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Movie Musical Monday, May 7th: “West Side Story”

May 7, 2012

Good morning, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

Before I talk about today’s movie musical, dear reader, I must offer you an apology.  Last week was to be the final entry in three weeks running of musicals based on the plays of William Shakespeare–hooray!

448, and still lookin’ good…

But then I pooped out, as I attempted to catch up on some acting work and get ready for an upcoming gig (future post with greater details on the way).  I was also daunted by the prospect of writing about today’s film because not only is it probably the most famous movie musical, it’s source material is the Greatest Musical of All Time.  Sure, we can talk about the fact that this show did not win the Tony for Best Musical the year it debuted on Broadway.  We can also (perhaps) suggest that the lyricist’s work on this piece would be later overshadowed–and possibly eclipsed–by nearly all of his future endeavors.  But none of that matters.  Why?  Because of sequences like this:

So who cares that Music Man took home Best Musical in 1958, or that the intricacies of Sondheim’s lyrics had not yet come to full fruition(this was only his Broadway debut–CUT HIM SOME SLACK)?  This is the show that makes every young, musical theatre girl unhappy she’ll never be a boy and dance as a Jet (because not even Anybodys really gets to do what the male cast does).  This is the show that sends every young, musical theatre boy leaping to ballet class.  Because this show does as great art does: it leaves an impression.  And it does this with every aspect of its production: its book, its lyrics, its dancing, its score.  West Side Story is the Greatest Musical of All Time.  And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Period.*


West Side Story is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (and I venture to say it’s better than another R&J adaptation mentioned a few weeks ago, the Lion King 2, but I’ve never actually watched that so I could be wrong.  Probably not though.).  Two rival gangs, the Jets–white kids from working class families–and the Sharks–Puerto Ricans, having newly immigrated to the mid-50’s and 60’s of West Manhattan–are warring over the little turf they have to live on together.  Since this is a musical, they of course fight through dance.

It’s a testament to the level of visibility this film enjoys that Jerome Robbins’s choreography has become an integral part of what audiences expect from this musical.  So often the first complaint you hear when someone you know has seen a production is, “They changed the choreography!”  In this way, Robbins’s work is truly iconic, wrapped up with the experience of seeing this musical staged, though I’m sure it’s wrecked havoc to anyone trying to extract a new vision of the show.  But who’s asking you to work so hard in that direction?  Relax, and get some boys in jeans to do pirouettes.  That’s what the people want.

(Everyone is just waiting for people to do this pose.)

Anyway, Robbins found a way to make ballet TOUGH, by combining it with some lyrical jazz and moments of acrobatics.  The result is beyond memorable.  The fact that the choreography was maintained when the musical was transferred to film is due in part to Robbins being brought on to direct the musical sequences.  After being fired from the film (he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown after only a third of it was shot, and the production company was worried about going over budget), Robbins’s assistants finished staging the sequences.  However, their jobs were probably easier because many members of the film cast had performed in the stage musical at some point:

  • George Charkiris (Bernardo) had played Riff on the West End.
  • Tucker Smith (Ice) had joined the original cast of the stage musical in 1958, played a number of Jets, understudied Riff, and had gone out on the first national tour of the show. (He also dubbed some of Russ Tamblyn’s singing in the “Jet Song” for the film.)
  • Tony Mordente (Action) played A-rab in the original cast of the musical and was in the West End transfer. (The Broadway production was also where he met his later-to-be-ex-wife, Chita Rivera.)
  • Eliot Feld (Baby John) was sixteen when he joined the Broadway cast of the show in 1958.
  • David Winters (A-rab) was the original Baby John in the Broadway production.

It’s interesting to think how much the stage production (because of the artistic staff and cast members on hand) would ultimately shape the final product of this film.

But enough talk–it’s time for another song!

So yes, the Jets and the Sharks, the Montagues and the Capulets.  Riff (who is played here by the Always Awesome Russ Tamblyn), essentially stands in for the character of Mercutio–which is why he’s always the one we like the best, even though we love Romeo/Tony’s love.  Here, he explains with the gang why their gang is the best gang on the whole ever mother-lovin’ street (though those lyrics were adjusted for the movie).  Feel free to sing along!

Dude, if I was in a gang, that is totally the gang I’d be in.

So Riff is BFF with Tony, who has recently quit the gang and gotten a job and is looking for something else though he doesn’t know what.

That’s Richard Beymer as Tony (dubbed by singer/musician Jimmy Bryant), who beat out Russ Tamblyn (still Awesome), Anthony Perkins, and Warren Beatty for the part.  Beatty had screen tested with Natalie Wood, who had opted to read with him as a favor (they had been shooting Splendor in the Grass when WSS was casting).  Robert Wise liked her reading so much, that she ended up playing Maria.  The moral of the story is: Do favors for friends.  Elvis was also considered, but turned down the role after advisement from his management.

Can you imagine Elvis as Tony?  I actually don’t think that would have sucked.

That night, everyone is at the dance in some church hall.  Despite the adults’ attempt at integration, the gangs resist and have more large-scale dance-offs. (Despite it being a popular social dance of the period, I still will never understand why some white people thought it would be a good idea to challenge some Latinos to a mambo competition, but whatever.) Then Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight.

Tony and Maria just kiss when Bernardo breaks it up.  Riff goes in to defend Tony, and the two gang leaders make a date for later that night to discuss terms of an upcoming rumble.  Tony goes off to dream about the new girl he’s found, with one of the greatest love songs ever.

That final shot is just gorgeous, with the streaks of light behind him, making that last recitation like a prayer.  “Say it soft/And it’s almost like praying.”  That’s right, cinematographers–way to take a cue from the lyric!

Tony creeps back to the fire escape of Maria’s apartment building, and calls her out to the railing before ascending himself for a duet.  Now, Natalie Wood thought that her singing was going to be used on the film soundtrack, and was told it would be.  However, it was apparent early on that Wood could not provide the vocals necessary for the role, so Marni Nixon was brought in to dub the part.  Wood was then told that Nixon would only be covering the higher notes which were out of her register, but ultimately all of Wood’s singing was substituted with Nixon’s.  Here’s an interesting video featuring the two voices mixed together on ‘Tonight.’  You can tell why Wood was replaced.

The Sharks meet the Jets at Doc’s store, where Tony works, and agree to rumble the next night under the highway.  Ice will fight Bernardo, and whatever gang wins will own the streets once and for all.  Maria finds out about the rumble and tries to get Tony to stop it.  But when he attempts to do so, everything goes wrong.

And then, of course:

Word gets back to Maria that Tony killed her brother and she calls him a killer when he sneaks through her window that night.  But they still love each other, and they have sex.  A few hours later, Anita comes home after identifying Bernardo’s body (she walks in with his jacket<–this is the only evidence I have with which to base this claim) and calls to Maria.  She hears voices, and once Tony is out the fire escape and Maria lets her in, Anita realizes what has happened.  She confronts Maria for (literally) sleeping with the enemy.  Maria reminds Anita that love is all powerful, and eventually they both concur that “When love comes so strong/There is no right or wrong/Your love is your life.”

Lt. Schrank shows up looking to question Maria about Tony.  Covertly, Maria tells Anita to go tell Tony that she will be late–they had planned to meet at Doc’s to run away together.  But when Anita gets to Doc’s, the Jets there TRY TO RAPE HER.  When she finally gets free she rages that Chino (Maria’s former intended) had found out about Maria and Tony and shot her.  Doc bears the news to Tony who, broken-hearted, runs out into the streets looking for his own death and finds it.  Maria is there when he is shot and tries to keep him alive, but:

The final line of the stage directions in the script for the show read as follows:

The adults-Doc, Schrank, Krupke, Glad Hand-are left bowed, alone, useless.
The Curtain Falls.

Awesome.  And so ends the Greatest Musical of All Time.


This is another tough musical to find any music from to audition with.  Though I did leave out several songs from the above synopsis (including my most favorite forever, “Cool”), this is a hard show to mine because the music is so well known.  But here are a couple suggestions that may work.  Still, I recommend proceeding with great caution.

  1. “I Feel Pretty”–ONLY IF SUNG BY A GUY.  I think that would be the only reason anyone would enjoy hearing this song in an audition, unless you were actually in callbacks for West Side Story.  That’s where I’m drawing the line.
  2. “Maria”–If you’re a tenor and you have to show you have the notes.  And you have to have the notes.
  3. “Tonight”–I would consider substituting the duet lyrics with the lyrics from the ensemble version of this song right before the end of Act 1 to help make this a solo.  But make sure your sheet music matches up to what you’re singing–don’t expect the pianist to just go along with whatever comes out of your mouth.  That’s just not fair.  And again, if you intend to sing this song in the key it’s performed in, you better have those notes.

That’s all for today–thanks for dropping by and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

*This view is completely subjective and held solely by the author of this post.  It does not reflect the views of the Green Room Bloggers en totale.  (But I mean seriously, guys, come on.)

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