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Things I didn’t know about West Side Story

The play created a new way of telling a story through dance

West Side Story: "Quiet Tony, my parents are sleeping... TO-NIIIIGHT, TONIGHT..."
West Side Story: "Quiet Tony, my parents are sleeping... TO-NIIIIGHT, TONIGHT..."

During an audience Q&A at the Chicago International Film Festival, Robert Wise was asked why he chose to open both West Side Story and The Sound of Music with tapering views from above. “Because I felt like it,” the director snapped. Truth be told, both were pre-sold director-proof properties that came with a built-in audience.

West Side Story (1961)

To those who proclaim it “one of the greatest musicals ever made!” please allow me to direct your attention to Lubitsch in the ‘30s and the films produced twenty years later by MGM’s Arthur Freed Unit. That said, it takes ten fingers and a few toes to count the number of times I’ve seen it, because unlike other classics, West Side Story was always there. Name the gauge and format and I was there: Technicolor, Panavision, Super Panavision-70, pan-and-scan CBS, 35mm, 16mm ‘Scope, VHS, DVD — and TO-NIIIIGHT, TONIGHT a blu-ray added another toe to the tally. Though the film is frozen in time, revival screenings of the enduring, criticism-defying rethink of Romeo and Juliet continue to draw new generations of admirers. Come for the music and dance, but pay close attention to the collaborative contributions of these three: visual consultant and credits designer Saul Bass, style-setting production designer Boris Leven, and the depth-defying, hard-edged cinematography of Daniel Fapp.

Let’s begin with two or three things I didn’t know about West Side Story. This was the late Stephen Sondheim’s first show, and it was Oscar Hammerstein who ultimately convinced him to write the lyrics. James Dean was playwright Arthur Laurents’ first choice to play Tony, before his untimely death put an end to that dream. Richard Beymer brought an unbefitting Wally Cleaver-likeability to a former gang leader lured out of retirement for one last rumble. Ditto Natalie Wood and her floating accent. (“How many bullets are there, Chino? Enough for Ju? And Ju?”) There was no way Hollywood was going to buckle under to miscegenation by green-lighting an on-screen kiss between a white boy and a Puerto Rican girl.

The directorial division of power had always been clear: Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins handled the dance numbers while Wise oversaw the dramatic interludes. Wise wisely resisted close-ups, framing from a distance to take full advantage of both interior and exterior locations. Robbins stepped up to the plate: the musical passages were the first to go before the camera. But the inexperienced director immediately began going over budget and behind schedule, and was eventually relieved of his command. Happily, seeing as how Robbins was one of the play’s founding fathers, Wise graciously agreed to share his directorial credit.

The play created a new way of telling a story through dance, and was the first to cash in on the then headline-grabbing social phenomenon known as juvenile delinquency. There’s nary a parent in sight; instead, Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and “Doc” (Ned Glass) are on board as the film’s major adult role models. The use of exterior space to bring a musical closer in touch with the realities of life was practically unheard of in 1961. The balcony scene was restaged on a tenement fire escape with every brick and hinge lit and designed to perfection. The use of Technicolor is jaw-dropping, but even the lush palette can’t smooth over some of the film’s glaring shortcomings. Was the same genius who decided to print the color gels into the negative of South Pacific responsible for the glaucoma-haze that separates the lovers’ introduction during the Dance at the Gym number? Spielberg reasoned the best way to make a character stand out in a three-hour black-and-white movie was to colorize a dress. Wise foolishly tried a similar trick when isolating Tony and Maria inside a Vaseline cocoon. It’s a marriage made in heaven!

I laugh every time I hear Maria’s request that Tony lower his voice so as not to wake her parents followed by the duo belting out a chorus of “Tonight.” As for the gang members, these are some of the cleanest punks this side of Walter Hill’s The Warriors. Bernardo’s (George Chakiris) hair-pile is a gravity-braving marvel. And when it comes to couture, the Sharks’ violet shirts and skinny black ties far outclass the Jets’ Century 21 sport coats. As repugnant as the implied gang-rape of Anita (Rita Moreno) is, I always stop to wonder why Tony, who stands directly beneath Doc’s store, didn’t hear a commotion. Moreno returns in the remake as Doc’s widow. And I’ll bust like a hot water pipe if there’s not a framed photograph of Ned Glass anywhere in view.

On a personal note, I was seven when my Aunt Fay took me to a matinee performance at the 400 Theatre. The multicolored glass panes on Maria’s bedroom doors made quite an impression. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of my father in heaven still finding great amusement at the possibility.

Though I prefer the hint of nuclear annihilation Saul Bass brought to Preminger’s World War II drama In Harm’s Way, West Side Story’s opening and closing credits are his most ambitious. Opening night audiences were said to gasp at the abstract vertical lines and dashes that slowly brought the outline of the city into view. And it ain’t over until the credits roll. Every hand-etched line of graffiti that passes before the sinuously slinking lens is a story unto itself. If you must view Spielberg’s imitation, I implore that you do so in light of the original.

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West Side Story: "Quiet Tony, my parents are sleeping... TO-NIIIIGHT, TONIGHT..."
West Side Story: "Quiet Tony, my parents are sleeping... TO-NIIIIGHT, TONIGHT..."

During an audience Q&A at the Chicago International Film Festival, Robert Wise was asked why he chose to open both West Side Story and The Sound of Music with tapering views from above. “Because I felt like it,” the director snapped. Truth be told, both were pre-sold director-proof properties that came with a built-in audience.

West Side Story (1961)

To those who proclaim it “one of the greatest musicals ever made!” please allow me to direct your attention to Lubitsch in the ‘30s and the films produced twenty years later by MGM’s Arthur Freed Unit. That said, it takes ten fingers and a few toes to count the number of times I’ve seen it, because unlike other classics, West Side Story was always there. Name the gauge and format and I was there: Technicolor, Panavision, Super Panavision-70, pan-and-scan CBS, 35mm, 16mm ‘Scope, VHS, DVD — and TO-NIIIIGHT, TONIGHT a blu-ray added another toe to the tally. Though the film is frozen in time, revival screenings of the enduring, criticism-defying rethink of Romeo and Juliet continue to draw new generations of admirers. Come for the music and dance, but pay close attention to the collaborative contributions of these three: visual consultant and credits designer Saul Bass, style-setting production designer Boris Leven, and the depth-defying, hard-edged cinematography of Daniel Fapp.

Let’s begin with two or three things I didn’t know about West Side Story. This was the late Stephen Sondheim’s first show, and it was Oscar Hammerstein who ultimately convinced him to write the lyrics. James Dean was playwright Arthur Laurents’ first choice to play Tony, before his untimely death put an end to that dream. Richard Beymer brought an unbefitting Wally Cleaver-likeability to a former gang leader lured out of retirement for one last rumble. Ditto Natalie Wood and her floating accent. (“How many bullets are there, Chino? Enough for Ju? And Ju?”) There was no way Hollywood was going to buckle under to miscegenation by green-lighting an on-screen kiss between a white boy and a Puerto Rican girl.

The directorial division of power had always been clear: Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins handled the dance numbers while Wise oversaw the dramatic interludes. Wise wisely resisted close-ups, framing from a distance to take full advantage of both interior and exterior locations. Robbins stepped up to the plate: the musical passages were the first to go before the camera. But the inexperienced director immediately began going over budget and behind schedule, and was eventually relieved of his command. Happily, seeing as how Robbins was one of the play’s founding fathers, Wise graciously agreed to share his directorial credit.

The play created a new way of telling a story through dance, and was the first to cash in on the then headline-grabbing social phenomenon known as juvenile delinquency. There’s nary a parent in sight; instead, Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and “Doc” (Ned Glass) are on board as the film’s major adult role models. The use of exterior space to bring a musical closer in touch with the realities of life was practically unheard of in 1961. The balcony scene was restaged on a tenement fire escape with every brick and hinge lit and designed to perfection. The use of Technicolor is jaw-dropping, but even the lush palette can’t smooth over some of the film’s glaring shortcomings. Was the same genius who decided to print the color gels into the negative of South Pacific responsible for the glaucoma-haze that separates the lovers’ introduction during the Dance at the Gym number? Spielberg reasoned the best way to make a character stand out in a three-hour black-and-white movie was to colorize a dress. Wise foolishly tried a similar trick when isolating Tony and Maria inside a Vaseline cocoon. It’s a marriage made in heaven!

I laugh every time I hear Maria’s request that Tony lower his voice so as not to wake her parents followed by the duo belting out a chorus of “Tonight.” As for the gang members, these are some of the cleanest punks this side of Walter Hill’s The Warriors. Bernardo’s (George Chakiris) hair-pile is a gravity-braving marvel. And when it comes to couture, the Sharks’ violet shirts and skinny black ties far outclass the Jets’ Century 21 sport coats. As repugnant as the implied gang-rape of Anita (Rita Moreno) is, I always stop to wonder why Tony, who stands directly beneath Doc’s store, didn’t hear a commotion. Moreno returns in the remake as Doc’s widow. And I’ll bust like a hot water pipe if there’s not a framed photograph of Ned Glass anywhere in view.

On a personal note, I was seven when my Aunt Fay took me to a matinee performance at the 400 Theatre. The multicolored glass panes on Maria’s bedroom doors made quite an impression. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of my father in heaven still finding great amusement at the possibility.

Though I prefer the hint of nuclear annihilation Saul Bass brought to Preminger’s World War II drama In Harm’s Way, West Side Story’s opening and closing credits are his most ambitious. Opening night audiences were said to gasp at the abstract vertical lines and dashes that slowly brought the outline of the city into view. And it ain’t over until the credits roll. Every hand-etched line of graffiti that passes before the sinuously slinking lens is a story unto itself. If you must view Spielberg’s imitation, I implore that you do so in light of the original.

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3

I always admired Saul Bass' titles, the best in the business back then. "Walk on the Wild Side" and "The Man with the Golden Arm " come to mind. He could visualize what's coming without really telling you. As for the original "WSS" and its cast, yes white America had to see the sanitized, un-ethnic version of the story to make it sell well. Maybe because the new version is 360 degrees in the other direction, it scared away so many from wanting to see it. They might like the classic as is, even with its ridiculous couple, including "Maria" who couldn't sing.

Dec. 25, 2021

You'll love this. One problem: the clips are not letterboxed. The image is all there minus the anamorphic lens. Watch it on a television and find the button on your remote — mine says WIDE — that controls the sets aspect ratio. Click it until the image is "unsqueezed." Sorry for the instruction manual, but I was stricken with incurable anamorphosis at birth. Happy Holidays, David! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvoISnLFeDo

Dec. 26, 2021

Is there a fundraising site to help find the cure for anamorphosis? I would think the Salk Institute could give it a try.

Dec. 27, 2021

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