WEST SIDE STORY: The Jets, The Sharks and the Making of a Classic by Richard Barrios
Book Review by Lee Sobel (10/1/20)
4 out of 5 stars
West Side Story is one of my all-time favorite movies and by no means am I a fan of musicals. Musicals in general just always feel so corny and phony to me so I've never appreciated them but West Side Story transcended that and although it could be corny to have so-called street hoodlums break into song and dance, the casting of the movie (and everything else about it) always felt authentic to me. I first saw parts of the movie on TV at a friend's house when I was ten years old. It was a playdate and we didn't sit down to watch the movie but I remember it being on a television in one of the rooms and every time I passed through that room I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. I've now seen the movie more times than I can remember and it still holds up for me.
The prologue of the movie, which was shot on location in deteriorating
neighborhoods of New York City in 1961, always drew my attention the most since I grew up in the city and those playgrounds and streets looked very familiar to me. Apparently the prologue was shot first and really tested the relationship of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise who were co-directors of the movie. Robbins had choreographed and directed the Broadway show that the movie was based on, but being a neophyte when it came to film, partnering him with the much more experienced Wise seemed like a good idea to the producers -- something they would soon regret. Scheduled to shoot for three weeks, the prologue ended up taking double that due to the constant demand for retakes by the painstakingly perfectionist Robbins. Stories about his pushing actors to their breaking point include Eliot Feld ("Baby John") having to do so many takes being chased by the Sharks on the streets of New York City that he vomited (Feld also later contracted pneumonia during shooting of the "Cool" sequence) and there were numerous injuries and illnesses incurred by the cast due to the demands of brilliant but dictatorial co-director Jerome Robbins.
Robbins pretty much completely ignored his co-director Robert Wise who apparently sat on the sidelines and allowed Robbins to take charge since Robbins knew how to get the most out of the cast's body movements. They were getting great footage, even if it was taking longer than planned. Robbins was known to be cruel and would constantly tell his cast that if they didn't get everything right that it would live on film to haunt them for the rest of their lives. To get revenge on Robbins, the cast resorted on location in New York to doing rain dances that apparently were effective in prolonging the shoot, to the point that Robert Wise posted a sign in the makeup room that said, "No more rain dances!" As the budget soared from $4.5 million to $6.75 million, shortly after Jerome Robbins threw a fit on the set, yelling at the cast "None of you can dance!," he was fired from the movie in the middle of production. Surprisingly, most of the cast were upset at his firing but the production pressed on, with Robbins' assistants handling the choreography in his absence.
WEST SIDE STORY: The Jets, The Sharks and the Making of a Classic by Richard Barrios has some interesting information about the making of West Side Story. For instance, Elvis Presley was considered to play Riff before Russ Tamblyn was cast (so were Robert Redford and Warren Beatty). Natalie Wood struggled with her Puerto Rican accent in the movie and she also recorded all of her songs and sang to them in playback when the movie was shot. She expected the movie to use her singing but she was deemed not good enough and was dubbed. Richard Beymer did not do his own singing in the movie. Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno sang some of their songs, while other songs of theirs were recorded by another singer. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won ten, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno).
This is a great book, especially for fans like me. My only disappointment with it is that I really wanted to hear more from the cast about making the movie. Although many of the participants in making West Side Story have passed on, some of them are still with us. I assume that Russ Tamblyn didn't speak to the author since Tamblyn seems to have lost interest long ago in his movie career (or if he did speak to the author then his opinions were minimal since there are only a couple of quotes attributed to him). Now in his 80's, I would love to see Russ Tamblyn write his memoirs and devote some of it to one of his most iconic roles, Riff in West Side Story. There are other actors still alive who the author should have spoken to and if he did, then there should have been full interviews published with them to really make this book definitive. Other than that, this book is a must have for fans of this movie. By the way, 2021 will bring the remake of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg. I don't expect it to match the original but I have to admit I am curious about it.