Steven Spielberg’s beautifully reimagined West Side Story succeeds in doing what the musical has always done to me—turning me a sobbing emotional wreck.
Tears-streaming-down-my-face wrecked. For-god’s-sake-it’s-only-a-movie wrecked. Please-don’t-turn-the-house-lights-on-at-the-end wrecked.
Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant score has only to swell majestically as Tony meets Maria on that iconic fire escape and I’m in tears. I would like to think that this happens because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more sensitive and emotional. This blubbering in fact has been going on since 1961 when as a kid I first saw the movie version of the Broadway hit. It happened every time I played the motion picture soundtrack album. I’ve seen a stage production twice, losing it both times.
I remember discussing the emotional hold West Side Story had on me with Larry Kert who was the original Tony in the 1957 stage production. Kert laughed and said he felt much the same, despite the number of times he had played Tony. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the musical, once described Kert as “laughing, bubbling, and deadly funny,” and that’s also my memory of him during an early dinner before he went off to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre where he was performing in the musical of Two Gentlemen of Verona. He was still slightly miffed that he had been passed over for the movie.
Years later, I talked to Robert Wise, the director of the movie (or rather co-director with Jerome Robbins) about what went into the casting. By that time, he said, Larry Kert, at the age of 30, was deemed too old to play the teenage Tony.
One afternoon, sitting around his Beverly Hills office, Wise, using notes he had taken at the time, talked about the jaw-dropping range of actresses and actors they had looked at searching for the right Tony and Maria. Ironically, given the power of the music, no one seemed concerned that almost none of the actors auditioned could sing (as it turned out, everyone was dubbed, anyway).
Jill St. John “is lovely,” Wise wrote in his notes, “but she doesn’t seem like Maria” (no kidding!). Jerome Robbins pushed for Carol Lawrence who had originated Maria on Broadway, but eventually it was decided that at the age of 25, she, like Larry Kert, was too old. Elizabeth Ashley was also in the running for a time.
Twenty-one-year-old Frankie Avalon was considered for Tony. Russ Tamblyn came close but didn’t get it (he ended up playing Riff, leader of the Jets). Tom Skerritt was thought to be too old. Richard Chamberlain gave a good reading “but looks and voice too mature,” thought Wise. George Hamilton, Burt Reynolds and George Segal were all auditioned, as was Robert Redford (they liked his reading) and, briefly, Jack Nicholson.
However, the actor Wise was most enthusiastic about for a time was a newcomer named Warren Beatty. Wise looked at Beatty in footage from Splendor in the Grass, the movie he was shooting at the time with his girlfriend, Natalie Wood. “And the minute she came on the screen,” Wise remembered, “we said, ‘Hey, that’s our Maria.’” Beatty was passed over in favor of another young newcomer, Richard Beymer who had appeared in The Diary of Anne Frank.
West Side Story on Broadway became a game-changing theatrical phenomenon. The movie is regarded as a classic that won ten Academy Awards. It was a huge hit in 1961. Everyone flocked to see it.
In 2021, sixty years after the release of the first film, sadly, no one is flocking to see Steven Spielberg’s recasting of West Side Story. I could be slightly prejudiced, but you will not see a more gorgeously mounted movie at the movies this year. Yet no one seems to care. The adults the studio was counting on to come to the film have not shown up, scared off, the thinking goes, by the continuing nervousness over the pandemic.
But there I was in a theatre on the opening weekend, swept away by that iconic music, those powerful performances, the transporting dance numbers, desperately holding everything in…
Until the fire escape.
Damn that fire escape! Damn that music! Damn Tony and Maria! Damn the silly, overwhelming romanticism I should have long ago ditched, but never could.
That was it. I lost it in the dark. Tears for a lifetime of memories, so moved, and yet embarrassed that at my age I am still crying at the movies.
Forever the West Side crybaby.