'West Side Story': THR's 1961 Review
On Oct. 18, 1961, West Side Story held its world premiere in New York at the Rivoli Theatre, eventually going on to win 10 Oscars at the 34th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
West Side Story is a magnificent show, a milestone in movie musicals, a box-office smash. It is so good that superlatives are superfluous. Let it be noted that the film musical, the one dramatic form that is purely American and purely Hollywood, has never been done better. The Robert Wise production, directed by Wise and Jerome Robbins, is a Mirisch Pictures presentation, released by United Artists. All involved deserve the kudos and cash that will accrue to this picture as filings to a magnet.
Tandem direction has seldom worked. There can only be one concept of a project — once it is underway — and since the concept must be largely mental, it is difficult to imagine one concept shared in all its details by two vigorous mentalities. Despite this, the joint direction by Wise and Robbins makes a harmonious whole. Rumors of production conflict apparently produced only the healthy stimulation of wholesome temperament. Wise, a producer and co-director, makes evident everywhere his special gifts for poetic realism, the natural excitement and poignance it contains. Robbins, whose innovations in dance are now part of every musical, translated his stage conception into dynamic screen terms.
Where one began and the other left off is never evident because West Side Story is a fluid whole. Events move naturally from dance to speech as from comedy to tragedy. The film, of course, is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in screeching modern terms transplanted from fair Verona to mad Manhattan, with dance substituted for poetry to give the lyric mood that lifts the violent story from melodrama to tragedy. Ernest Lehman's perceptive and compact screenplay, based on Arthur Laurents' stage book, makes sure the dance is used as part of the story, as embedded in the action as all its turbulent events.
Although West Side Story could properly be termed a musical tragedy, the emphasis on the latter word would be misleading. There is joy and humor profusely illuminating the stark story, and the total mood of the picture is uplifting. One of its unique qualities is a kinetic excitement that seizes the spectator in the opening sequences and does not let go until near the very end, when, purposely, the key shifts from allegro to largo, as the direction prepares the audience for the ending. Putting the credits at the end is a wise stroke to enable the audience to let go what has been almost a traumatic experience.
Like all good stories, West Side Story has a moral. Its action arises from the conflict between two rival gangs, one Puerto Rican, one composed of members somewhat lighter in skin pigmentation. Its agony comes when Natalie Wood, a Puerto Rican girl, falls in love with Richard Beymer, of the anti-Puerto Rican gang. Before the story has concluded, Miss Wood's brother, head of the Puerto Rican Sharks, and Beymer's brother, leader of the rival Jets, are dead in a gang rumble (Mercutio and Tybalt). Beymer is accidentally killed in reprisal. The two gangs merge to bear away his body in a silent funeral cortege, united for a time, at least — in brotherhood by the dreadful effects of prejudice, national, racial, parochial.
Only highlights can be noted here, but mention must be made of the haunting pictorial effects on the song, "Tonight"; of the vigorous sociological humor in the satirical "Officer Krupke"; of the dances staged on Manhattan streets that seem as indigenous to the pavements as the seeping hopes and hates. And nothing is diversionary. It all contributes. Aside from the basic contributions of Leonard Bernstein's music, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, and Lehman's screenplay, there is the directors' central intelligence which has held all this in mind from start to finish so there is not an unnecessary gesture.
Important Young Star
With West Side Story coming just after Splendor in the Grass, Natalie Wood sets herself firmly as the most important young star of the time and moves herself into the powerful league of some of her elders. Although her singing voice is dubbed (Marni Nixon), it is Miss Wood's personality and her intrinsic ability that are important and her special and unique qualities have never been at higher pitch. Richard Beymer is equally attractive as her lover. Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris are sensational as the rival gang leaders, dancing actors; actors who can dance. Rita Moreno is splendid. Tucker Smith, Simon Oakland and Ned Glass are standouts. The huge cast of young people cannot all be individually accoladed here. Their performances only cause wonder that some casting directors have to look abroad to find young people when these enormously gifted youngsters exist in such profusion. John Astin is especially memorable as one of the adults, Sue Oakes as one of the kids.
Daniel L. Fapp's photography in Technicolor and the fine Panavision 70 process is notable, among other things, for this: The daring design of production contained problems that a less gifted photographer could have blocked. Fapp has obviously met every problem and with his own imagination and ingenuity encouraged them. Boris Leven's art direction has given the physical being to the conception. Photographic effects by Linwood Dunn and Film Effects of Hollywood have realized tricky and important innovations. Thomas Stanford's editing welds the concept together. Sound by Murray Spivack, Fred Lau and Vinton Vernon is clarity itself. Lyrics, often so important to the story, are clean and clear.
Others who contributed importantly include Johnny Green, for his perceptive conducting; Irene Sharaff for her meaningful costumes; Saul Bass for his moody introductory frames (although light levels were a little off at the preview performance); Bobby Tucker for his impeccable vocal coaching; Emile La Vigne for his subtle makeups. Dance assistants were Tommy Abbott, Margaret Banks, Howard Jeffrey and Tony Mordente. Assistant directors were Robert E. Relyea and Jerome M. Siegel. Assistant editors were Marshall M. Borden and Stanley K. Scheuer.
Saul Chaplin was associate producer and with Wise performing a double function, much responsibility must have fallen to him. — James Powers, originally published on Sept. 22, 1961