The classic Hollywood musical, though popular with public and critics in its day, now seems to have more detractors than admirers. The screen version of West Side Story has found itself under attack from both sides, not only from "serious" film fans who consider all musicals to be frivolous and unrealistic, but also snobbish appreciators of the stage original like Keith Garebian, who described it as a "Hollywood vulgarisation"*.
It's fair enough that West Side Story is something of a sacred cow for Broadway fans. Leonard Bernstein, although not as prolific as Gerschwin, Berlin, Kern, Rodgers or Loewe, placed himself on a par with these giants of musical theatre with this one score, a mix of edgy jazz and heart-wrenching melody. The Arthur Laurents story has enough bold changes to make the Romeo and Juliet tale work for the modern era, while still retaining the forceful core and emotional impact of Shakespeare's play. Then there is the choreography of Jerome Robbins, turning aggressive tension into dance moves, with complex layers and patterns that seem almost contradictory but work harmoniously. But what is really special is how all these things weave into each other. Bernstein's score references and repeats itself; for example the oft-heard whistle, the opening line of "Ma-ri-a" and the start of the baseline for "Cool" are all the same three notes. The choreography picks up on every subtlety of the music, and blurs the lines between dancing and fighting. Even the dialogue has a kind of snappy rhythm to it, allowing the talkie scenes to flow straight into the musical numbers.
Walter Mirisch, who acquired the filming rights, knew what he was doing when he handed the project to two directors, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Robbins had directed it for the stage, and there was really no-one better to ensure his own choreography survived intact for the screen version. However with no experience behind a camera, it was unlikely he could have tackled the whole thing single-handed. Robert Wise was the perfect partner for him, a highly professional and dedicated screen director, who had never done a musical before but had proved himself sensitive to rhythm and movement in pictures such as This Could Be the Night and I Want to Live!. Between them, Wise and Robbins have reproduced the synchronicity of the stage show, as well as extending it in a cinematic dimension.
In the location-shot "Prologue", the camera becomes a part of the choreography, beginning with those jerky pans in time with the Jets' finger-clicking. This I believe was largely the input of Robbins, who was apparently fascinated by what cinema could do. He does some great work with colour, such us the red background that suddenly comes into view in that first close up of George Chakiris (Bernardo). As well as the dramatic scenes, I understand Wise was solely responsible for directing the less dance-orientated numbers such "Something's Coming", "Maria" and "Tonight". His approach is subtler, but he still cleverly merges image and music, keeping the camera close for the quieter moments, then pulling back as the song becomes bigger, allowing the backgrounds to become part of the tone. Wise also holds up the musicality elsewhere. One trick this former editor uses is to ensure that at key moments consecutive shots are jarringly different in colour and arrangement, which keeps that jagged rhythm going in image as well as sound.
One major source of controversy was the changes to the cast. It was a fact in Hollywood at this time that non-singing actors would be cast in the lead roles, to be dubbed by non-acting singers. It's a shame I admit, but it's reasonable. Natalie Wood was a marvellous dramatic player and experienced movie actress, adept at emoting for the camera. Richard Beymer is not an exceptionally good lead man, but he is good enough, and at least looks the part. Still, one thing that couldn't be faked was dancing, and all the gang members are necessarily played by professionals in this respect. What is great about these supporting players is that they make dancing, singing and acting become one. Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris and especially the magnificent Rita Moreno all dance in the way their character should move. Moreno, using her own voice for all but one number, continues to spit out her lyrics just as Anita would, treating each song as a piece of drama.
But there are still one or two things for the theatre snobs to nitpick over. There is the re-ordering of several songs to take place at different times. This was done to keep the lighter songs in the first half of the picture and keep the darkening of mood towards the end consistent, and it works for the film. Bernstein apparently did not like this recording of his score, but it doesn't seem to have done the picture any harm. And there are of course those who will automatically object to a screen adaptation of anything on principle, but let's face it – we don't really need to address that here do we?
All of which leaves us with just the whinges of the pretentious film fans, who seem to think that cinema is only about "auteurs", film noir, nouvelle vague, the art house and bloody Stanley Kubrick. There isn't much to say to this bunch. All they need is to lighten up, stop being afraid of a little music and dance, and realise that gritty realism isn't the only way to make a point.
*In his book, The Making of West Side Story, which is about the Broadway production.