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The Stories Behind West Side Story

by Legacy Staff

They helped make “West Side Story” one of the greatest musicals of all time.

On Oct. 18, 1961, the musical masterpiece “West Side Story” hit the big screen. It captured hearts across America, and caught the critics’ eyes, too — the film won 10 Oscars including best picture.

“West Side Story” still holds the record for most Oscars won by a musical, and that long-standing record is no surprise: even all these years later, the movie and the Broadway musical that inspired it are beloved. And “West Side Story” still feels relevant, so much so that the hit television show “Glee” recently featured auditions for roles in a school production of the musical.

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Many people worked to make “West Side Story” one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Today, we’re highlighting a few of the best and brightest who have died since the film’s release.

Jerome Robbins (studio publicity still)Jerome Robbins (1918 – 1998), the film’s co-director and choreographer, was a driving force behind both the Broadway and film versions of “West Side Story.” Robbins conceived a musical based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring a conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family, with a teen from each as the romantic leads. It took eight years — and lots of massaging of the story concept — for the musical to find its way to the Broadway stage, and then to the big screen four years later. Both versions displayed Robbins’s stunning choreography.

In “West Side Story,” Robbins choreographed some of history’s most beautifully balletic gang fights, and took home an Oscar as the film’s co-director. But “West Side Story” was far from his only major accomplishment. He brought movement and life to some of the best-loved musicals and ballets of all time and won five Tony Awards, for his work on “West Side Story” as well as “High Button Shoes,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” Other Broadway favorites he choreographed include “The King and I,” “Peter Pan,” and “Gypsy.”

Leonard Bernstein (Library of Congress)Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), who composed the iconic score for “West Side Story,” had been approached by Jerome Robbins early on, and was interested in collaborating — but then the project was shelved for years. When it was greenlit again, Bernstein was still interested, but was engrossed in work on another future masterpiece, “Candide.” He ended up composing both projects at the same time, which led to some music-sharing — pieces that he originally composed for “Candide” moved to “West Side Story” and vice versa. One of the tunes originally intended for “Candide” was the beloved ballad, “One Hand, One Heart.”

Though Bernstein didn’t win any awards for “West Side Story,” he already had a Tony under his belt — best original score for 1953’s “Wonderful Town” — and in the years to follow, would go on to win 16 Grammy Awards. He earned widespread admiration and recognition as a conductor and producer — the Concerts for Young People he conducted were especially popular — but his most enduring legacy may be as a composer. More than five decades later, the music featured in “West Side Story” and “Candide” is still just as beautiful.

Natalie Wood (studio publicity still)Robbins and Bernstein can be thanked for bringing “West Side Story” to stage and screen, but if there’s one person whose presence defines the film version, it would have to be Natalie Wood (1938 – 1981). As Maria, the Juliet figure who tragically falls in love with a boy from an opposing gang, Wood captivated fans with her fresh-faced beauty. She won the role over favorites like Audrey Hepburn and Suzanne Pleshette. Though her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon, and critics weren’t happy with her Puerto Rican accent, she’s still memorable as the star-crossed lover. She’s engaging and lively… and pretty, as the song goes.

Wood got her start as a child actress, most notably in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street.” Unlike many child stars, she successfully and gracefully negotiated the transition to ingénue — beginning in 1955 with “Rebel Without a Cause” — and on to adult stardom in films like “West Side Story,” “Gypsy (in which she did in fact sing), and “Love with the Proper Stranger.” Nominated for several Oscars, she never won, but she did take home a Golden Globe for her work in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Though her career faltered somewhat in later years, shortly before her death she won another Golden Globe for the TV miniseries “From Here to Eternity.”

Just as her career was picking back up, Wood died, drowning after an apparent fall from her yacht. It was the sad end to a personal life that never seemed especially happy – an early push into acting by a zealously ambitious mother, two marriages to Robert Wagner with a brief marriage to Richard Gregson in between, an emotional breakdown that led her to turn down a plum starring role in “Bonnie and Clyde”. She was never the critics’ favorite, though fans loved her and she rarely wanted for work. Ultimately, she’s remembered as more than just a pretty face — she’s a tragic figure who died much too young, and who graced the big screen in some of the most notable films of her era.

Whether you’re a “West Side Story” fan dating back several decades, or you’re just discovering the musical today thanks to “Glee,” there’s no denying its long-lasting resonance in American culture. It’ll continue to hold a treasured place in film history, thanks to these three greats — and all the others who brought the musical from early idea to completion. Here are a few others — dancers, musicians, producers, agents — who helped bring “West Side Story” to stage and screen.

Arthur Laurents was as important to the stage production as Robbins and Bernstein — he wrote the book for Broadway’s “West Side Story.” It was just one facet of a great writing career that also included Broadway’s “Gypsy” and the Alfred Hitchcock film “Rope.”

Ernest Lehman took Laurents’ script and reworked it for the big screen. His screenwriting credits were impressive, including “North By Northwest,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Sound of Music.”

Robert Wise co-directed the film with Robbins and won an Oscar for best director. During his long and varied career, he was a film and sound editor, producer, director — and 4-time Academy Award winner.

Alfred Desio played a Shark in the original Broadway production. He was best known for his invention of TapTronics, an electronically enhanced form of tap dancing.

Linda Hamilton was a principal dancer in the film version of “West Side Story,” but may be more recognizable as Sister Ana in “The Flying Nun” exclaiming, “It’s a miracle!”

Charles “CJ” Jaffe was the orchestra conductor for the Broadway production of “West Side Story” and also worked on “My Fair Lady” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

H. David Jandorf was a trumpeter who performed in the Broadway production and on the original cast album. He did the same for Bernstein’s “Candide.”

Talent agent Michael Rosenfeld, one of five founders of the talent powerhouse Creative Artists Agency, represented both Rita Moreno and George Chakiris and helped secure their roles in the film.

Leon Roth was a publicist who oversaw promotion for “West Side Story” and other big films like “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment.”

Gaylin Schultz was a key grip (that means he directed camera movement and light placement) on “West Side Story.” His other credits include “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

Daniel Trimboli played woodwinds for the Broadway production. He played the flute on the original recording of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

Al Viola was known for his guitar work, which can be heard in the film version. He performed with Frank Sinatra and played the mandolin for “The Godfather” soundtrack.

Allen Whitehead worked with Music Theatre International to represent the dramatic rights to “West Side Story” and other musicals such as “Guys and Dolls,” “Annie,” and “The Fantasticks.”

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