West Side Story Revisited

by Elisabeth Sereda April 30, 2019
 Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in a scene from  "West Side Story

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in a scene from West Side Story.

donaldson collection/getty images

An old film industry wisdom says to never remake a great movie. That is unless you’re Steven Spielberg. The superstar director is tackling a new version of one of the best musicals ever made, West Side Story.

It was the most daring musical Broadway had ever staged when it premiered in 1957. The critics’ reaction was pretty much horrendous. Walter Kerr of The New York Herald Tribune wrote that “the radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway.” Theatergoers though were mostly intrigued, shocked and above all interested. The show was bolder than anything anyone had ever seen, the choreography was fresh and new and edgy.  

In 1960 composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins gave the go-ahead to Robert Wise to turn it into a film as long as Robbins also received a directing credit. The film version premiered in 1961. And the rest – so far – is history.

Here’s some funny tidbits about the gestation of Tony's and Maria’s tragic story that has moved audiences to tears for what is now 62 years: The original idea was a love story between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl, titled East Side Story (for New York’s East, not West Side). Bernstein however, was bored with that premise, given the by then gentrified East Side and decided on two teenage gangs instead.

The Seattle Times’ theater critic Misha Berson writes in her book about WSS, that the idea for the musical was Jerome Robbins’, but it came about after an unnamed friend, rumored to be Robbins’ lover at the time -  Montgomery Clift -  asked him for advice before an audition for Romeo and Juliet. And Robbins told him to use the gangs of New York as a reference.

The writers wanted to go all Shakespeare on the story and originally killed off Maria in a Juliet-like suicide.

Bernstein did a song swap: the composer was working on West Side Story and Candide, based on Voltaire’s novel, at the same time and switched ‘One Hand, One Heart’ with ‘O Happy We’.

Oscar Hammerstein protegé Steven Sondheim who wrote the lyrics, wanted the f-word to make its Broadway debut, but this was still the 50s after all, and ‘F**k, Officer Krupke’ got censored and lead to the well-known ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’. The producers retaliated with the shout-out ‘Krup you!’.

Rita Moreno in a scene from West Side Story

Rita Moreno in a scene from West Side Story.

silver screen collection/getty images

 

The film’s Maria was going to be Audrey Hepburn, who was pregnant and after having suffered two prior miscarriages, declined. Natalie Wood, hot off Rebel Without A Cause got the coveted role and Marni Nixon dubbed her singing.

The most shocking anecdote comes from Rita Moreno: after saying that “Anita’s accent didn’t make any sense at all,” she talked about the extremely dark make-up. White actors like Natalie Wood and George Chakiris, a woman with British heritage and a Greek American, got their faces painted in brown while portraying Puerto Ricans. Even Moreno, who is a real Puerto Rican, had her skin tone darkened for the role: “We all had the same color makeup, it was a very different time,” she said on a podcast: “I remember saying to the makeup man one day ― because it was like putting mud on my face, it was really dark and I’m a fairly fair Hispanic― and I said to the makeup man one day ‘My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish...’ And it’s true, we are very many different colors, we’re Taino Indian, we are black some of us.” Trying to explain this racial diversity to the less than educated white makeup artist elicited this response: “The makeup man actually said to me, ‘What? Are you a racist?’” - “I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t come back with an answer.”

It can be assumed that Moreno, who was already cast by Spielberg as Valentina, won’t have to deal with such racial tone-deafness in the remake. The director added 50 dancers and singers to play the Sharks and the Jets to his production a few days ago. The cast so far includes Ansel Elgort as Tony; newcomer Rachel Ziegler, who is half Colombian, as Maria; Dear Evan Hansen star Mike Faist as Riff; Puerto Rican singer, actress, and dancer Ana Isabelle as Rosalia; Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank; and Ariana DeBose in Moreno’s role as Anita. Casting Director Cindy Tolan upped David O’Selznick’s Gone With The Wind search for the perfect cast and looked at more than 30,000 performers, also making this Spielberg’s broadest casting search since Schindler’s List. For over 50 cast members, West Side Story will mark their feature film debuts.

Spielberg’s old buddy Tony Kushner is writing the screenplay with Rita Moreno serving as one of the film’s Executive Producers. Filming is to start in the summer. And if anyone wonders why Steven Spielberg is taking the big risk of doing this remake, he hinted at it in the very first ‘HFPA in Conversation’-podcast about 18 months ago when asked if he still heard an idea whispering in his ear: “Well, the whisper that always creeps up on me and I have to do a movie like this someday, so I can get this whisper out of my ear, is I want to make a musical. I mean, talk of about a genre of something I’ve never done. I’ve had little musical numbers from time to time in different films, but I’ve never done a full-fledged musical like An American in Paris or Singing in the Rain or Brigadoon or La La Land.”  Or West Side Story, it seems. “I would love to do a musical someday”, he added.

That someday came sooner than we thought, and Mr. Spielberg has his work cut out for him: after all the original won three Golden Globes and 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and both supporting stars.