Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

West Side Story


Surely one of the top 5 musical movies ever made. (The others? Let’s see … Singin’ in the Rain, The Boy Friend, An American in Paris, Les parapluies de Cherbourg, Cabaret, 42nd Street, Top Hat, Across the Universe … oh, bother … I’ll never get it down to five.) It was one of the biggest selling soundtrack albums of all time. I played it so often I wore it out, and I can still sing every part of every song, even the ones without lyrics. I found a LaserDisc for $1, which is why I watched it again a few days ago.

So, does it stand the test of time? Musically, without a doubt. There is still nothing that even comes close in terms of musical sophistication. Not Sondheim, certainly not Lloyd Webber, much as I love Cats and Sweeney Todd. Rita Moreno has spoken of just how hard it was to dance to the fractured time signatures of Bernstein … and how rewarding. (Everybody can sing “America,” but did you know it was written in alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4 time? Not what dancers are used to.)

There was a downside for the movie dancers, though. Jerome Robbins could not make up his mind, and he didn’t seem to know how to call CUT!! He rehearsed them for three months and then he kept changing everything and wasting tons of super-expensive 65mm film, until he got fired. (Luckily, he had completed most of the showstopper dance numbers: “Prologue,” “Cool,” and “America.” I don’t know who choreographed the other one, “Dance at the Gym.”) And the opening dance was actually performed on the city streets, on concrete, which was hell on the feet. A movie can be choreographed with steps, stunts, and jumps that are much too hard to performed night after night; miss a step, you can just cut and do it again. Almost every dancer was injured at one time or another during the production.

As for acting … it’s a bit dated. The whole situation is a bit dated, the “brutal” Sharks and Jets with their switchblades and zip guns having long been eclipsed by gangs with Uzis and Mac-10s, firing indiscriminately into each others’ turfs. Hell, these days kids glorify gangstas, listen to their horrid rap music, make them millionaires, and still these assholes kill each other. The list of dead rappers is almost as long as the list of live ones. But the story is strong, having been based on Romeo and Juliet … except Juliet dies, and Maria doesn’t.

We all know that the great Marnie Nixon dubbed Natalie Wood’s singing. But did you know that Richard Beymer’s singing was dubbed, too? His part was sung by Jimmy Bryant. Even the great Rita Moreno, a crackerjack singer, was dubbed for “A Boy Like That.” It was below her range, so Betty Wand sang that one. Rita sang the rest of her numbers herself, and won a well-deserved supporting Oscar. From the IMDb, a heartbreaking story:

When filming “The Taunting Scene,” Rita Moreno was reduced to tears when she was harassed and nearly raped by the Jets, as it brought back memories of when she was raped as a child. When she started crying, the Jets immediately stopped and tried to comfort her, while pointing out that the audience was going to hate them for what they were doing.

And love her. God, did I ever hate them. Which was exactly what they wanted. And I’ll bet it was hard for the Jets, too.

And did we ever dodge a bullet. A bullet? Hell, lovers of musicals and of West Side Story in particular dodged a frickin’ howitzer! A plum part like Tony would obviously attract all the young stars in Hollywood, and a whole bunch of them auditioned, including Warren Beatty, Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds, Troy Donahue, and Richard Chamberlain. I can’t imagine any of them in the role, but that may be because the images from the film are so indelible in my head. Who knows? Maybe they would have been great. Bobby Darin was seriously considered. But do you know who was Robert Wise’s first choice for the role? (And why I question his sanity!) You won’t believe it: Elvis Presley. Oh! My! God! The dude could sing, it’s true, but was there ever more of an acting stiff? And the thought of him crooning “Maria” … it makes my skin crawl. (The Colonel said no. First time I’ve ever respected The Colonel.)

Both Audrey Hepburn and Suzanne Pleshette wanted the part of Maria. Suzanne as a Puerto Rican … ? Maybe. But Hepburn? Loved her, even in My Fair Lady (which should have gone to Julie Andrews, who could sing it) … but no, no, no. It might have been better with Carol Lawrence reprising her Broadway role as Maria, but she was deemed too old.

All in all, still one of the greats.

P.S. Did you know the original concept was Jews and Gentiles? Can you imagine it? Two gangs, the Yids and the Goys. Yids in their prayer shawls, black hats and suits, beards, and long sideburns, brandishing wickedly-sharpened 9-pointed menorahs. The Episcopalian WASP Goyim in their preppie white ducks and sweaters, wielding tennis rackets and riding crops. They battle it out among the Upper East Side penthouses to the music of Leonard Bernstein’s adaptations of Kingston Trio and Four Freshmen tunes and jazzed-up klezmer and mizrahi. With Barbra Streisand as Rachel, the JAP cantor’s daughter who falls in love with Pat Boone as Skip, the stockbroker’s son.