West Side Story

The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic


By Richard Barrios

By Turner Classic Movies

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A captivating, richly illustrated full account of the making of the ground-breaking movie classic West Side Story (1961).

A major hit on Broadway, on film West Side Story became immortal-a movie different from anything that had come before, but this cinematic victory came at a price. In this engrossing volume, film historian Richard Barrios recounts how the drama and rivalries seen onscreen played out to equal intensity behind-the-scenes, while still achieving extraordinary artistic feats.

The making and impact of West Side Story has so far been recounted only in vestiges. In the pages of this book, the backstage tale comes to life along with insight on what has made the film a favorite across six decades: its brilliant use of dance as staged by erstwhile co-director Jerome Robbins; a meaningful story, as set to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s soundtrack; the performances of a youthful ensemble cast featuring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and more; a film with Shakespearean roots (Romeo and Juliet) that is simultaneously timeless and current. West Side Story was a triumph that appeared to be very much of its time; over the years it has shown itself to be eternal.


If one image can evoke an entire film, this may be the one. Jay Norman, George Chakiris, and Eddie Verso, on the 200 block of West 68th Street in Manhattan.



Six Jailed in Fight Death

San Bernardino, Aug. 21: Six youths were jailed for investigation of murder here today in the street fight death of Robert C. Garcia, 20, at a Saturday night teenage dance.


August 22, 1955

First meeting: Carol Lawrence as Maria and Larry Kert as Tony

The creative team for the original Broadway production: Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Harold Prince, Robert Griffith, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins

CALL IT “FAR WEST SIDE STORY,” perhaps, because in one sense it did not begin in New York. While the August 21 San Bernardino incident is most often cited as the motivating factor, other sources mention a Los Angeles Times article about gang violence on Olvera Street. What does remain reasonably certain is that composer Leonard Bernstein and writer Arthur Laurents were both in Los Angeles in August of 1955 and saw one or more articles in the Times about local gang violence. This helped spur them to revive a dormant project that they had begun to conceive nearly seven years earlier alongside Jerome Robbins.

Since Robbins is the single most essential person in the entire saga of West Side Story, it’s fitting that, evidently, he was responsible for the idea in the first place. While the details are again a bit fuzzy, it appears that Robbins originated the idea of a musical updating of Romeo and Juliet in 1948, after discussing the play with his lover at the time, Montgomery Clift. Puzzling over the passive aspects of the character of Romeo, Clift asked Robbins if there might be any way to make the role more vital. Robbins replied by noting that the universality of Shakespeare’s drama means that it can often be more comprehensible when viewed in modern terms. The feuding Montagues and Capulets, for example, could have an equivalent in something as timely as the ongoing conflict between Jews and Catholics living on the East Side of Manhattan. Having made that comparison, Robbins began to think about Cole Porter’s current Broadway hit, Kiss Me, Kate. It cleverly set The Taming of the Shrew within a modern plot, an act which did not seem to diminish or demean Shakespeare in the least. So, if it worked for Petruchio and Katharina, why not Romeo and Juliet? Robbins continued to think about it some more and then, early in 1949, contacted his friends Laurents and Bernstein. Their brainstorming took fire so quickly that within weeks it rated an article in the New York Times.

“Romeo” to Receive Musical Styling

Bard’s Play to Undergo Renovation by Bernstein, Robbins and Laurents

The signal success of musicalized Shakespeare, as exemplified by “Kiss Me Kate”… may very well have set a fashion for future Broadway stage offerings.

The latest song and dance project drawing its inspiration from a work of the Bard’s is a modern musical drama, as yet untitled, based on “Romeo and Juliet.” Involved in getting it on the local boards are none other than Leonard Bernstein, the well-known pianist-composer-conductor, Arthur Laurents, author of “Home of the Brave,” and Jerome Robbins, the choreographer.… The producing auspices have not been determined yet, but the matter is expected to be settled within a week. According to the present scheme of things, the musical will arrive in New York next season.

The New York Times, January 27, 1949

The announcement was extremely optimistic and vastly premature. One of several problems with the concept—tentatively titled East Side Story—lay with its two opposing forces. Jewish-Catholic conflict had been an acknowledged problem for so many years that it had long ago turned into the butt of jokes. Even worse, it had been the subject matter for Abie’s Irish Rose, the 1922 Broadway comedy that was legendary for scoring record-breaking success despite terrible reviews. There were also, among the three collaborators, a number of personal conflicts. Besides being the same age and from similar backgrounds, Robbins, Bernstein, and Laurents shared much in common: all were fiercely intelligent, intense, ambitious, volatile, egotistical, and gay. (Bernstein and Robbins practiced what might be designated an extremely complicated bisexuality.) Such a combination of talents could clearly make for great art, and also for a cacophonous and often toxic combustibility. Bernstein was as mercurial as his music; Laurents was a master at clever, cutting sarcasm; and Robbins’s outbursts of temper, on professional and sometimes personal fronts, promptly became the stuff of legend. The ballerina Nora Kaye, a friend to all three men, predicted, “You’ll never write it. Your three temperaments in one room, and the walls will come down.” So it was, and in an act of hibernation, not extermination, the three collaborators moved on to other work, relegating East Side Story to a position well beyond that of a back burner.

Cut to six years later. Even before Bernstein and Laurents had that light-bulb moment with the San Bernardino killing, the overlapping topics of gang violence and juvenile delinquency were finding greater currency in the news and in everyday life. With the new sound of rock ’n’ roll as a jangling accompaniment, the entire concept of the American teenager was changing radically. Teens were becoming both the audience and subject for an increasing amount of popular culture. Films like Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) reflected their lives with a rough-edged kind of glamour and romance. It was also beginning to be clear that the conflicts arising between rival teen gangs were based less in religion than in ethnicity. When Laurents proposed to Bernstein that there might be a way to revive East Side Story, they took their cue from the California stories and changed its hostilities from Jews versus Catholics to Latinos against Anglos. It soon became still more specific for these two New Yorkers: the gangs then active on Manhattan’s West Side, with recent arrivals from Puerto Rico opposing the descendants of earlier immigrants from Europe.

Subject matter this timely and grave was well off any beaten path for musical theater. If the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows had been serious, they were set long ago (Oklahoma!, Carousel) or far off (South Pacific, The King and I). And when had a mature piece of musical theater been set only blocks away from where it was being performed? Yes, Guys and Dolls took place in Times Square, but it was funny. This was not, and its cast would be comprised almost entirely of young people, with a few incidental, mostly ineffectual, adults. Moreover, these teenagers were involved in matters more critical than puppy love or making a success in show business. Not simply weighty but outright dire: the first-act curtain came down on two corpses. This seemed to be the territory of Hamlet, not The Pajama Game.

At the same time they were negotiating this fresh and risky territory, Robbins, Bernstein, and Laurents were also attending to a densely varied group of obligations. Ever a whirlwind of artistry, Bernstein was composing his musical play Candide, developing programs for the TV series Omnibus, and conducting a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall. Laurents was working on the play A Clearing in the Woods and on the screenplay of Anastasia (1956). Robbins was choreographing the film version of The King and I (1956) and staging the Broadway hit Bells Are Ringing. Amid all this, they continued to collaborate and correspond about the new work, eventually in the company of a fourth team member. Stephen Sondheim, only in his midtwenties, was a writer and composer with limited professional credits but also unlimited potential. While Bernstein originally planned on writing the lyrics himself, he was too occupied with other projects to do so. Sondheim, for his part, would also have preferred to write both words and music, yet was not established enough to be entrusted with such a high-profile job. He took the job as lyricist upon the advice of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Bernstein did end up writing some of the lyrics himself (including “One Hand, One Heart”) without credit.

A poster for the original Broadway run. Veteran character actor Art Smith, who played Doc, was given costar billing along with the leads.

A rehearsal shot of Jerome Robbins in action

As Bernstein and Sondheim tackled the songs, Laurents worked on one script draft after another, all the while getting input, often contentiously and usually brilliantly, from Robbins. The move from Verona balconies to Manhattan fire escapes took comparatively little ingenuity; the greater challenge lay in finding convincing modern counterparts for the characters and situations. The two central figures, Tony and Maria, were the easiest, and it fanned out from there. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt became Maria’s brother Bernardo, and her suitor Paris was Chino, Maria’s arranged fiancé. Mercutio, Romeo’s raffish best friend, turned into Riff. Shakespeare’s adults, meanwhile, were largely eliminated. The sympathetic Doc was a scaled-down version of Friar Laurence, and apart from him there was only the presence of the unfeeling and unseeing police. The Montagues and Capulets were translated into the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, with their male fighting members and supportive girlfriends. The most inventive reconfiguration came with Juliet’s Nurse, who became Anita—slightly older than Maria, quite a bit more worldly, a reluctant and eventually poignant intermediary. Maria’s ultimate fate was the cause of intense discussions. Should she, too, be a victim of the opposing forces? Or, as with Juliet, a suicide? Finally, they determined that she would be alive at the finale, delivering a blistering rebuke to the gangs and their culture of violence. There was no final Shakespearean message of conciliation. Viewers inclined toward optimism could hope that the carnage, and Maria’s anger-infused grief, might lead to a kind of peace. There did, however, remain those gang members on both sides who hang back when others unite to carry off Tony’s body.

The treatment was as unconventional as the subject matter. Where most musicals opened with an overture, here the curtain rose in silence on a grim cityscape. Then began Robbins’s remarkable Prologue, a kind of vivid recap of the long-standing animosity between the Jets and the Sharks. After that, everything proceeded seamlessly, its integration of movement and music not at all like the “dialog/cue/song/dance” pattern of most musicals. Even the standouts among the songs seemed more subtle than the usual showstoppers. (One, called “Like Everybody Else,” was deleted because of its resemblance to conventional musical comedy.) The script was notably spare, with much of the drama presented through means other than spoken words. When the gangs meet in the gym, for example, their animosity was portrayed not with dialog or conventional action but through competitive dance. Likewise, Tony and Maria’s first meeting was depicted wordlessly, with Robbins’s direction and Bernstein’s music making it appear that time and enmity had momentarily stopped. Less verbiage, more drama.

Bernstein’s Candide, glorious as it was, had been a failure in part because the direction was not in sync with the material. Here, everything would be in alignment, with Robbins ensuring that the momentum of the drama equaled that of the music. “Something’s Coming” (the last song to be added before tryouts) had an urgent propulsion, “Maria” evoked love-at-first-sight rapture, and in “Tonight” the spirit of both songs merged in an ecstatic duet. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” whose melody Bernstein recycled from a Candide castoff, modified the old tropes of vaudeville comedy into a newer and harsher context. There was also comedy in “America,” as borne on its complex rhythms, and “Cool” had the jazz to fit its title. Although Sondheim later fretted about some of the lyrics in “I Feel Pretty,” the song worked perfectly as a small ray of sunshine and optimism, and “Somewhere” conveyed longing and aspiration while steering clear of false hope or platitudes. Bernstein’s dance music, too, was different. In many musicals, the dances were set to instrumental reworkings of their songs. Here, Bernstein wrote the dances as new pieces, some of them so intricate that the dancers occasionally had difficulty keeping count. A few years later, they became Bernstein’s much-performed concert piece “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.”

By the spring of 1957, the project was known by its working title Gangway (sometimes with an exclamation point) and was assuming its final form. The production team was of the highest possible quality: producers Roger Stevens, Robert Griffith, and Harold Prince, set designer Oliver Smith, costumer Irene Sharaff, and lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, with Robbins as director and choreographer. Assembling a cast took a long six months, with countless auditions and callbacks made necessary by nearly unprecedented requirements: performers with training and experience who looked (or were) young enough to be convincing teenagers, possessed the ability to sing intricate music, and could dance really well. Carol Lawrence, for whom an endless round of repeat auditions became something of an ordeal, was a Maria who could sing beautifully, look believable, act sensitively, and move with grace. Larry Kert encompassed both Tony’s toughness as a former gang leader and his sensitivity as a young man in love plus, again, the ability to both look and sound exactly right. Most of the performers cast as Puerto Rican characters reflected the conventions of the time by being mostly non-Hispanic, with Chita Rivera as the most conspicuous exception. Down the line, all the roles were cast with dancer-actor-singers who could blossom under the Jerome Robbins brand of leadership: smart, rigorous, and tough.

Maria and Tony on Broadway: Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence in the balcony scene

The Rumble on Broadway: Mickey Calin and Ken LeRoy

As the main person in charge, Robbins commanded rapt attention and fearful respect. He was aware that, unlike Bells Are Ringing, this work truly mattered. His demands were unrelenting and his outbursts frequent, yet he became known to the cast as “Big Daddy,” which connotes both paternalism and perhaps fear. The dancers, for the most part, were intensely devoted to him; his Anita, Chita Rivera, put it this way: “I just loved him so much. He’s responsible for so much of whatever there is that’s professional and good about me in the theater. I used to say that if Big Daddy had told me to jump off a building’s fourth story and land on my left foot in plié, I would know it’s possible because he could never steer me wrong.”

Some others were not as taken with his approach, and it was a generally accepted truism that in any Robbins show at least one cast member was singled out for abuse. As a former dancer, he was accustomed to pushing hard, which for him meant that feelings and limitations, even possible breaking points, did not necessarily matter. What might be inspired guidance for one performer could be, for another, intolerable. Some, like Carole D’Andrea (Velma), refused to acknowledge the hectoring. Others had more problems, and Robbins was especially rough with Kert and with his Riff, Mickey Calin (later known as Michael Callan). Some of the harshness was calculated: Robbins, who had studied at the Actors Studio, took a Method-style approach to deepen the performers’ identification with their roles. He often rehearsed the Jets and the Sharks separately and demanded that they not mix—the better to foster a sense of competitiveness. As he intended, this added to the show’s intensity. It also, occasionally, made for outright hostility.

Many performers’ attitudes toward Robbins were made still more complicated by some recent political history. In 1953, he had “named names” to the voraciously anti-Communist House Un-American Activities Committee, which resulted the blacklisting of seven of his associates. This, for many members of the New York theater community, was difficult to forgive and harder to forget. Much later, Robbins himself confessed that the fear driving him to turn in some of his associates stemmed less from being revealed as a former Communist than being exposed as homosexual. For some, the episode enhanced the notion that Robbins was an artist to be simultaneously revered and despised.

One famous anecdote associated with Robbins is so lethally evocative that it seems almost mythical. Accounts have differed about where it originated, yet several sources have testified that it occurred during West Side Story, specifically during the show’s second round of tryouts in Philadelphia. It goes this way: At one point during a rehearsal, Robbins lost his temper completely and embarked on what was, even for him, a major tirade. Standing with his back to the auditorium, he directed his loud dissatisfaction to everyone on the stage. They were doing it wrong, they were incompetent, clueless, inept, idiotic. They were, in sum, a disgrace to the show, to the entertainment industry, most likely to the entire world. Continuing his attack, he began to slowly back away, as if in revulsion, from the objects of his fury. They, unlike Robbins, could see that he was moving dangerously close to the edge of the stage. No one said a word as he plunged backward off the stage into the orchestra pit, where the only thing that prevented him from serious injury was a strategically positioned bass drum. Later on the performers could only wonder: Had they all kept quiet because they thought he would stop in time? Had they been mesmerized into silence? Was it due to loathing, uncertainty, or vengeance? Perhaps a kind of terrified dread? None of them really knew.

It remains an incontrovertible fact, as well, that during West Side Story—show and film—and afterward, many of the dancers who Robbins directed and sometimes terrorized remained devoted to him. Long after his death in 1998, they continued to speak of him with awe and often love, yet not hesitating to recall the rigors and occasional agony of working with him.

Late in rehearsals, the title was changed from Gangway! to West Side Story. Finally, as did nearly every musical of the time, the show went out of town for tryouts. There was still some tweaking and fine-tuning to do—not a surprise, given the trademarked Robbins perfectionism—yet notably less than in other major productions. The curtain first came up on West Side Story on August 19, 1957, in Washington, D.C., and the impact was immediate. The second tryout city was Philadelphia, which was notoriously tough on Broadway-bound shows. Even there, some good reviews lifted everyone up prior to the main event: Thursday, September 26, 1957, at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway.

As with the tale of Robbins’s “taking the plunge,” the opening night of West Side Story has passed into legend. Some accounts go so far as to allege that it changed the entire history of musical theater forever, which is perhaps a little much. What is certain is that the show began in a way both riveting and unexpected: the curtain rising in silence on Oliver Smith’s grimly stylized urban landscape, a group of blue-jacketed Jets posed tensely. Then the first sound—not music, but finger-snapping—as the Jets began to move. Then, suddenly, another gang, the Sharks, followed by an outbreak of gang warfare, seemingly chaotic but tightly controlled. Finally, the music entered, its sporty dissonance both a provocation and a commentary. Eventually, there was the interruption of a whistle and some police, whose entrance seemed less a remedy than a potential incitement. Although Robbins’s Prologue had taken only a few minutes, it defined the entire show, and it was one of the triumphs of the evening that the rest did not seem anticlimactic. Every scene, every song, all the performances, seemed to emanate from that virtuoso opening. It would not be a work of unrelieved tension, for there was lyricism, comedy, rapture, even some overtones (as with “Krupke”) of conventional musical comedy. Yet there was an underlying feeling of foreboding, a darkness that seldom seemed far away. The animosity portrayed in Romeo and Juliet had been between two wealthy families, and as deep-seated as it was, it was less cultural and sociological than personal. By contrast, West Side Story presented an ongoing crisis, new in its torn-from-the-headlines specifics yet wearyingly similar to other ethnic conflicts before and since. It was raw, pertinent, and unpleasant, and neither this show’s gifted creators nor anyone else could provide any easy solutions. Or, perhaps, any solutions at all.

The final scene: Jamie Sanchez (far left), Carol Lawrence, and Larry Kert

A number of cast members later recalled the silence on September 26, after the Jets and the Sharks carried off Tony’s body and the last Bernstein chords played. As Carol Lawrence remembered it, it was a quiet so pervasive as to make the cast feel confused and confounded. Momentarily, it seemed that there was no audience reaction at all, that the show had just taken place before a mass of cold air. “Oh God,” Lawrence thought, “They hated it! They didn’t get it. They didn’t understand what we were trying to say.” Then, suddenly, everyone rose, so quickly and immediately as to seem choreographed. Then came the sound, the applause and the cheers that went on and on and on. Yells, stomping, weeping even, all well beyond the electrical charge that traditionally attends the opening of a worthy new show. It was a reaction as different from traditional applause as West Side Story was from the other shows playing on Broadway at the same time. The long lines promptly began to form at the Winter Garden box office.

The audience enthusiasm did not translate unreservedly to the critical community. It’s well known that West Side Story did not generate universal raves after it opened, to the point that it has become a signal example of a major work that audiences may have comprehended ahead of critics. In 1957, the many daily newspapers in New York included some names that later faded away, such as the Herald Tribune, the World-Telegram and Sun, the Daily Mirror, and the Journal American. Each had theater critics with opinions that carried weight with the public, and some had very positive things to say: “Extraordinarily exciting” (Daily News); “A sensational hit!” (Daily Mirror); “The most exciting thing that has come to town since My Fair Lady” (Journal American). Some praised the show in its entirety as a breakthrough new work, and many singled out Robbins as the first among equals.

Many, too, responded favorably to Bernstein’s music, although the Times music critic, Howard Taubman, judged the score “disappointing,” particularly in its effort to span the divide between musical theater and opera. Even when there was enthusiasm about the music, there was not necessarily understanding, as in one approving review that termed the show “a juke-box Manhattan opera.” There was also the related, if confounding, opinion of some that the music did not provide enough in the way of “hummable” tunes. The songs that most proved the inaccuracy of this claim, “Tonight,” “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere,” all had to wait a while before entering the roster of standards. It’s worth noting that, in all the discussion of the music and the songs, Stephen Sondheim’s name appeared seldom, if ever.

The initial notices also included a wary but enthusiastic “money review” from the dean of New York theater critics. Brooks Atkinson, of the Times, was one of those legendary figures with the power to make or break a show with one paragraph, so respected/feared that a Broadway theater later took his name. He could not begin without a confession of some mixed feelings: “Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable.” He went on, in a positive vein. “Everything… is of a piece. Everything contributes to the total impression of wildness, ecstasy, and anguish.” It was, he concluded, “one of those occasions where theatre people, engrossed in an original project, are all in top form.”

Atkinson was not alone in his reservation about the subject matter; other critics considered it a significant roadblock. Some of this feeling sprang, one way or another, from Shakespeare. Even before the show opened, it had become known as “the modern Romeo and Juliet musical,” and for a critic such as the respected Walter Kerr, writing in the Herald Tribune


  • “Informative and engaging”—The Washington Post
  • "Informative and engaging"—The Washington Post
  • "While remaining always respectful to the movie and the people who made it, the author lays bare the behind-the-scenes tumult, elevating the book from a typical making-of story to something really special: a no-holds-barred chronicle of what it really takes to get a great movie made."—Booklist starred review
  • “In this engrossing volume, Barrios recounts how the drama and rivalries seen onscreen played out with matched intensity behind the scenes, yet still managed to result in an artistic feat.”——Publishers Weekly
  • "In this engrossing volume, Barrios recounts how the drama and rivalries seen onscreen played out with matched intensity behind the scenes, yet still managed to result in an artistic feat."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Barrios has a way with words and his elegant turn of phrase along with his thoughtful and informed insights make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. ... This the perfect gift for the West Side Story fanatic in your life. ...an engrossing read."—Out of the Past blog
  • “Barrios has a way with words and his elegant turn of phrase along with his thoughtful and informed insights make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. … This the perfect gift for the West Side Story fanatic in your life. …an engrossing read.”—Out of the Past blog

On Sale
Jun 30, 2020
Page Count
232 pages
Running Press

Richard Barrios

About the Author

Richard Barrios is the author of the award-winning A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, and Turner Classic Movies: Must-See Musicals. He has presented films at the Smithsonian Institute and the Film Forum; appeared in documentary films; and contributed audio commentaries to numerous DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Barrios lives in Beverly, New Jersey.Turner Classic Movies is the definitive resource for the greatest movies of all time. We entertain and enlighten to show how the entire spectrum of classic movies, movie history, and movie-making touches us all and influences how we think and live today.

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