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A Musical Epic: West Side Story

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Nathan Abrams reviews a new book about the classical musical, West Side Story.

In this new book on the classic movie, West Side Story. The Jets, the Sharks, and the making of a classic, Richard Barrios describes West Side Story as ‘a musical epic’ that took a big approach like other movies of its time such as Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). Such comparisons with Spartacus are apt in more ways than one.  

Underpinning the Roman epic was an individual who had refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who penned the script Spartacus under the pseudonym Sam Jackson.

By contrast, co-director of West Side Story, Jerome Robbins, had named names before the committee, resulting in the blacklisting of seven of his associates. He said his fear was motivated less than being exposed as an ex-Communist than as being outted as gay. (For context, more homosexuals were fired from government employment in the McCarthy period than communists.)

Spartacus was based on a Howard Fast novel with an explicitly Jewish character, David the Jew, but whose Jewishness was progressively erased as the production developed. Similarly, in the tentatively titled East Side Story, the original idea was to update Romeo and Juliet but with feuding Jews (Emeralds) and Irish Catholics (Jets) living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at Passover/Easter. In this version, an Irish Catholic boy falls in love with a Jewish girl who is a recent immigrant and a Holocaust survivor. Their families violently pursue each other with a tragic ending.

When playwright Arthur Laurents joined the creative team, though, in the words of Misha Berson, author of Something’s Coming, Something Good, a history of ‘West Side Story‘.

He worried that ‘East Side Story’ would settle into a musical version of the 1922 play ‘Abie’s Irish Rose, a schmaltzy interfaith romantic comedy about Irish Catholics and Jews by Anne Nichols.

Even though the protagonists were changed to Latinos and Anglos, and switched to the West Side of Manhattan, the Jewish traces remained.

A Creative Minyan

This is because, behind the legendary musical, lay a minyan of Jews. All four of the musical’s creators, Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim were Jewish. Mirisch Pictures financed it. Robert Wise co-directed it with Robbins. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay. Leonard Bernstein composed the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Saul Chaplin was associate producer. Production design was done by Boris Leven, costume design by Irene Sharaff, the titles by Saul Bass. Eliot Feld played Baby John and Martin Abrahams featured as a boy on a bicycle.

Debra Lew Harder has written how

Bernstein’s deeply felt Jewish heritage forms an integral part of the music of West Side Story. A basic shofar call, the Tekiah, provides the musical motif that many of the show’s most important songs are based on. The shofar, a hollow ram’s horn, is one of the world’s most ancient instruments, and is still played today in Jewish religious ceremonies during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The motif is known in musical terms as a ‘tri-tone’ (the interval of the augmented 4th.) In various forms, it can be heard in the opening ‘Prologue,’ in songs like ‘Something’s Coming,’ ‘Maria,’ and ‘Cool.’

Some of those considered for the role of Tony were Jewish. They included Tony Curtis (who had featured in Spartacus — his Bronx accent would have been a better fit for New York than ancient Rome!) and Paul Newman (who had starred in Exodus, the other movie that Dalton Trumbo had penned in 1960). George Segal was ‘too old’. Keir Dullea (not Jewish), who later starred in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, might have he been chosen had he not refused to get his longish hair cut. His fellow astronaut Gary Lockwood (also not Jewish) was felt to be too inexperienced.

The person who got the role was Richard Beymer who had earlier appeared as Peter van Daan in the The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959. Natalie Wood, who played the title role in Marjorie Morningstar in 1958, a movie about about a young Jewish girl coming of age in New York City in the 1950s, starred as Maria. Rita Moreno (Anita) later played a Jewish mother in the sitcom Happily Divorced (2011-2013).

Dictatorial

Working for Robbins was, by all accounts, a sadistic experience. Dancers suffered from aching knees (this also afflicted the dancers in the orgy sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut), sore muscles and pneumonia. He was dictatorial in style. Saul Chaplin who observed the dance rehearsals compared their atmosphere to that of ‘a concentration camp’. Long before Kubrick became notorious for it, Robbins was doing multiple takes of physically draining dance sequences.

Yet, when he was dismissed halfway through the production (as Anthony Mann was on Spartacus thus allowing the young Kubrick to step in), the cast members, especially the dancers, did not welcome the news with relief but with ‘outrage, disbelief, and gut-punched devastation’.

The earlier comparison to Spartacus was apt (for which Saul Bass also designed the title sequences). The dancers resembled the gladiators in the Roman ludus where, under the watch of the sadistic Marcellus, gladiators were put through their paces. Indeed, between takes, they could be found doing chariot races on the Goldwyn backlot and shouting ‘I’m Spartacus’ much to the annoyance of other directors like Billy Wilder.

American dancer, choreographer, and director Jerome Robbins (1918 – 1998) (in white) demonstrates a dance move to American actor George Chakiris (left, foreground) during the filming of ‘West Side Story,’ directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, New York, New York, 1961. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The likeness of Robbins to Kubrick is also appropriate. As Barrios writes, ‘both were driven men from the East, regarded as species of “genius,” being compelled to play Hollywood games of budget and schedules’.

The movie’s release also had Jewish connections. The West Coast premiere was held in the cause of the Women’s Guild of Cedars-Mount Sinai Hospitals. Kirk Douglas (producer of and lead in Spartacus) was one of the Jewish stars in attendance.

The movie was even responsible for creating the career of a famous Jewish film critic. In her review, Pauline Kael called it ‘frenzied hokum’. Richard Barrios writes how, ‘Her takedown of West Side Story, so gleeful that it could be termed performance art, was among the book [I Lost It at the Movies]’s most-discussed pieces. Though she might be loath to admit it, West Side Story was, in a way, the making of Pauline Kael’.

Given these deep Jewish roots, it is only appropriate that West Side Story is being remade by Steven Spielberg for release in late 2021.

(West Side Story. The Jets, the Sharks, and the making of a classic by Richard Barrios is published by (Running Press [Little Brown], £20.)

Art: Gus Condeixa

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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