`West Side Story' still bristles with tension

Movies: on screen, DVD/Video

April 17, 2003|By Peter M. Nichols | Peter M. Nichols,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Ahalf-century ago, choreographer Jerome Robbins took the temperature of the neighborhood when researching West Side Story in and around an area of Manhattan that is now occupied by Lincoln Center.

"The streets are darker, the signs are in Spanish, and the people lead their lives on the sidewalks," he is quoted as saying in a small book accompanying a first-rate DVD special edition of the film, released recently by MGM. "I went to the territory of the delinquents -- went to their social directors, talked to gang members and leaders, visited their dances."

You might modify that approach in gang precincts today, but the odd thing is that what Robbins found and poured into his 1957 Broadway musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and its 1961 screen adaptation still bristles with the city's drive and drum-tight tension.

As he puts it in the book, "The kids have a feeling of being born into one of the worst possible worlds, and they think they have to live their lives now -- without delay."

An early version of his updated Romeo and Juliet was tentatively called East Side Story. Maria (Natalie Wood) was Jewish, Tony (Richard Beymer) Roman Catholic, and the conflict religious. As an ethnic battle between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets, Robbins' film, directed with Robert Wise, still draws its furious urban energy from characters like Maria's friend Anita (Rita Moreno).

A young cast did everything. Wood and Beymer didn't take to each other particularly, but they work hard at a certain chemistry. "There was no star to carry the movie," Moreno said recently. "Natalie wasn't that big. The movie was the star."

Its movement leaps and snarls through the streets. In a fine documentary on the DVD, Sondheim says the film isn't really about prejudice, but about theater: how music, lyrics and book combined into a musical about movement. Avoiding production numbers, Robbins geared his choreography to kids on the prowl. "It was character-driven and jazzy in a way you didn't see in movies," Moreno said.

Robbins' grinding perfectionism took the film far beyond schedule and above budget. "It was tough to work with Robbins," Moreno said, adding that he usually brought out the best in people. Eventually, Robbins was fired, and Wise took sole control. As a filmmaker, he favored shooting from many angles and used his long experience as an editor to make superb cuts. An old Hollywood hand, he knew what needed to get done.

In the book with the DVD, Ernest Lehman, who wrote the film, says that, like Robbins, he devoted a lot of time to studying the mores of the West Side.

"Finally, Bob Wise turned to me and said: `Look, Ernie, we're not making a definitive study of juvenile delinquency,'" he recalled. "`Let's just get back to California and write a screenplay.' "

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