Esta página no está disponible en español.

San Jose Mercury News

Back On The West Side A Well-Loved Classic Musical Returns On DVD, And Jets, Sharks Rumble Again

By Glenn Lovell

April 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 San Jose
Mercury News. All rights reserved. 

All you Johnny- and Jackie- come-latelies who fell in love with movie musicals when you saw ``Moulin Rouge,'' take note: The real deal is back. ``West Side Story,'' MGM-UA's street-gang musical classic from 1961, has returned to DVD in a two-disc special-edition package with a ``West Side Memories'' documentary, storyboards, trailers and a commemorative scrapbook-screenplay.

The attempt, obviously, is to ride the new musical boomlet tied to the success of ``Chicago'' and Oscar's renewed affection for the ol' razzle-dazzle. The irony, of course, is that ``Chicago' and ``Moulin Rouge,'' with their piecemeal production numbers and frenzied cutting, don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' finger-popping spin on ``Romeo and Juliet.''

``West Side Story'' -- based on the 1957 stage musical by Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents -- is generally acknowledged to have revolutionized the screen musical with its fusion of street ballet, slang-laced libretto and New York locations. It stars Natalie Wood as Maria, Richard Beymer as Tony, Rita Moreno as Anita, Russ Tamblyn as Riff and George Chakiris as Bernardo. Moreno, Chakiris and co-directors Wise and Robbins scored three of the film's 10 Oscars.

``It was more than 40 years ago, but it seems like yesterday,'' says Chakiris from his Hollywood home, where he now designs jewelry. ``We're all pretty good at keeping in touch. We're kind of like a family. There's a real bond there.''

Tough shoot

A bond born of stored resentments and a brutal production schedule, if the behind-the-scenes ``Memories'' is to believed. The 55-minute documentary chronicles the battles between cruel ``taskmaster'' Robbins and the producers, who finally fired him for cost overruns; between Wood and Beymer, who says the top-billed star treated him ``cold in a way''; and between associate producer Saul Chaplin and Moreno, Wood and Tamblyn, whose singing voices ultimately were dubbed. ``Memories'' includes Wood singing ``I Feel Pretty'' and ``Tonight.'' She's tinny and thin on the first song, flat on the second.

It was a tough shoot, but it led to a terrific, timeless film, says Chakiris, who played Riff in the London production of the stage show. ``Jerry's firing was mainly a question of money. He was taking too long. He was such a perfectionist. But had he not been, it wouldn't have been the same film.''

Chakiris, now 68, was born in Ohio to Greek parents, but to this day is thought to be Puerto Rican. Both he and the Puerto Rico-born Moreno wore makeup to make them look darker on screen. Also, as Moreno has pointed out on more than one occasion, their accents in the movie more than bordered on the stereotypical.

``People absolutely thought I was Puerto Rican or at least Hispanic,'' recalls Chakiris, who won the supporting-actor Oscar over Montgomery Clift (``Judgment at Nuremberg''), Peter Falk (``Pocketful of Miracles'') and Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott (``The Hustler''). ``But there wasn't any criticism of me playing Hispanic. Not then. Probably because Puerto Ricans and Latinos weren't in the forefront the way they are now.''

Vanishing act

Chakiris followed up his Oscar with co-starring roles in ``633 Squadron'' and ``Diamond Head'' and two seasons of ``Dallas.'' And then he pretty much vanished. What happened?

``I was totally naive,'' he says. ``I had a picture deal with the Mirisch Company and I did a few pictures after that, but I wasn't happy and didn't know that I had choices. I was ambitious . . . just not that smart.''

How, in his mind, does ``West Side Story'' stack up against the new musicals?

`` `Moulin Rouge' was a special cup of tea, so to speak,'' he replies, choosing his words carefully. ``I'm not too fond of the MTV editing where there are so many quick cuts. You don't get to see things the way you do in our film.

``As for `Chicago,' as entertainment I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it's not in our league in the dance department. Richard Gere appears to have learned his courtroom tap dance in sections, so they could cut together a routine. I would have hated doing that. Could you imagine `Singin' in the Rain' with all that cutting? It would never be the classic it is today.''

Besides being a critical and commercial success, ``West Side Story'' had a huge influence on the ways kids talked and dressed in the early '60s. And Chakiris' 'Nardo, who sported a sharkskin suit, black tie and purple shirt, was at the forefront of the fashion craze.

``They could have done a lot better but there was no such thing as merchandising then,'' he says. ``I had two suits, one to wear during the dances and one for the dramatic scenes. I ended up splitting both pairs of pants and, because there was no third pair and they had to match the shots, I ended up wearing black tights under the pants so you wouldn't see skin.''

``West Side Story'' on DVD

Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris

Directors: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Writer: Ernest Lehman, from the Broadway musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes (feature); 55 minutes (documentary)

Price: $39.98 (but available locally at substantial discounts)

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback