West Side Story: the Movie

From the streets of New York to the soundstages of Hollywood.

By The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

West Side Story, Gjon Mili, 1960-08, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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The film version of "West Side Story" was helmed by two directors: Jerome Robbins (top, on crane), the director and choreographer of the stage show, and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise (below, on ladder).

West Side Story (1960-08) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

The movie started shooting in August 1960 on several blocks of Manhattan's West Side. Most of this footage was used for the Prologue number, which introduced the warring Jets and Sharks gangs.

West Side Story (1960-08) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Three months of rehearsals preceded the shoot, during which Robbins adapted his theatrically stylized choreography to the more realistic settings of the movie.

West Side Story dancers on the NYC streets (1960) by United Artists Corporation The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Prologue sequence lasted twice as long on screen as on stage. The magic of cinema blended locations on the Upper West Side and East Harlem (where the playground scenes were shot).

West Side Story (1960-08) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

The production made use of several blocks in the West Sixties being cleared to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center as well as new housing developments.

Jerome Robbins directs West Side Story dancers (1960) by United Artists Corporation The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Robbins' perfectionism (in addition to the rainy late-summer weather) caused New York location shooting to stretch on weeks over schedule.

West Side Story, Gjon Mili, 1960-08, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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The Jet and Shark terpsichoreans, who did barre exercises in the street between takes, also performed rain dances until they were forbidden from doing so.

West Side Story (1960-08) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Natalie Wood (pictured at piano with Robbins) was the last principal cast in the movie. She recorded Maria's songs, but ultimately her singing was dubbed by an uncredited Marni Nixon.

Cool number from West Side Story (1960) by United Artists Corporation The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

After location shooting, the West Side Story production took up residence on several Samuel Goldwyn Studios soundstages in Hollywood. The Cool number was created in a low-ceilinged parking garage set.

West Side Story (1960-08) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Production designer Boris Leven's settings were often coded to the shifting colors in the opening credit sequence, and used certain elements, like chain link fencing, as a visual motif.

America number from West Side Story (1960) by United Artists Corporation The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The America number (featuring Rita Moreno, center) was one of several positioned at a different point in the movie from the stage show. It also included male characters from the Shark gang.

Dance at the Gym number from West Side Story (1960) by United Artists Corporation The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Around the time the Dance at the Gym number was being filmed in October 1960, Jerome Robbins was dismissed from the production. The film's remaining dance numbers were staged by his assistants.

West Side Story by Grey VilletLIFE Photo Collection

The famous fire escape for the Tonight duet between Tony and Maria (Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood) was another setting created by Leven on a Goldwyn Studio soundstage.

West Side Story (1960-08) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Despite Robbins' early departure, the completed film carries the credit "Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins." The collaborators shared the Best Director Oscar, one of 10 won by West Side Story.

West Side Story 1961 Film Trailer, 1961, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall
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Credits: Story

Photos:
LIFE Photo Collection
United Artists Pictures / Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Exhibit curated and authored by John Calhoun
Billy Rose Theatre Division.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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