Review: West Side Story. The Jets, the Sharks, and the making of a classic

This book is full of nutty detail, says John Nathan


West Side Story. The Jets, the Sharks, and the making of a classic by Richard Barrios (Running Press [Little Brown], £20)

Be cool. Real cool. Or at least don’t get too excited. In December, the remake of West Side Story is due to hit cinema screens —coronavirus willing. There will be fuss and interviews of course, not only with the relatively unknown cast playing the new Maria and Tony, but with the very well known creators including director Steven Spielberg and scriptwriter Tony Kushner.

It will be interesting to know what proportion of the new release’s audience will have seen the 1961 original. My guess is most. But whatever the percentage, it is to them — with the Jerome Robbins choreograph spooling across the memory — that Richard Barrios’s glossy new book about the making of the classic will mean most.

Barrios’s focus is the screen adaptation co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, rather than the stage show (also directed by Robbins) on which it was based and which opened on Broadway in 1957. As is often the case when looking at the creation of works that capture the collective imagination, what fascinates here is the tale of what might have been.

Robbins had been mulling the idea of a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as far back as 1948 when he discussed the idea with his then lover, the actor Montgomery Clift.

The proof that Shakespeare could tolerate and even benefit from being updated and musicalised was already plain to see on Broadway with Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, his endlessly witty version of The Taming of the Shrew.

For Robbins, a modern version of the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets would have to be found. His answer? The Jews and the Catholics. The tensions between the communities living on the east side of Manhattan were well known. That idea even survived the first brainstorming session with Robbins’s friends Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, the project’s eventual composer and writer.

But Jews versus Catholics on the streets of New York was a conflict that was losing its edge. Barrios cites the popular Broadway comedy Abie’s Irish Rose (about a Jewish man and Catholic girl who marry each other against their families’ wishes) as evidence that you can’t make serious art out of a subject that is being laughed at. So the idea — working title East Side Story — was dropped.

Barrios’s forensic research is full of such alternative outcomes. Many of which induce head-shaking incredulity, such as Warren Beatty nearly landing the role of top Jet, Riff, or the equivocal theatre review that complained that Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s score — which gave the world Tonight, Something’s Coming, Maria, America and Cool, not to mention Officer Krupke and A Boy Like That — didn’t have any catchy tunes.

Flesh is added to the mythology surrounding the creation of the work, not least Robbins’s tough directing methods which, terrifying though they were, produced more loyalty than loathing in his cast.

That said, the story of him tearing strips off them for an underpowered performance before falling backwards off stage without anyone warning him that he was so close to the edge, suggests loathing pipped loyalty at times.

The book is full of such nutty detail. Read it in preparation for the new film, out in December, when, given the pedigree of those making it, it is not too optimistic to say that something’s coming, something good.

John Nathan is the JC’s theatre critic

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