The ultimately disappointing journey of Jerome Robbins from Broadway to soundstage

Jerome Robbins, director and choreographer as well as primary conceptualist behind Broadway’s West Side Story in 1957, knew that filming it in 1960 was going to be problematic. He was more than aware of how easily his brainchild could devolve into cinematic cliché.

The Jets jetee in West Side Story

The Jets jetee in West Side Story

The film’s producers hired Robbins as co-director with Robert Wise only because he exercised legal prerogatives that could not be contested. Robbins worked on the musical numbers, which are the highlights of the film. Once the dancing starts, we no longer worry about the possible incongruity of inner-city strife emerging out of a long tradition of musical comedy and operetta; we simply move to a zone of skill that doesn’t have to answer to or for anything.

But Robbins wasn’t content to stay within the boundaries assigned to him. He had ideas about aspects of the filmmaking, so much so that he was fired before his work was done.

More input from Robbins might have been a good idea. Seen today, the movie suffers from the bloat of Hollywood hyperrealism as well as airless soundstage giganticism. It is art-directed to within an inch of credibility, and not at the highest level of imaginative sensibility, an approach worlds away from the distilled, peeled-away Broadway sets of Oliver Smith. Surprisingly, however, the juxtaposition of the location exteriors does not jar with the high stylization of much of the choreography. It’s when we get into the back lot and built sets that the transference of Romeo and Juliet to urban battleground shows a certain strain.

Where the performers are concerned, the film is less than it might have been due to Hollywood’s then-and-forever preoccupation with photogenic marketability. Both Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, Broadway’s Maria and Tony, were still barely 30 but were too old by Hollywood standards to convincingly transfer their roles to the screen. But there is more musical and emotional magic in their Ed Sullivan Show rendition of “Tonight” than what transpires between Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer’s (singing voices dubbed) screen time.

Robbins had been thinking about West Side Story for almost 15 years, even before his first professionally produced ballet, 1944’s Fancy Free. West Side Story was not the first time that the Broadway musical had addressed tragedy and social consciousness, nor was it the first modernization of Shakespeare. But incontrovertible evidence of how different and innovative it was is the protracted difficulty its creators had in finding a producer. By the time production work began in early 1957, Robbins was undergoing a period of wrenching transition and emotional vulnerability.

In the summer of 1956, New York City Ballet ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq’s marriage to NYCB founder and principal choreographer George Balanchine was ending. Le Clercq had married him in 1952 after having had some kind of love relationship with the bisexual Robbins. She had become Robbins’ preferred interpreter in the company as well as the ideal instrument for Balanchine’s work. Now she and Robbins were apparently resuming their relationship.

But while on tour in Copenhagen with NYCB in October, she was stricken with polio—Le Clercq never walked or danced again. She and Robbins were in constant communication, however, during the months of West Side Story. He realized that without her there he did not want to go back to NYCB, though he finally began creating ballets for the company again in 1969, by which time he had renounced the commercial theater.

On the way to the screen, West Side Story lost the “Somewhere” ballet, one of the biggest pieces of the original dance quotient, but the long, uninterrupted dance numbers that are preserved maintain Robbins’ insistence on movement as equal partner with music and words. The swirling skirts, hips and shoulders of the women and the slinky, hopped-up staccato of the tough guys all give the movie an instantaneously recognizable imprint.

Robbins’ fusion of jazz, ballet and flamenco organizes the film, giving it a platform of motival patterning. His choreography maintains the degree of intricacy needed to lend variety while maintaining maximum accessibility. Dance here can tell the story or more truly enlarge and comment upon the story. In West Side Story, it’s a pleasure to see dance confidently asserts its place without ever stepping out of place.

Read more by Joel Lobenthal at Lobenthal.com.


Ballet Next: The newly launched company, founded by Michele Wiles of ABT & Charles Askegard of New York City Ballet, gives its premiere performance, featuring new works & classics by Balanchine & Petipa. Nov. 21, The Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave., 212-242-0800, joyce.org; 7:30, $50+.

La MaMa E.T.C: 9 dancers & over 20 marionette puppets share the stage in this production of Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre’s “Golem.” Nov. 17–Dec. 4, Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th St., (212) 475-7710, www.lamama.org; $25.

Laura Peterson’s “Wooden”: Audience members are guided through various environments that mimic the natural world in this design-oriented dance installation that marks the culmination of Peterson’s residency at HERE. End Nov. 12, 145 6th Ave., 212-352-3101, here.org; 8:30, $20.

Miro Magloire’s New Chamber Ballet: The company presents a program of world premieres set to the music of John Cage, Michael Nyman, Dvorak & others. Nov. 18 & 19, City Center Studio 5, 130 W. 56th St., 5th Fl., 212-868-4444, newchamberballet.com; 8, $25.

Raw Metal Dance Company: The Australian troupe fuses funk, tap, rock, acrobatics & beat-boxing in “Untapped.” Nov. 11–27, The New Victory Theater, 209 W. 42nd St., 646-223-3010, newvictory.org.