West Side Story
West Side Story

WEST SIDE STORY was Wise's first musical, and as he brought his filmmaking trademarks and finesse to every other genre, he excelled in this one as well--so much so that it is considered one of the most
Natalie Wood and George Chakiris

Natalie Wood and George Chakiris

popular musicals of all time, earning Wise an Oscar for Best Director as well as nine other Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Two of Wise's directorial trademarks helped to make WEST SIDE STORY stand out from previous Hollywood musicals: his goal to realistically portray characters and their surroundings (always a challenge for a musical in which characters break into song) and his editng skills (moving away from the traditional longshot for song-and-dance numbers by utilizing quick cuts and varied angles—techniques which revolutionized the musical).

The highly stylized "modern" Romeo and Juliet had been a play and adapting it to screen provided specific challenges for Wise, which he discussed at a seminar with AFI students:

"I fought from the beginning to open the film in New York in its setting, in its background, because we couldn't put stylized sets on movie stages like they had on the theater stage—they don't work in films. Stylized sets only work if you're doing an utter fantasy like THE WIZARD OF OZ. So, I fought to have the whole early part, down through "Something's Coming" in New York. Because if you think about the show from there on, from that point on, everything then is either at sunset or at night. And I figured that we could do sets that got away with street sets, alleys, rooftops, this set and the other, at sunset with the sunset lighting. And of course, night is no problem."*

Dancing in the streets, however, seemed like it could be a problem for choreographer Jerome Robbins, who co-directed some of the film with Wise. The ingenious veteran found a way to make it happen, though, leading to some of the most dynamic dancing ever to be filmed.

"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."*

The film, after two years in the making, was a great personal success for Wise, the cast and crew, as well as a financial success for the studio.

SynopsisThe teeming slums of Manhattan's upper West Side are filled with racial tensions that frequently erupt in open warfare between the restless, embittered teenage members of rival gangs. Newly arrived in this violent atmosphere is Maria, a young Puerto Rican girl whose brother, Bernardo, is the leader of a street gang called the Sharks. Despite the warnings of Anita, Bernardo's fiery girl friend, Maria falls in love with a young Polish boy, Tony, who belongs to the Jets, the hated enemies of the Sharks. Their love affair fans the enmity between the two gangs and eventually leads to a showdown "rumble." Prodded by Maria, Tony tries to stop the bloodshed but is unsuccessful, and the Jets' leader, Riff, is stabbed to death by Bernardo. Suddenly overcome by his passions, Tony grabs a blade and fatally stabs Bernardo. In desperation, Tony runs to Maria, begs her forgiveness, and pleads with her to go away with him. But before they can escape, Tony is cornered in a neighborhood playground and killed by one of the Sharks. As Maria hysterically sobs over her dead lover, the remaining members of the two gangs wander onto the playground. The incredible waste of the triple tragedy deeply affects both sides, and they join together in carrying the dead Tony from the playground. West Side Story Poster

Wise Facts
  • Although Jerome Robbins received screen credit for co-direction, he left the project early in its production after choreographing "Prologue," "America," "Cool," and "I Feel Pretty."
  • Stars Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer were not singers; Marni Nixon, who also sang for Audrey Hepburn in MY FAIR LADY, sat in for Wood, and Jimmy Bryant sang for Beymer
  • Credits:155 min. Mirisch Pictures; Seven Arts Productions; Beta Productions; A Robert Wise Production;   Distributed by: United Artists  Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Robert Wise;  Screenplay by: Ernest Lehman;  Edited by: Marshall M. Borden;  Director of Photography: Daniel L. Fapp;  Music by: Leonard Bernstein;  Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim;  Production Design by: Boris Leven;  Sound by: Murray Spivack;  Costumes by: Irene Sharaff;  Make-up by: Emile La Vigne;  Hair by: Alice Monte;  Choreography by: Jerome Robbins;   Titles and Visual Associate by: Saul Bass & Associates.
    Natalie Wood Cast Natalie Wood (Maria), Richard Beymer (Tony), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Simon Oakland (Lieutenant Schrank), Ned Glass (Doc), William Bramley (Officer Krupke), John Astin (Glad Hand, a social worker), Penny Santon (Madam Lucia), Cast--Jets: Tucker Smith (Ice), Tony Mordente (Action), David Winters (A-Rab), Eliot Feld (Baby John), Bert Michaels (Snowboy), David Bean (Tiger), Robert Banas (Joyboy), Scooter Teague (Big Deal), Harvey Hornecker (Mouthpiece), Tommy Abbott (Gee-Tar), Cast--Their Girls: Susan Oakes (Anybodys), Gina Trikonis (Graziella), Carole D'Andrea (Velma), Cast--Sharks: Jose De Vega (Chino), Jay Norman (Pepe), Gus Trikonis (Indio), Eddie Verso (Juano), Jaime Rogers (Loco), Larry Roquemore (Rocco), Robert Thompson (Luis), Nick Covacevich (Toro), Rudy Del Campo (Del Campo), Andre Tayir (Chile), Cast--Their Girls: Yvonne Othon (Consuelo), Suzie Kaye (Rosalia), and Jo Anne Miya (Francisca)

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    1. AFI Seminar, October 1980
    2. AFI Seminar, May 1975

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