West Side Story (1961 film)

West Side Story is a 1961 American musical romantic drama film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The film is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was inspired by William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. It stars Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris, and was photographed by Daniel L. Fapp in Super Panavision 70. Released on October 18, 1961, through United Artists, the film received high praise from critics and viewers, and became the second highest-grossing film of the year in the United States. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture (in addition to a special award for Robbins), becoming the record holder for the most wins for a musical.

West Side Story
Theatrical release poster by Joe Caroff
Directed byRobert Wise
Jerome Robbins
Produced byRobert Wise
Screenplay byErnest Lehman
Based onWest Side Story
by Jerome Robbins
Leonard Bernstein
Stephen Sondheim
Arthur Laurents
Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
StarringNatalie Wood
Richard Beymer
Rita Moreno
George Chakiris
Russ Tamblyn
Music byLeonard Bernstein
lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
CinematographyDaniel L. Fapp
Edited byThomas Stanford
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • October 18, 1961 (1961-10-18)
Running time
152 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$6 million
Box office$44.1 million

The film has been deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for the National Film Registry in 1997.[2] A remake of the same name by Steven Spielberg is set to be released in 2020, starring Ansel Elgort.


In the summer of 1957 in the West Side's Lincoln Square neighborhood in Manhattan, there is tension between a white American gang, the Jets, led by Riff, and a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, led by Bernardo. After a brawl erupts, Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke arrive and break it up. The Jets decide to challenge the Sharks to a rumble at an upcoming dance for neighborhood control.

Riff decides that his best friend Tony, the co-founder of the Jets who left the gang, should fight. Riff invites Tony to the dance, but Tony is uninterested. He tells Riff that he senses something important will happen, which Riff suggests could have a correlation with the dance.

Bernardo's younger sister, Maria, tells her best friend and Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, how excited she is about the dance. At the dance, the gangs and women refuse to intermingle. Tony arrives and he and Maria fall in love. However, Bernardo angrily demands that Tony stay away from her. Riff proposes a meeting with Bernardo at Doc's drug store.

Maria is sent home; Anita argues that Bernardo is overprotective of Maria and they compare the advantages of Puerto Rico and the United States with the women expressing their preference for the United States and the men expressing the difficulties of living in the United States.

Tony discreetly visits Maria on her fire escape, where they reaffirm their love. Krupke, who suspects the Jets are planning something, visits them and warns them not to cause trouble. When the Sharks arrive, both groups agree to have the showdown the following evening under the highway, with a one-on-one fist fight. When Schrank arrives, the gangs feign friendship. Schrank orders the Sharks out and unsuccessfully tries to discover information about the fight.

The next day at the bridal shop, Anita accidentally tells Maria about the rumble. Tony arrives to see Maria, which shocks Anita. They profess their love and Anita warns them about the consequences if Bernardo learns of their relationship. Maria has Tony promise to prevent the rumble. Tony and Maria fantasize about their wedding ceremony.

The Jets and Sharks approach the area under the highway. Tony arrives to stop the fight, but Bernardo antagonizes him. Unwilling to watch Tony be humiliated, Riff initiates a knife fight. Tony tries to intervene, which leads to Bernardo killing Riff. Tony kills Bernardo with Riff's knife and a melee ensues. Police sirens blare and everyone flees, leaving behind the dead bodies.

Maria waits for Tony on the rooftop of her apartment building when her fiancé Chino arrives and tells her what happened. Tony arrives and explains what transpired and asks for her forgiveness before he turns himself in to the police. Maria confirms her love for him and asks Tony to stay with her.

The Jets have reassembled outside a garage, with their new leader, Ice, having them focus on reacting to the police. Anybodys arrives and warns them that Chino is now after Tony. Ice sends the Jets to warn Tony.

Anita enters the apartment while Tony and Maria are in the bedroom. Tony and Maria arrange to meet at Doc's, where they will pick up getaway money to elope. Anita spots Tony leaving through the window and chides Maria for the relationship, but Maria convinces her to help them elope.

Schrank arrives and questions Maria about the rumble. To cover for Tony, Maria has Anita tell him that Maria is detained from meeting him. When Anita reaches Doc's, the Jets harass her, until Doc intervenes. Anita declares that Bernardo was right about them and that Chino killed Maria. Doc banishes the Jets and gives Tony his getaway money in the basement and delivers Anita's message. Tony runs into the streets, shouting for Chino to kill him as well.

In the playground next to Doc's, Tony spots Maria and they run toward each other, only for Chino to shoot Tony. The Jets and Sharks arrive to find Maria holding Tony, who dies in her arms. Maria stops the gangs from fighting, takes the gun from Chino and threatens to shoot everyone, blaming their hate for the deaths. Schrank, Krupke and Doc arrive and the gangs form a funeral procession, with Maria following. The police arrest Chino and lead him away.


  • Natalie Wood as Maria, Bernardo's younger sister, who falls in love with Tony. She is the arranged fiancée of Chino[3]
  • Richard Beymer as Tony, co-founder and one-time member of the Jets, but remains the best friend of Riff; works at Doc's drug store, and becomes Maria's star-crossed lover
  • Russ Tamblyn as Riff, leader of the Jets, best friend of Tony
    • Tucker Smith as Ice and as Riff's singing voice for "Jet Song" (Tamblyn did his own singing for "Gee, Officer Krupke!" and "Quintet")
  • Rita Moreno as Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, and Maria's closest confidante
    • Betty Wand as Anita's singing voice for "A Boy Like That" (Moreno did her own singing for "America" and "Quintet")
  • George Chakiris as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, older brother of Maria and Anita's boyfriend
  • Simon Oakland as Police Lieutenant Schrank, a hard-boiled plainclothes detective
  • William Bramley as Police Sergeant Krupke, a brusque beat cop (Bramley reprised his role from the original Broadway production)
  • Ned Glass as Doc, drugstore owner, Tony's boss; a decent, elderly man


  • John Astin as Glad Hand, well-meaning but ineffective social worker
  • Penny Santon as Madam Lucia, bridal shop owner

Musical numbers


Veteran director Robert Wise was chosen to direct and produce because of his experience with urban New York dramas such as Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Because he had no experience directing a musical, Wise agreed that Jerome Robbins, who had directed the stage version of West Side Story, would direct the musical and dance sequences. After about one-third of the movie had been shot, The Mirisch Company, concerned that the production was running over-budget, dismissed Robbins. The remaining dance numbers were directed with the help of Robbins' assistants. Recognizing Robbins' considerable creative contribution to the film, Wise agreed that Robbins should be given co-directing credit. Robbins and Wise also kept in contact and discussed the production, with Wise taking on board many of Robbins' suggestions about the editing of the film.[4] The opening titles and end credits sequences were created by Saul Bass with Elaine Makatura Bass.[5]

Bernstein and Laurents, who had been blacklisted for alleged communist activities, worked with Robbins even though he had cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.[6] Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim and Laurents were all gay, closeted and Jewish.[7]

Exterior shots used the buildings of Lincoln Square, which were vacant and about to be torn down, allowing them to be used as a set.


Although Robbins pushed for 29-year-old Carol Lawrence, the first Maria, to be cast in the same role in the film, after seeing her screen test the producers agreed she was too old to play the part. A number of other cast members from the Broadway and West End productions were cast in the film. Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab on stage, was cast as Action in the film, and George Chakiris, Riff in the London stage production, played Bernardo in the film. Tucker Smith, who joined the Broadway production several months into its run, played Diesel, renamed Ice for the film. David Winters, the first stage Baby John, played A-Rab, Eliot Feld, an ensemble member and understudy for Baby John on Broadway, played Baby John. Jay Norman, Juano on stage, appeared as Pepe. Reprising their stage roles in the film were Carole D'Andrea as Velma, Tommy Abott as Gee-Tar, and William Bramley as Officer Krupke.

Elvis Presley was approached for Tony, but his manager Colonel Tom Parker turned down the part.[8] Others who were considered for the part included Tab Hunter,[9] Russ Tamblyn,[10] Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Redford.[11]

Hunter, then 30, and Reynolds, then 25, were considered for the part due to their Broadway and singing credits, but they were dismissed because of their age. Reynolds was considered "too tough" for the part. Chamberlain was believed to be "too mature" for the role. Tamblyn impressed producer Robert Wise, and was given the supporting role of Riff.[11] Ultimately, Richard Beymer won the part of Tony.

Natalie Wood was filming Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty and was involved with him romantically off-screen. The producers were not considering her for the role of Maria at that time. When considering Beatty for the role of Tony, Robert Wise requested a reel of his work. However, after seeing a clip from Splendor in the Grass, the producers decided his co-star Wood was perfect for Maria, but Beatty was not suitable for the role of Tony.[12]

Jill St. John, Audrey Hepburn, Diane Baker, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Ashley, and Suzanne Pleshette were among the many actresses who were considered for the role of Maria in the film.[11]


Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote: "in knocking it down and moving it from stage to screen is to reconstruct its fine material into nothing short of a cinema masterpiece.”[13]

Whitney Williams of Variety was also positive, writing: "Technically, it is superb; use of color is dazzling, camera work often is thrilling, editing fast with dramatic punch, production design catches mood as well as action itself.”[14]

The Hollywood Reporter called it: “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.”[15]

By contrast, Pauline Kael derided the film as "frenzied hokum," decrying that the dialogue was "painfully old-fashioned and mawkish” and the dancing was a "simpering, sickly romantic ballet".[16]

West Side Story holds a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 62 reviews for an average rating of 8.3/10; the site's critical consensus states: "Buoyed by Robert Wise's dazzling direction, Leonard Bernstein's score, and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, West Side Story remains perhaps the most iconic of all the Shakespeare adaptations to visit the big screen."[17]

Box office

The film earned United Artists rentals of $19,645,000 in the United States and Canada to be the highest-grossing musical of all-time.[18] It grossed $44.1 million worldwide ($370 million in 2019). Because of profit participation, United Artists only earned a profit of $2.5 million on the film.[19]

Accolades and honors

Its 10 Academy Awards make it the musical film with the most Academy wins, including Best Picture.[20]

Academy Awards




American Film Institute lists:

The film's cast appeared and was honored at the 50th anniversary of West Side Story at the 2011 Ventura Film Festival.[24]

Score and soundtrack

Leonard Bernstein was displeased with the orchestrations for the movie, which was the work of Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had orchestrated the original Broadway production. That show had been orchestrated for roughly 30 musicians; for the movie, United Artists allowed them triple that, including six saxophone parts, eight trumpets, five pianos and five xylophones.[25] Bernstein found it "overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety."[2]

Stephen Sondheim, who did not like the sequence of the songs in the Broadway version, had the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" being sung before the rumble in place of the song "Cool" which is sung instead after the rumble; the song "I Feel Pretty" is also sung before the rumble instead of after. In addition, the song "America" was sung in-between the two love songs "Maria" and "Tonight", instead of having the two love songs being sung consecutively. The "Somewhere" ballet was omitted, because it slowed down the pace of the film, and was sung instead by Tony and Maria. Reprises of the lyrics were omitted as well, especially in the songs "One Hand, One Heart" and "A Boy Like That". Some lyrics were changed in order to avoid censorship, especially in the songs "Jet Song", "Gee, Officer Krupke", "America" and the "Tonight Quintet". Even the phrase "Womb to Tomb, Sperm to Worm" between Riff and Tony had to be replaced with "Womb to Tomb, Birth to Earth" between Riff and Tony near the beginning of the film and "One-Two-Three, One-Two-Three" between Riff and Diesel in the Quintet.

As provided in her contract, Wood prerecorded her songs and allowed the production team to decide whether to use her voice. She found the songs challenging, but was allowed to film her scenes lip-synching to her own vocals and was led to believe that these versions would be used, although music supervisors Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green had already decided to use Marni Nixon's voice. Wood's singing voice is only heard during the reprise of the song "Somewhere" when Tony dies. Though Nixon had recorded the songs in the same orchestra sessions as Wood, she had to re-record them to synch with Wood's filmed performances. Even the one song for which Wood had lip-synched to Nixon's voice, "One Hand, One Heart", had to be recorded again because Wood's lip-synching was unsatisfactory.[26] When Marni Nixon learned that she had not signed a contract for participating in the recording and demanded a percentage of the LP record, she was told that all percentages had been allocated. Bernstein gave her 0.25% of his album royalties. This set a precedent for all future "ghost singers".[27]

Beymer's vocals were performed by Jimmy Bryant. Tucker Smith, who played Ice, dubbed the singing voice of Riff in "Jet Song", instead of Russ Tamblyn. Tamblyn's own voice was used in "Gee, Officer Krupke" and the "Quintet". Rita Moreno was dubbed by Betty Wand in the song "A Boy Like That" because the song needed to be performed at a register that was too low for her. However, Moreno sang her own vocals in "America". Marni Nixon sang some of Moreno's parts in the "Quintet" when illness prevented Moreno from doing so. Wand was also ill on the day of final recording, and so Nixon recorded Anita's vocal line as well.

For the 50th anniversary of the film's 1961 release, a score closer to the Broadway version was created by Garth Edwin Sunderland of the Leonard Bernstein Office to be performed live at screenings of the movie with the score removed, but with the original vocals maintained. The score's New York City premiere was presented at Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall, called Avery Fisher Hall at the time, built atop the original film locations, which were razed in a late 1950s urban renewal project.[25]

The Stan Kenton Orchestra recorded Kenton's West Side Story, an entire album of Johnny Richards' jazz orchestrations based on the Bernstein scores in 1961. It was previewed at Capitol Records by the producers of the motion picture during the editing and mix down who lamented that, had they known of its existence, it would have been used as the musical foundation of the new film. The Kenton version won the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Recording by a Large Group. A still picture from the movie is the front cover of the Kenton LP.


In 2009, photographer Mark Seliger re-created scenes from the film for magazine Vanity Fair called West Side Story Revisited, using Camilla Belle as Maria, Ben Barnes as Tony, Jennifer Lopez as Anita, Rodrigo Santoro as Bernardo and Chris Evans as Riff. Portraying the Sharks are Minka Kelly, Jay Hernandez, Natalie Martinez, Brandon T. Jackson and Melonie Diaz. Portraying the Jets are Ashley Tisdale, Sean Faris, Robert Pattinson, Cam Gigandet, Trilby Glover, Brittany Snow and Drake Bell.[28]


A remake of the film is planned to be released on December 18, 2020,[29] directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck,[30] starring Rachel Zegler as Maria[31] and Ansel Elgort as Tony.[32]

See also


  1. "West Side Story (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. January 12, 1962. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
  2. Berson, Misha (2011). Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 155.
  3. Miller, Robin (April 23, 2019). "A story of love and acceptance: Ascension Community Theatre opens 'West Side Story' April 25". The Advocate. Retrieved July 27, 2019.
  4. Robbins, Jerome; Jowitt, Deborah (2004). Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. Simon & Schuster. pp. 283–292.
  5. Horak, Jan-Christopher (2014). Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design. University Press of Kentucky.
  6. Rockwell, John. "American Bodies", The New York Times, December 31, 2006. Retrieved August 12, 2019
  7. "The Real-Life Drama Behind West Side Story". NPR.org. February 24, 2011.
  8. Clayton, Dick; Heard, James (2003). Elvis: By Those Who Knew Him Best. Virgin Publishing. p. 226.
  9. Hunter, Tab (2006). Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of A Movie Star. Algonquin Books. p. 225.
  10. Abbott, Kate (2012). "How we made ... Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris on West Side Story". The Guardian. Retrieved February 6, 2019.
  11. Mell, Elia (2015). Casting Might-Have-Beens: A Film by Film Directory of Actors Considered for Roles Given to Others. McFarland & Company. p. 253.
  12. Bowman, Manoah (2016). Natalie Wood (Turner Classic Movies): Reflections on a Legendary Life. Hatchette UK.
  13. "The New York Times: Best Pictures". archive.nytimes.com. Retrieved February 15, 2019.
  14. Williams, Whitney; Williams, Whitney (September 27, 1961). "West Side Story". Variety. Retrieved February 15, 2019.
  15. Powers, James (September 22, 1961; republished October 18, 2016). "West Side Story: THR's 1961 Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 10, 2019. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  16. Ebert, Roger. "West Side Story Movie Review & Film Summary (1961) | Roger Ebert". www.rogerebert.com. Retrieved February 15, 2019.
  17. West Side Story at Rotten Tomatoes Retrieved July 19, 2014
  18. Pirie, David (1981). Anatomy of the Movies. Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc. p. 254. ISBN 0-02-597540-4.
  19. Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, p. 177
  20. Grant, Barry Keith (2012). The Hollywood Film Musical. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 100.
  21. "West Side Story (1961) – Awards". The New York Times. Retrieved December 24, 2008.
  22. "The 34th Academy Awards (1962) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved August 22, 2011.
  23. "Jerome Robbins". jeromerobbins.org.
  24. "Ventura Film Festival". Ventura Film Festival.
  25. Wakin, Daniel (September 6, 2011), "Classic Score by Bernstein is Remade", The New York Times, retrieved September 7, 2011
  26. Nixon, Marni (2006). I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story. Billboard Books. pp. 132ff.
  27. "Secret Voices of Hollywood, BBC Four" by Claudia Pritchard, The Arts Desk, 30 September 2013; review of this program.
  28. Seliger, Mark (March 17, 2009). "West Side Story Revisited". Vanity Fair. Retrieved July 18, 2010.
  29. Adalessandro, Anthony (May 7, 2019). "Disney-Fox Updates Release Schedule: Sets Three Untitled 'Star Wars' Movies, 'Avatar' Franchise To Kick Off In 2021 & More". Deadline. Retrieved May 7, 2019.
  30. D'Alessandro, Anthony (January 14, 2019). "Steven Spielberg's West Side Story Finds its Maria, Anita, Bernardo and Chino". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
  31. "West Side Story: High school student cast as Maria in Spielberg remake". BBC. January 15, 2019. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
  32. Loughrey, Clarisse (October 2, 2018). "Ansel Elgort to star as lead in Spielberg's West Side Story remake". The Independent. Retrieved February 3, 2019.
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