Study Guide

West Side Story Director

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.

One-Off

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.