classics as Citizen Kane, to assuming the director’s chair, from which he oversaw dozens of popular films of every conceivable genre, Wise earned a reputation as a fine craftsman. His fluid, incisive, unadorned work exudes a sober integrity reflective of his own character. In preparing a film a director is like a reporter and Wise, who intended to be a journalist, anchors his work in research. “When I go into any project I research every aspect of it thoroughly, so I can tell all the truth and reality I can up on the screen,” he said.
By the time Wise joined the West Side creative team, he was a bankable, versatile director adept at making suspense films (The Curse of the Cat People), horror films (The Body Snatcher), film noirs (The Set-Up), crime thrillers (Odds Against Tomorrow), Westerns (Blood on the Moon), science fiction flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), high dramas (Executive Suite), biopics (I Want to Live) and war films (Run Silent, Run Deep). Despite never directing a musical, he worked as an assistant editor on Astaire-Rogers pictures, an experience, he said, that helped him know “the form” of the musical. Four years after West Side, he struck gold with another Broadway adaptation – The Sound of Music –which broke all box office records.
Wise knew the challenge in making a film from a play, any play, was in finding ways to open the story up in cinematic terms that liberated the action from the constraints of the stage. So that he could capture the grit, vitality and scope of West Side’s New York City setting, he realized he must get dynamic shots of the Big Apple and thus fix the story’s urban location in people’s minds. To do that, he came up with the novel idea for the signature opening — a sweeping helicopter pan looking straight down at the looming cityscape. The resulting images offer arresting views of the city and serve to heighten the reality and poetry of the stylized drama. The filmmaker had to fight reluctant, penny-pinching executives to do the opening his way.
“Well, they were not too happy about it because it was going to cost a lot more money to shoot that, but that was the only way to do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake that out here in Los Angeles. I wanted to deliver New York and I didn’t want to do it with that same old shot across the river of the bridge and the skyline. I got to wondering what it would look like just straight down — a New York most people have never seen. I didn’t actually shoot that myself. A second-unit man did it for me. I think we had about a half-hour’s worth of film, which we cut down into what’s in the movie.” The montage rythmically leads into the first pulsating shots of gang members moving in the streets and breaking into dance.
Aside from his own contributions, Wise felt secure knowing he had a brilliant book, sublime lyrics and memorable music to work with. In his mind, a film is only as good as its screenplay. He said, “We had a marvelous script by a writer-friend of mine, Ernest Lehman, who’s done several of my other things. The foundation of any film is the script, and if it’s not on the page, you’re not going to get it up there (on the screen). If you’ve got it on the page and if you get the right cast together and the right crew, then away you go and you let the chips fall where they may.”
Russ Tamblyn said West Side was a project where “all the ingredients clicked.” Among the big egos and talents behind it, he said, it was the cool, calm, quiet Wise who held it all together. “He was quite different from Jerome Robbins. Jerry was very passionate and out front. He would get mad at dancers if they couldn’t remember steps and he wanted actors to keep doing stuff over and over and over again. On the set, boy, he was a demon. Whereas Robert Wise was more laid-back. He was the kind of director I really like — that’s more self-assured and would point you in the right direction and leave it up to you to go there. That’s the thing I loved about him. He just is really sweet. You can call him at his office, and he answers the phone. There aren’t many people in his position that do that.”
When, more than half-way through production, the film fell behind schedule and went over-budget, the fiery Robbins was fired and assistant Tony Mordente, who also played one of the Jets, Action, assumed the choreography. Ironically, Robbins won Oscars for his energetic, sexually-charged choreography and co-direction.
Behind-the-scenes intrigue or not, Tamblyn enjoyed the shoot and felt lucky to be part of the film at all. He was “on loan” to the producers from MGM, where he was a contract player. He actually tested for the role of Tony, but ended up playing Riff over the objections of studio head Bennie Thau, who felt the part projected the wrong image for a young star being groomed as a clean-cut boy-next-door type. West Side was not the first or last musical for Tamblyn, who displayed his acrobatic style, replete with his trademark back flip, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tom Thumb and Hit the Deck. While lacking formal training, the former Los Angeles youth tumbling champ got the equal of a graduate-level dance education from such master choreographers as Robbins, Michael Kidd and Hermes Pan. Although “extremely intimidated” by the dances required in West Side, he gained confidence during months of rehearsal and from being in the company of fellow former child actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, whom Tamblyn later co-starred with in David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks.
Tamblyn, who considers West Side Story “the peak” of his career, enjoys attending revivals of the film. “Last year we did a cast and crew reunion in New York at Radio City Music Hall,” he said. “It was completely sold out. It was right after 9/11 and we didn’t even want to go, but Mayor Giuliani asked us to, and it was one of the best trips I ever had there.” Robert Wise was there too and said the film “played like gangbusters.” For his Omaha screening, Bruce Crawford is “thrilled” to have the combination of “a legendary filmmaker, a classic film and the Orpheum Theater.”
- How we made … Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris on West Side Story (guardian.co.uk)
- Five top stage-to-film musical makeovers (nydailynews.com)
- West Side Story, film soundtrack, CD review (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Search for the ‘West Side Story’ Album Cover in NYC (wqxr.org)