Broadway innovator Jerome Robbins had been cultivating the
idea of updating Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a
stage musical for nearly a decade when Arthur Laurents agreed to write the book for the project in the
mid-1950s. Robbins' concept was to update the feud of the Capulets and Montagues to
the racially tense streets of Manhattan's west side, where
Puerto Rican immigrants met with rampant prejudice from some
of the "native" (a.k.a. white) New Yorkers.
Robbins and Laurents envisioned
a new kind of musical theater, one of realism and social relevance.
Composer Leonard Bernstein and Oscar Hammerstein II protege Stephen
Sondheim were brought on board to create the score and lyrics.
With the now-legendary creative team together, fair Verona
became the dangerous, humid streets of an urban summer; Romeo
morphed into Tony (Richard Beymer),
a Polish-American soda jerk, and Juliet into Maria (Natalie
Wood), a Puerto Rican just arrived in New York. Juliet's balcony,
the signature visual of Shakespeare's play, where the star-crossed
lovers speak of romance, became Maria's fire escape.
When Mirisch Pictures pur-chased the film rights to West Side Story during
its successful Broadway run, it was agreed that Robbins would
co-direct the film with Robert Wise. The pair agreed that the
film had to be a visual hybrid of the filmed musical and something
more realistic and gritty that spoke for the times and themes
of the piece. The difficult combination of musical numbers
and urban crime drama posed a massive challenge. Cinematographer
Daniel L. Fapp, ASC (On the Beach, Desire Under the
Elms) was brought in to work closely with the directors
and production designer Boris Leven. The team also included visual consultant Saul Bass,
who contributed a tremendous final-credit montage, and visual-effects
artist Linwood Dunn, ASC.
West Side Story was filmed in the Panavision 70
format, and Panavision engineers
broke new ground for the production by creating two unique
lenses: an extreme 150mm telephoto lens and the PanaZoom,
the first zoom lens ever designed to cover a 65mm film frame.
Working on location in Manhattan and on some of the largest
sets ever created on Hollywood's Goldwyn soundstages, Fapp consistently
came up with inventive camera moves and angles to accommodate
the demands of Robbins' innovative and athletic choreography.
For his work, the cinematographer won one of the film's 10
This Special Edition DVD is a cut above the film's previous
home-video incarnations. The transfer is excellent, offering
detailed blacks and an accurate representation of Fapp's complicated
color palette; it seems identical to the DVD transfer issued
in 1998. Regardless of occasional, minor imperfections in the
40-year-old source material, the transfer remains free of artifacts. Fapp's beautiful
lighting scheme is carefully reproduced, with great detail
in the shadows and exceptional chroma stability
in even his most vivid color choices.
The 5.1 digital remix from the film's original stereo tracks,
while certainly not as diverse as those of current titles,
is a very good effort, though it's occasionally too confined
to the front soundstage of center, left and right channels.
It's an improvement over the solid 1998 remix, and it marks
the return of the minor sound effects that were inexplicably
dropped from that track.
The two-disc set includes a much-needed "making of" documentary
and a commemorative book that includes the final shooting script,
a replica of the film's program, reviews and numerous stills.
The documentary West Side Memories is stellar, but much too
short at 55 minutes. Its numerous participants cover several
topics of interest to the film's fans, including the dubbing
of the lead singing voices, the firing of Robbins midway through
the shoot, and the fact that Wood and Beymer were
not fond of each other. The package includes the film's storyboards
and a collection of trailers, and completists will
be thrilled to have the option of watching the film with or
without the original intermission audio reel. (Fans
can also duplicate the desired screening-room lighting during
the colorful overture, thanks to the inclusion of Wise's 1961
memo to projectionists!)
In a society with a youth culture dominated by gangsta rap, 'hood movies and Columbine, the social relevance
of West Side Story may seem dated to some. But watching
the film some 40 years after its release, one is struck by
the sheer creativity and industry on the screen. The pastel-lit,
tenement-filled skyline of its Manhattan and the enduring virtues
of its score earn West Side Story its place in American
popular culture. Robbins, Wise, Fapp, Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim
were working at the top of their form, and together they created
a film that remains a classic of its kind.
-- Kenneth Sweeney