Study Guide

West Side Story Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

    West Side Story: the movie so big it took two people to direct.

    Okay, that's not quite true.

    In traditional directing terms, there was just one director: Robert Wise. But he had a huge amount of help from dancer, choreographer and five-time Tony winner Jerome Robbins. Even though Robbins only handled the musical numbers (and indeed had to leave the production before it finished because it was turning him into a broken pile of stress), his co-director wasn't going to see the film hit the screens without Robbins name right beside his.

    As you may have suspected, there's a story there.

    Robbins was primarily a stage director, known for Broadway productions like On the Town, The Pajama Game and Peter Pan. He directed the stage version of West Side Story when it first released on stage in 1957 (the story was his idea, too), handling the dancing and choreography while Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim created the music and lyrics. Naturally, when the time came to make the Broadway musical into a film, he was the go-to guy.

    There was just one problem: he was a dancer and choreographer. Directing movies really wasn't his thing.

    Enter Wise, who'd already established a strong reputation in Hollywood as a guy who could shoot just about anything. He started work in radio, then moved to editing in the 30s and 40s. (He actually helped edit Citizen Kane, still regarded as the greatest movie of all time.) That led to his first directing job: the horror sequel Curse of the Cat People in 1943, followed by a looooooong list of every kind of movie under the sun.

    You like sci-fi? He delivered one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s with The Day the Earth Stood Still. War movies? Run Silent, Run Deep hit in 1958. Boxing pics? Somebody Up There Likes Me in 1956. Historical epics? Helen of Troy, also in 1956 (the second of three movies he directed that year).

    So yeah. Range.

    But he had yet to do a musical.

    The producers pegged him for West Side Story because they wanted the film to look a realistic as possible, and figured he could shoot those New York City streets so well. (They were right.) Wise, however, didn't have any experience designing or directing dance sequences. So he and Robbins would split directing duties: Robbins handling the moving and shaking of the cast, and Wise handling the rest.

    So You Think You Can Dance?

    Robbins ran himself and dancers ragged during the production, demanding absolute perfection from the performers and sucking up all of the production's money with cost overruns. The producers dropped him with only about a third of the movie done, leaving it to his assistants and Wise to finish the deal. Was it worth it?

    It was worth it.

    Here's what the late, great Roger Ebert had to say about it:

    Look at a brief scene where a gang runs toward a very high chain-link fence, scales it bare-handed, and drops down inside a playground. That's a job for one stuntman, not a dozen dancers, and we can only guess how many takes it took to make it look effortless and in sync with the music. […] Robbins' perfectionism and Bernstein's unconventional rhythms created a genuinely new kind of movie dancing, and it can be said that if street gangs did dance, they would dance something like the Jets and the Sharks in this movie, and not like a Broadway chorus line. (Source)

    Even though Robbins got canned from the production, Wise wasn't about to forget his all-important role. When the time came to assign directing credit, he made sure that Robbins got his due in the movie's credits. Oh yeah, and Robbins also got to pick up a Best Directing Oscar along with Wise when the film curb-stomped the Academy Awards that year.


    Afterwards, the two of them went their separate ways. Robbins went back to Broadway and directed more hit plays like Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. He became the ballet master for the New York City Ballet company, where he'd been the protégé of legendary choreographer George Balanchine. Clearly, the stage was where he belonged and he wasn't interested in venturing into films again. And Wise? He kept on trucking, too. West Side Story wasn't the last cinematic masterpiece he directed.

    For starters there was that other greatest musical ever made: The Sound of Music in 1965. Horror movies called to him, too, specifically 1963's The Haunting, (which may be the greatest haunted house flick ever made). And he even cranked out a couple of notable science fiction flicks: 1971's The Andromeda Strain, and 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

    (Yeah, yeah, we know: that last one's a little shaky.)

    Robbins died in 1998, Wise in 2005. West Side Story was their only collaboration, but that one-off was cinematic magic.

  • Screenwriter

    Ernest Lehman

    Considering the pedigree on display for this movie, the screenwriter didn't have to do very much. With Steven Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein handling the musical numbers, the only thing really left to do was fill in the blanks. Nevertheless, this was a high-end production and you didn't want to trust any aspect of it to some hack.

    Enter Ernest Lehman, a native New Yorker from a wealthy family whose fortunes hit the skids (along with everyone else's) when the Great Depression hit. To make ends meet, he started writing for publicity firms, promoting famous people in gossip columns. It didn't sit well with him, but Hollywood soon beckoned.

    When he tried his hand at screenwriting, magic happened.

    Magic Typewriter? Or Just an Awesome Screenwriter?

    Lehman's first film was called Executive Suite, and we don't see much of it today. But it was a big hit, and the studio asked him to co-write another one with director Billy Wilder. It was called Sabrina. It starred Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, and it was an instant classic.

    From there, things happened fast. Adaptation was his specialty. He transposed the stage musical The King and I into movie form in 1956, and it became another classic. Lehman put his experiences with the gossip columns to work with a movie called Sweet Smell of Success in 1958. It became a—you guessed it— classic. Alfred Hitchcock tapped him to write the screenplay for North by Northwest (his only original screenplay), and it became a classic.

    Detecting a pattern here? Our man had the skillz to pay the bills and in the process helped bring a heaping fistful of immortal films to life.

    Classic Movies: One of Many

    West Side Story kept Lehman's streak going. Sure, he already had the already hugely successful stage musical to work with, and with Sondheim and Bernstein working on the songs, he didn't have to worry much. (Lots of movies made back then were based on novels or plays.) But he did contribute some terrific sequences, and some of the most important changes from the stage play can likely be credited to Lehman.

    For example, he moved the upbeat "Gee Officer Krupke" song earlier in the film, before Riff is killed, so the happy vibes feel more in keeping with the overall story. The intense, downbeat "Cool" comes after Riff dies, when his gang buddies are definitely in an anxious mood.

    Lehman didn't slow down when he was finished with West Side Story, writing movies like The Sound of Music, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hello Dolly and another Hitchcock flick just for good measure.

    It's a staggering legacy. And amazingly enough, he never actually won an Oscar for any of them: nominated five times and walking away empty-handed each time. Even West Side Story, which tore through the Academy's little trophy ceremony like a buzz saw, didn't give Lehman his Oscar. (It went to Abby Mann, who wrote Judgement at Nuremburg, and that's a great movie too, so we won't squawk too loud.) The Academy gave him an honorary Oscar in 2001, just four years before his death, so they at least acknowledged the oversight.

    Luckily, he didn't need a shiny statue to validate his work. Once glance at any of his films and you can see how good he was.

  • Production Studio

    United Artists

    Studios come and go in Hollywood, and these days, United Artists is pretty much gone from the scene. But once upon a time, they were as big as anyone, and unbelievably enough, they were actually founded by artists instead of money men. It was a great run for a while, and it produced come incredible films. West Side Story, by anyone's reckoning, is near the top of that list.

    Three Dudes, One Gal and a Dream

    United Artists started out as the creation of four of the biggest movers and shakers in early Hollywood: Charlie Chaplin (who we're guessing you've heard of ), Douglas Fairbanks (famous for his pirate and adventurer roles back in the day when Hollywood would buckle its swash whenever it could), D.W. Griffith(an innovative director now best known for the overtly racist "masterpiece" Birth of a Nation), and "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford, the biggest female star in the world and one of the only women in Hollywood who actually held some power.

    They got together in 1919, following a long tour together pushing war bonds at the end of the First World War. They basically said, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if we got to decided which movies were made instead of some money man?" It was a nice idea, and they were serious enough to get it off the ground.

    But the road was pretty rough in those early years. They didn't actually turn a profit until the 1930s, and there was a lot of drama behind the scenes. Griffith left the company in 1924. The guy they hired to run the thing, Joseph Shrenk, quit in 1935 when he wasn't allowed to own any part of the company, and one of the studios they had partnered with to make movies for distribution—Goldwyn Pictures—split to join MGM in the late 1930s. That last bit stung the most: one of the first films MGM made after Goldywn joined them was Gone with the Wind. It was the most financially successful movie up to that time.

    The Tide Turns

    Things stayed shaky for many years, with UA kind of shambling along and somehow managing to crank out a bunch of movies. Some of them actually did okay, and a few are even considered classics: Fairbanks' The Thief of Baghdad, for instance, and a huge chunk of both Chaplin's films and the films of his silent comedian rival Buster Keaton. Alfred Hitchcock's Best Picture-winning Rebecca was their baby, and they distributed Laurence Olivier's Henry V, which was considered the definitive version until some upstart young punk named Kenneth Branagh showed up.

    The game finally started to change in 1951. Two producers named Robert Benjamin and Arthur Krim made a deal with Chaplin and Pickford (Douglas Fairbanks had died in 1939). They had ten years to turn the studio's fortunes around, or they would resign.

    They didn't resign.

    They got to work and suddenly, UA start making movies that actually turned a profit. It started almost immediately with two movies—The African Queen and High Noon— that weren't only big hits but bona fide classics. In fact, they both won back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor: Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen and Gary Cooper in High Noon. (Check 'em out if you can: they're brilliant.)

    That set the pace, and Krim and Benjamin kept the beat going for the next thirty years. West Side Story was just one of their smashes. UA went public in 1957, and started producing television shows as well as movies when TV started invading America. In 1962, they scored the James Bond franchise, and even though UA is gone, 007 is still going strong.

    One Train Wreck Ruins It All

    Like every other company, UA eventually went corporate; the Transamerica Corporation bought it up in 1967. They kept cranking out hits, and some flops as well, but they had to play by different rules, and that didn't always sit well with the producers at UA. Even massive successes like the Rocky and Pink Panther franchises didn't seem to make things better. The relationship between the two companies was never ideal, and as with any relationship, it all came to a head with one big mistake.

    The mistake was Heaven's Gate, an ambitious, overreaching and very, very long western that arrived at the worst possible time. In the early 1970s, the director was king in Hollywood, but as famous men behind the camera gained more and more control, they started making increasingly expensive movies that didn't actually make any money.

    Heaven's Gate was the cherry on that money-sucking sundae. It lost over $44 million ($128 million in 2016 dollars). Ironically, the movie itself is considered quite good these days, but it's still known as the movie that killed United Artists. Transamerica decided that the time had come to unload the company and put it up for sale in 1981.

    In 1982, UA merged with another entertainment giant that had fallen on hard times: MGM. They became MGA/UA Home Entertainment Group. Movie production continued; James Bond wasn't going anywhere and the company scored some hits with films like Red Dawn. But the fizz had gone out of the drink. It was subjected to constant shuffling, rebranding and general corporate interference that didn't do it any favors.

    Ironically, the studio's reputation as artist-run attracted some heavy hitters, like director Francis Ford Coppola, who wanted very much to make it work again. Tom Cruise even succeeded in resurrecting it in 2006, and put his Gal Friday, Paula Wagner in charge of production. But that didn't work, either. Wagner left the company in 2008, and Cruise was pounding his tiny lovesick fists on Oprah's couch at about the same time, which made the American public decide that they didn't want to see nearly so much of Tom Cruise anymore.

    In any case, UA eventually became something of a specialty brand, used for Bond films and a couple of other projects that previously had United Artists attached to it. Between 2010 and 2015, they released only five movies: two Bonds, the Red Dawn remake, and Creed, which was technically a Rocky sequel and therefore had UA associations. Only 2010's Hot Tub Time Machine was an original film, leaving most people to assume that UA just isn't going to turn it around anytime soon. (Source)

    That said, it still left its mark on Hollywood, and with West Side Story they definitely had a classic for the ages.

  • Production Design

    35 mm

    They still used film back in 1961, and West Side Story has no space aliens or robots to put in with either CG or stop-motion. There are a few visual tricks present, mostly based on optical illusions (such as the moment at the dance when Tony and Maria first meet). For the rest of it, however, what you see is what you get. The magic comes in the Jerome Robbins choreography, not any tricks with effect or computers.

    It's actually impressive that they used the actual New York locations for shooting much of the time. Musicals in that era almost never took place outside of a sound stage. Why? There's a lot of people moving around in those big dance numbers, and getting it right requires very controlled conditions. If you put it out in the real world, you lose that control. Clouds and rain happen. Pigeons poop. And while the street is likely closed off, that won't stop some random person from inadvertently wandering through the shot and pointing at the nice people dancing.

    In fact, during filming on the streets, the cast was harassed by some of the locals, who threw rocks and dropped stuff off roofs—to the point that the producers had to hire real gangbangers to protect them. (Source)

    Director Robert Wise had to convince Robbins that filming the Prologue on the mean streets would be possible:

    Jerry agreed with this, but he said, 'You've given me the most difficult task right off the bat: to take my most stylized dancing in the piece and put it against the most real backgrounds we have in the picture.' He struggled with it. We made tests in downtown Los Angeles streets in daylight. We had a rig running around the studio streets with Betty Wahlberg [rehearsal pianist] at a little piano on a trolley and an umbrella over her. She'd be pulled along as she played and the dancers would rehearse along the streets as Jerry studied, developed, and adapted the dance steps to the outdoors and the sunlight. (Source)

    After the "Something's Coming" number, the rest of the action takes place in the evening or at night. Wise thought that rooftops, alleys, the gym, etc., could be convincingly constructed on a soundstage. But the opening prologue, dancing through the West Side, sets an authentic tone that carries through the film.

  • Music (Score)

    Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim

    You know those comic-book team-ups that everyone loves? The Avengers, the Justice League, those stories where two (or more) incredible superheroes join forces and start kicking some righteous bad guy butt? That's what happened with the score of West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein on music, Steven Sondheim on lyrics. Everybody brace yourselves: something's coming, something good.


    Leonard Bernstein was one of the first people Jerome Robbins approached with his idea, all the way back in 1947. At that point, it was a story about Jews vs. Irish Catholics on the Lower East Side of New York, to be titled East Side Story. Which puts us in the mood for a knish with a side of corned beef hash.

    In 1947, Bernstein was an up-and-coming name in the New York music scene. He'd spent two years working as the music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, and was doing a lot of composing on the side, as well as conducting. He and Robbins had worked together on the original musical On the Town in 1944.

    He was a busy man, and he didn't feel like he could devote the time necessary to write the music and the lyrics to a new show. (On top of everything else, he was moonlighting in the newly-minted nation of Israel, conducting concerts in Tel Aviv as a show of support for the Jewish state.) It took another ten years for them to crack the code on this musical, and in the meantime, he kept occupied with more composition, lots of music festivals all over the world, and generally becoming acknowledged as a musical genius.

    By the time West Side Story began development, he was famous. But he still wasn't sure about those lyrics. They needed someone else to pump them up, and suddenly West Side Story scored a dream team for its songs.

    Sondheim to the Rescue

    Like Bernstein and Robbins, Stephen Sondheim was a name to note in the Broadway world of the 1950s. As a kid, Sondheim palled around with a buddy named James Hammerstein, whose dad was Oscar Hammerstein of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, and who became like a second father to the lonely and emotionally neglected Stephen. (source). That's one heck of a leg up. By the time little Stephen graduated from college, he was ready to move it and shake it in the world of Broadway. He'd already written some musicals at Hammerstein's behest, and he wanted to stretch his wings.

    West Side Story gave him that chance. He was approached at a party (why do these things always happen at parties?) by Arthur Laurents, who was writing the dialogue for West Side Story and knew that Bernstein needed help with the lyrics. He agreed to do it, and suddenly, the last obstacle to putting this play on was finally removed. He was 25 years old.

    Together, the Bernstein-Sondheim collaboration brought something new and exciting to the world of Broadway. Bernstein added jazz and Latin beats to the score, which was a hugely innovative move in a Broadway musical. The score became an instant classic and sold huge number of albums.

    Later in his career, Sondheim admitted he was never happy with his work on the play; he thought the lyrics were too sentimental and poetic for street gangs—more Bernstein's style than his. In his autobiography, Finishing the Hat, he wrote, "I'm fond of quoting 'I Feel Pretty.' The street girl is singing, 'It's alarming how charming I feel.' ... I just put my head under my wing and pretend I'm not there" (source).

    Sondheim thought it wasn't believable that "street kids of the pavements of New York City should have ended up crooning lines such as 'Today the world was just an address' from 'Tonight' [but] Lenny kept encouraging me to come up with these maunderings" (source).

    Audiences did not agree.

    As much as we'd like to get all Seth Rudetsky on you and deconstruct every single one of Sondheim's compositions, we won't. Suffice it to say that his lyrics and music after West Side Story were very different. Still, how cool is this rhyme?

    JETS: That Puerto Rican punk'll
    Go down.
    And when he hollers "uncle,"
    We'll tear up the town. 

    Punk'll/uncle? We sure weren't that clever at 25.


    Although Bernstein had already achieved fame with earlier works like On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and Candide (1956), the massive success of West Side Story rocketed Bernstein and Sondheim to the very top of their professions. Sondheim went on to compose the music and the lyrics to a staggering number of successful shows: Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music (source of "Send in the Clowns"), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, FolliesSunday in the Park with George—the list goes on and on, His shows are known for their sophisticated and complex lyrics (yes, that's Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert in there) that went way beyond hummable pieces of fluff.

    Bernstein, for his part, stuck largely to the orchestral world: conducting the New York Philharmonic for most of the 1960s, and spending the 70s as a guest conductor for some of the most exalted orchestras in the world. (He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, which is kind of like winning the Super Bowl ten years in a row.)

    Bernstein also conducted a televised a series of Young People's concerts with the Philharmonic to indulge one of his passions: introducing kids to classical music. He eased out of that world as he grew older, but he never stopped composing or teaching.

    Two geniuses, different sensibilities. Sondheim said of their collaboration:

    "I learned a lot of things from Lenny, but the most important was philosophical and had to do with the whole idea of taking a chance, of not being afraid to fall from the highest rung of the ladder,'' Mr. Sondheim recalled. ''I had come from the other end of the telescope, in that my writing was exceedingly neat. I had never attempted to write highly stylized songs. Lenny's approach to music has always been to think big. The whole idea of writing arias for street kids who talked in a kind of poetry and also danced would never have occurred to me. Lenny's approach to music is about excess, and the errors we made in 'West Side' were those of excess. But Lenny's idea of going too far rather than not far enough I have found invaluable. (Source)

    Bernstein died in 1990. Sondheim is still among the living as of mid-2016. West Side Story? Immortal.

  • Fandoms

    When we say "fandoms," we usually think of guys dressed up as Captain Kirk, or regular meetings between book club folks who like to go delving into the work of their favorite authors. West Side Story doesn't quite fit into those vibes. Having said that, it's a phenomenally popular musical, and because it started out on stage, it appeals to people who dig plays more than movies. All of which gives it a very selective kind of fan base.

    Broadway fans probably have the biggest claim on it, since it started out there. They love it in part because…well, because it's incredibly good, but also because it's a surprisingly downbeat and socially relevant story that arrived in an era when all you got from Broadway was shiny and happy. Its distinctiveness led to regular revivals in smaller theaters around the country: community theaters, high school theater clubs, anywhere that had an available stage and a copy of the lyrics. (Source)

    For fans who just want to geek out to their favorite musical, there's sites like Fanpop and similar hangouts where they can get their Jet on. Facebook page? Check. Pinterest? Oh yeah. And if all else fails, you can usually just type in the name of a movie this big and come up with a heck of a fan site to indulge in.

    Oh, and before we go, we should mention at least one big fan who's doing more than reminiscing. Steven Spielberg, who worked for decades to get the rights to the film, finally succeeded, and announced he'd be making a new version of the movie. We're always leery about rebooting a classic, but Big Steve has earned the benefit of the doubt and you can't say he's not a fan.

    Can lightning strike twice?