In honor of TCM's upcoming new book West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic, we wanted to know your questions about the Oscar-winning musical. Now, ten of your questions have been answered by author and film historian Richard Barrios! Check out the answers below and if your name is on the list, congrats! You'll be receiving West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic in the mail.
Patricia Gallagher asks:
Translating a play to the screen is a complicated process. How did the film deal with some of the songs, which had language not permissible in Hollywood at the time? Were songs cut because of language (or time)? Did Stephen Sondheim assist with needed changes to specific songs that were included?
Richard Barrios: You probably know that, all things considered, West Side Story was – and remains – one of the most faithful of all theatrical adaptations. However, since stage and film are different media with varying demands, there were indeed a few changes. In fact, there’s an “Intermission” section in the book that lays down all the changes. A few of those changes came at the directive of the still-active Production Code – which is why a few parts of “Gee Officer Krupke” got toned down, and Anita doesn’t, in the Quintet, sing about Bernardo being “hot,” but merely “here.” The biggest change in lyrics, however, were not because of censorship per se. That came in “America,” for which Stephen Sondheim wrote what was basically a new set of lyrics. There had been some objection to the stage lyrics for “America,” which referred to Puerto Rico as an “island of tropic diseases.” That designation was eliminated, but an even bigger change came with the way the song was presented. On Broadway, the number had been performed by Anita and the other Shark women; on film, it was performed by Anita, Bernardo, and all the Sharks, male and female, with much “back and forth” between the women and men.
Rare among filmed Broadway shows, no songs were lost during the journey from stage to screen. (Several, however, were moved around – most strikingly with “Gee Officer Krupke” and “Cool,” which swapped places. This move was widely approved.) The one musical sequence to be deleted was the “Somewhere” ballet. On stage, the song was sung by Consuelo and was then followed by a dream ballet. In the movie, it’s sung by Maria and Tony, with no ballet. The ballet had been spotted in the original screenplay, but as the film fell farther and farther behind schedule – and with the firing of co-director and choreographer Jerome Robbins – it became clear that it would be virtually no chance of the sequence being filmed. And it wasn’t.
Domenic Ferrante asks:
Was any other actress seriously considered for the role of Maria other than Natalie Wood?
Richard Barrios: The casting for West Side Story took an enormous amount of time and involved many, many interviews, readings, and tests – which is why the book has an entire chapter devoted to the casting process. Producer and co-director Robert Wise searched long and hard for actors to fill the five lead roles, and no role had more candidates than that of Maria. For most of the casting process, Ms. Wood was not among the prime candidates. Apparently, her name had been mentioned during some of the early casting discussions and was felt to be a “stale” choice. Later on, Wise and company underwent a change of heart and offered Ms. Wood the role – and she turned it down. Meanwhile, many dozens of young women were under consideration. Among the more serious candidates were Susan Kohner, Ina Balin, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Diane Baker, Suzanne Pleshette, and Elizabeth Ashley. Also very briefly in the running was Mary Moore, before she added the “Tyler” in the middle; Robert Wise thought that she seemed too mature to play the 17-year-old Maria. At least one actress, BarBara Luna [that’s how she prefers to spell it], was up for both Maria and Anita. Production actually began on the film without a final choice having been made. Then, while the New York location shoot was underway, Wise and company went back to Natalie Wood. This time, she accepted – at twice the amount she’d originally been offered. It was proposed that she take less money upfront in exchange for a share of the profits, but she declined that offer. Later on, she admitted that that had been a mistake.
Kelvin Cedeño asks:
In your research for this book, what was the most surprising fact you came across?
Richard Barrios: I appreciate all the questions I’ve been asked here, but the “most surprising” aspect of this question is something I feel especially close to. When I started doing research for the book, I really wasn’t planning on too much in the way of great surprises. After all, West Side Story, the film, has been a part of our lives for nearly sixty years now, right? But, indeed, there were a few unexpected paths I started going down when I began to examine Robert Wise’s very detailed files on the planning and shooting and post-production. I guess that the biggest surprises lay in his casting notes – both in some of the names being considered and the overall intentions the filmmakers had with the casting. Some of the names were surprising enough – Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, even Leonard Nimoy – but I think the single factor that struck me the most was how they intended to treat the singing. We all know how voice dubbing was common in movies in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, but I was still startled by the fact that it was decided going into the project that vocal ability would not be a major concern. Thus, very few of the performers under serious consideration were singers. That attitude might be a little more understandable with a film and score like Carmen Jones or Porgy and Bess, but it was also true for West Side Story. Saul Chaplin, the associate producer, was a leading proponent of voice dubbing, and he was in charge of deciding who would and would not do their own singing, and who would be chosen to do the offscreen vocalizing. Such wholesale dubbing was part of the convention of the times, but that didn’t mean it was always a smooth and simple process. Natalie Wood was very unhappy that she ended up being dubbed by Marni Nixon, and Chaplin’s decision to dub Russ Tamblyn’s perfectly adequate rendition of “Jet Song” seems pretty unnecessary.
Dave Sikula asks:
How much of the film is Jerome Robbins and how much is Robert Wise? Meaning, how influential was Robbins and how much did he do before he was let go?
Richard Barrios: Overall – let’s call it “in a cosmic sense” – Jerome Robbins is the single most influential figure in everything connected with West Side Story, both the original production and the 1961 film. Not only did he stage and choreograph it, he worked extensively with the other creators (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents) in helping to shape their work. He was so closely connected with the show that there was never an initial thought that he not be connected with the film. But, of course, he had very little film experience, which led to the co-director setup with Robbins and Robert Wise. We know how that ended but, whatever the problems were concerning Robbins on the film, his would always be the primary stamp. As far as actual percentage, it’s difficult to get an exact figure, for a few reasons. Robbins and Wise were usually working together on the set, although Robbins was observed to be (by far) the more dominant figure in that directorial duo. Also, Robbins laid out and choreographed several sequences that were not shot until after he left the production, including the entire gym-dance sequence. That raises the question: “Is the director of the film the one who stages the action, or the one who calls ‘Action’?” The film was less than halfway done when Robbins left, but the shoot had been front-loaded with the numbers over which he had the most dominion: the Prologue, “America,” “Cool,” and “I Feel Pretty.” From a practical standpoint, let’s say that we can split the film – very roughly – into 58 per cent Wise and 42 per cent Robbins. But, repeating, that’s very rough. Even though Robbins wasn’t happy with a number of things in the completed movie, it can still be said that much of it is his.
Tony Villegas asks:
The scenes of the chain-link fence areas in which the gangs gathered and often danced… where were these scenes filmed? I had heard that they were planned underground lots for the Lincoln Center in the westside sixties streets of Manhattan. As a born Manhattanite, I am curious as to where these scenes were actually shot.
Richard Barrios: The New York locations used in the opening scenes were two very separate places. The street scenes – including the one shown on the cover of the book – were done on the 200 block of West 68th Street, a couple of blocks northwest of the upper border of what is now Lincoln Center. That entire block was already slated for demolition, and right after filming it all came down. Even the street itself was destroyed: there is no longer a 200 block of West 68th Street. (Its former site is now mostly the Lincoln Towers apartment complex.)
Although the film makes it appear that the street and the playground with the chain-link fence are adjacent, they were actually four miles apart. The playground is still there, and so is the fence. (Although it may well be that it’s a different fence from the one that they filmed sixty years ago.) It’s located at what was then called East 110th Street and is now known as Tito Puente Way, between Second and Third Avenues on the south side of the street. I visited the site while working on the book and was pleased to see that it’s still pretty recognizable.
The later movie scenes involving the playground (and chain-link fences) were shot at the studio in California. Part of “Jet Song” was shot outdoors at the Goldwyn lot in Hollywood, and about 30 seconds of the Quintet were shot in downtown Los Angeles under highway overpasses. Apart from that, everything was filmed on soundstages.
Julie Fajardo asks:
Jerome Robbins was so demanding and such a perfectionist that he had to be replaced. Was he satisfied with final production?
Richard Barrios: Not too surprisingly, Mr. Robbins was not completely happy with the final result. After the first rough cut was assembled, he viewed it – as per his contract – and came up with a number of suggested changes. Some were heeded and some were not. Later, after the film opened, he told friends that he liked the work that he himself had been responsible for but that other parts of it were less effective. “Some of it gets bogged down,” he remarked. Overall, there was no getting around the fact that it had not been a happy experience for him.
Art Glover asks:
I know that Marni Nixon's singing was dubbed in for Natalie Wood. Did Natalie Wood do her own singing for the initial recordings of the songs? If so, do those recordings still exist?
Richard Barrios: Natalie Wood did her own singing when the initial recordings were made, and when she shot her singing scenes was performing to her own playbacks. While none of her singing is heard in the final film, at least some of those recordings do survive, and a quick online search will locate them. (A very enterprising historian has gone so far as to synch them up with her onscreen performance.) Of course, opinions will vary about the effectiveness of her singing, but I think that had the film been made in a later time her tracks could have been electronically enhanced and at least partly used. The publicity value would have been considerable. Ms. Wood did sing for herself in Gypsy, which was filmed shortly after West Side Story. Granted that her music wasn’t as challenging as Maria’s had been, but she did quite well with it.
Pam Benjamin asks:
Aside from Rita Moreno and 1-2 smaller roles, there is no Latinx representation in the cast. Was there any consideration given to this aspect in the casting?
Richard Barrios: There was indeed some consideration in this area, but – following the conventions of that time ethnic authenticity was not necessarily considered essential. Bear in mind that this was around the same time that Mickey Rooney was playing a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a performance which remains quite offensive in its stereotypical excesses. As Rita Moreno has said, “It was a different time.” So different, in fact, that Nancy Kwan (born in Hong Kong) was listed as an early possibility for Maria. There were a few Latinx performers considered for the roles of Maria, Anita, and Bernardo: Susan Kohner, whose mother was Mexican film star Lupita Tovar, was a serious possibility for Maria, and others who interviewed or read included Miriam Colon, Silvia Rey, Estelita Rodriguez, Robert Hernandez, and Jose De Vega (who was cast instead as Chino). Besides De Vega, the Shark men and women did include a number of actors with a Latinx background: Jay Norman, Nick Covacevich, Jaime Rogers, Rudy del Campo, Yvonne Othon, Maria Jimenez, Linda Dangcil, and Olivia Perez.
Patricia Lazzeri asks:
Why did the glorious singer Marni Nixon never receive any screen credit for her beautiful singing as Maria and as Anita? (She also never received screen credit for The King and I, An Affair to Remember, My Fair Lady, Cheaper By the Dozen, Boy On a Dolphin and Secret Garden, among several others.)
Richard Barrios: It was usually felt that releasing the names of the offscreen “ghost singers” would detract from the illusion, so most commonly their names were never publicized. The rare exceptions came in the cases of high-profile singers like Al Jolson (in The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again) and Mario Lanza (in The Student Prince). Even when it was generally known that an actor had not done her or his own singing, the singers’ names were not released to the general public. The top-selling soundtrack albums for Ms. Nixon’s “Big Three” dubbing jobs – The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady – were all released without her name. Even Lisa Kirk, a very well-known singer and performer, was kept anonymous when she did most of Rosalind Russell’s singing in Gypsy.
It wasn’t only that people like Marni Nixon wouldn’t be credited; they also weren’t paid enough. Most dubbers were given only a flat fee for their work, with no share of the album royalties. It was only because of the generosity of Leonard Bernstein that Ms. Nixon received royalties for the West Side Story soundtrack, which was a huge seller. Bernstein was kind enough to turn over part of his own percentage to her. Betty Wand, who did some of Rita Moreno’s singing, received her compensation only after she sued for her share of the royalties and for damages.
Jim Troche asks:
How much research was done with actual New York City gangs?
Richard Barrios: Perhaps it wouldn’t seem today to be all that in-depth, but the filmmakers did make a sincere attempt to understand the environment and conflicts being depicted in the story. In November 1959, producer-director Robert Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman traveled to Manhattan to do research and scope out possible shooting location. Mr. Lehman was allowed to ride on the “graveyard shift” patrol with members of the city’s police department to get an idea of late-night law and disorder in some of the rougher neighborhoods. Later on he recalled that one of the policemen said to him, “Anyone on the street after one AM is either a cop or a robber.” He also spoke with workers in various city organizations dealing with juvenile delinquency.
Real-life gang members also figured in the actual filming. The location shoot in New York attracted a large number of spectators, and most of them were content to stand quietly behind the barriers while the shooting progressed. However, it sometimes became clear that the onlookers included genuine “Jets and Sharks,” and there were reports that gang violence was still going on nearby. After the film company heard of a stabbing, and following some apparent vandalism, members of the film crew decided to spring for further security by hiring real gang members to keep the peace. Evidently they did their job well enough to ensure that everyone working on the film was able to return back to California unscathed.
Thank you Richard and thank you to everyone who submitted questions!