Elvis Presley wanted to be in it; so did Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. But even without them, the 1961 film West Side Story remains the greatest screen musical ever, certainly when measured in Academy Awards. It won ten. Only three films, none of them musicals, have won more.
Now, with Steven Spielberg’s ‘reimagined’ version set to arrive in cinemas today, the original West Side Story, which came out in the U.S. 60 years ago, is getting more attention than it has for decades.
Spielberg’s film is a triumph and has been enthusiastically reviewed — described as ‘relentlessly dazzling, swoonily beautiful’ and his finest film in 20 years.
But it can’t eclipse the 1961 movie for behind-the-scenes gossip, glamour, guile and greed. The fictional gang battles between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the all-American Jets echoed the real-life tumult as the 1957 Broadway show was turned into a movie for the ages.
The Original: Rita Moreno, pictured, now 89 and an executive producer of Spielberg’s film, in which she also dazzles in a small but crucial supporting role, later admitted in her autobiography that she only went out with Elvis to make her on-off boyfriend jealous
Even before it reached the stage, West Side Story was fraught with problems. It was initially a collaboration between three men: choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and writer Arthur Laurents.
As author Richard Barrios tells in a new book about the making of the film, all three were ferociously intelligent, intensely ambitious, exceedingly volatile, gay (or bisexual) — and incorrigibly egotistical. They were also Jewish. Indeed, the story was originally conceived as a conflict between Jews and Catholics on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and given the working title East Side Story.
Robbins in particular could be monstrous. Tormented by his sexuality, he was terrified of being outed and as an act of self-protection, shamelessly gave the names of Communist sympathisers to the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.
When he was teamed on the project with the director Robert Wise, so Robbins could oversee the dance routines while Wise looked after the dramatic scenes, it was a union of opposites. Wise, who a few years later would direct The Sound Of Music, was famous in the film industry for his decency and generosity. Robbins, to put it bluntly, wasn’t.
Stephen Sondheim, the West Side Story lyricist who died last month, once said that Robbins was the only true genius he ever knew. But he was also a control freak who routinely screamed at the actors during rehearsals, belittling everything about them, even their families. If he didn’t want to cast someone, he was even worse.
Before Natalie Wood landed the female lead — as Maria, the Puerto Rican girl whose brother Bernardo leads the Sharks, and who falls hopelessly in love with Tony, one of the Jets — one of the contenders was petite Italian soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti. Wise liked her, but Robbins didn’t. He bullied and derided her, calling her ‘Annamariaspaghetti’.
The Remake: With Steven Spielberg’s ‘reimagined’ version set to arrive in cinemas today, the original West Side Story, which came out in the U.S. 60 years ago, is getting more attention than it has for decades
Everyone knew that the casting process was key to the success of the movie, and it duly took months to complete. Elvis was eager to play the male lead, but his formidable manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reportedly didn’t want his protege playing a knife-carrying hoodlum who ends up dead, even one as swooningly romantic as Tony.
Moreover, Elvis had had potentially unhelpful dalliances with both Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno (who was cast as the other major female character, Bernardo’s lover Anita).
In fact, Moreno, now 89 and an executive producer of Spielberg’s film, in which she also dazzles in a small but crucial supporting role, later admitted in her autobiography that she only went out with Elvis to make her on-off boyfriend jealous.
That was Marlon Brando, and not long after she completed work on the original West Side Story (for which she received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), their obsessive, destructive relationship drove Moreno to attempt suicide. It perhaps didn’t help matters that Brando, too, had yearned to play Tony but was considered too old.
Warren Beatty, then 23, was also in the running. He had first auditioned to play Tony in the Broadway show, with Bernstein noting ‘good voice — charming as hell — can’t open jaw’. He wasn’t hired then or for the movie, but his rapport with Wood in another 1961 release, Splendour In The Grass, soon spilled into real life.
The pair became an item following the high-profile break-up, after filming had begun on West Side Story, of her (first) marriage to Robert Wagner. Just to further complicate matters, Wagner had also been viewed as a potential Tony.
Other names on Wise’s list of potential leads included Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Anthony Perkins, George Segal, George Peppard, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain, singer Bobby Darin and George Hamilton, perma-tanned even then, and rejected by Wise as ‘too dark for us’.
In the event, a little-known actor, Richard Beymer, was cast as Tony. George Chakiris, too, was plucked from relative obscurity to play Bernardo. Of the film’s three principal actors only Russ Tamblyn, as Riff, leader of the Jets, was moderately well-known, having featured in the 1954 musical Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. But nobody could call him a star.
Maria was a different story. Audrey Hepburn was said to have been first choice until she got pregnant. Anne Bancroft was also considered, as was an obscure actress called Mary Moore, who later added Tyler to her name and became a huge TV star.
But Wise and Robbins ended up choosing a powerful box-office draw in the alluring Wood.
Before Natalie Wood (pictured above with Richard Beymer) landed the female lead — as Maria, the Puerto Rican girl whose brother Bernardo leads the Sharks, and who falls hopelessly in love with Tony, one of the Jets — one of the contenders was petite Italian soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti. Wise liked her, but Robbins didn’t
Unfortunately, she had strong prima donna tendencies, treating her co-star Beymer in particular like a lowly, faintly annoying extra. She may have resented him for landing the role she hoped would go to Wagner, her husband at the time.
Whatever her reasons, she was horrible to him and behind his back, complaining about his lack of talent and calling for him to be fired.
Pinned up in her dressing-room, she had a list of the people she disliked most. Beymer’s name was at the top. It was a wonder that the star-crossed screen lovers projected any chemistry at all.
On set, Wood was almost regally aloof, but behind her imperious manner she was desperately insecure, and spent many lunch breaks on the phone to her analyst.
Despite her lambasting of Beymer, she simply couldn’t nail a Puerto Rican accent and knew that she wasn’t a skilled dancer.
However, she did think that she had a decent-enough singing voice. At no point during the production did anyone dare to tell her that all her songs would be dubbed, by Marni Nixon, who had done great work singing Deborah Kerr’s songs in The King And I five years earlier.
Instead, at the end of every take, everyone praised her repeatedly, then discreetly winked at Nixon who was only there, Wood was led to believe, to dub a few high notes.
When eventually she discovered that she wouldn’t actually be singing any of the songs, she flew into an apoplectic rage.
She also had a spectacular tantrum when Robbins was fired from the production in October 1961. Even though he was a martinet, Wood adored him. Their work together was intense, and, despite her shortcomings as a dancer, he was utterly beguiled by her.
The writer Richard Barrios connects this largely to Robbins’s sexuality. As well as a string of gay lovers, he proposed more than once to female dancers and fell into the category, not uncommon at the time, ‘of a neurotic man seeking the right woman to rescue him from being gay’.
Wood knew and exploited this, Barrios believes, but genuinely revered Robbins and was devastated when the film’s producers, the three Mirisch brothers, decided after talking to Wise that they’d had enough of his control-freakery and temper.
Assistant director Robert Relyea described the firing as an ‘assassination . . . planned to the finest detail’.
George Chakiris and Rita Moreno at the 1962 Oscars
It had to be, because everyone was scared of Robbins, even the men who fired him. Walter Mirisch (who is now aged 100) asked his agent to tell him, but the agent refused so Walter drove to Robbins’s house in Beverly Hills to break the news. There was, he recalled in his memoirs, a ‘terrible scene’.
Even with Robbins gone, the troubled production, which ran well over time and budget, was hugely demanding. Pranks and practical jokes were a common way of letting off steam.
On one occasion, between takes, some of the Jets, or possibly the Sharks, staged races down the streets of the Goldwyn lot in West Hollywood, using three-wheeled light stands as chariots and crying ‘I’m Spartacus!’. The fun only stopped when director Billy Wilder, working in one of the studio offices, complained about the noise.
As for the actual counterparts of the Sharks and Jets, life imitated art during location shooting in New York, when the cast felt intimidated by real gang members turning up to watch. The solution was not to ask them to leave, but to hire them as ‘security’. After that, there was no hint of trouble.
The West Side Story premiere took place on October 18, 1961, at the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway. The film, declared ‘a masterpiece’ by the New York Times, was an instant hit, even though the freelance film critic Pauline Kael, later to become the doyenne of her trade, panned it as ‘simpering . . . mawkish . . . frenzied hokum’.
Richard Beymer agreed. He was deeply embarrassed by his performance as Tony. He’d wanted to play a much rougher, tougher character, not a goody-two-shoes. And he’d grown up not remotely streetwise in rural Iowa, spiritually about as far as it got from the Upper West Side. He felt he’d needed direction which he never received.
Nonetheless, the movie was by a distance the summit of his career, and at least he saw his name in lights. Marni Nixon was far more entitled to be disgruntled.
On The King And I, Deborah Kerr ensured that she got a credit. Nixon was given no such help by Wood, still miffed at being dubbed, but much worse, she found she wasn’t going to receive any royalties for the best-selling recording of the West Side Story soundtrack. Disgusted on her behalf, Leonard Bernstein generously gave her some of his own percentage.
Neither Beymer nor Tamblyn enjoyed much conspicuous further success (in 1969, Tamblyn was subject to marketing proclaiming ‘his greatest role since West Side Story’ for a B-list film called Satan’s Sadists) until they were reunited on the TV series Twin Peaks.
Chakiris fared better, and had a recurring role in the 1980s TV soap Dallas, but incongruously enough for the sexy, charismatic leader of the Sharks (who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), his last credited dramatic screen performance was as a luckless character in a 1996 episode of the TSWT’s Last Of The Summer Wine.
Sixty years after the film that made their names, Beymer, Tamblyn and Chakiris are all still alive. Not so Natalie Wood, of course. The star, born Natalie Zacharenko to Russian-immigrant parents, and having remarried Wagner in 1972, was found floating face-down in the Pacific Ocean in 1981, aged 43.
Wagner and his friend, actor Christopher Walken, were on the boat from which she apparently fell, although the incident has never been satisfactorily explained and her sister Lana has published a 40th anniversary memoir called Little Sister: My Investigation Into The Mysterious Death Of Natalie Wood.
Whatever happened that night, it was a desperately sad and undeserved ending for a woman who, for her faults, brought genuine star wattage to the original West Side Story. A film that, for some of us, can never be matched, let alone improved on, not even by Steven Spielberg at the top of his game.
Spielberg’s West Side Story opens in cinemas across the UK today.