In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1962 & 1963: West Side Story (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
It’s hard to find a musical more relevant to modern times than West Side Story. At its core, it’s a loosely based retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet that takes place in New York City centering on two gangs representing two different ethnicities depicting the racial tensions that arise as they fight for control of their neighborhood. Along the way, a boy associated with one gang falls in love with a girl associated with the other gang despite the clear prejudices that are designed to keep them apart. But they go ahead with their relationship before it all goes downhill. One of them is murdered and the other realizes the deadly toll prejudice can have on people. While not like what the movie portrays, this type of prejudice is still happening in America today.
It’s that resonance that helps explains the recent interest West Side Story has generated with a new Broadway revival that opened in February and a new movie version coming out this December directed by Steven Spielberg. Speaking to Vanity Fair recently, Spielberg talked about the massive impact West Side Story had on him as a kid, “West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home. I absconded with it—this was the cast album from the 1957 Broadway musical—and just fell completely in love with it as a kid. West Side Story has been that one haunting temptation that I have finally given in to.” Lots of people probably feel the same way Spielberg feels. More than six decades after premiering on Broadway, West Side Story continues to marvel audiences with its storyline, dancing, and in this case music. And you could argue that much of the musical’s legacy comes from its hugely successful 1961 film adaptation which in turn spawned a hugely successful soundtrack.
The origins of West Side Story date back to the late ‘40s when choreographer and director Jerry Robbins approached legendary composer Leonard Bernstein with the idea of making a modern-day version of Romeo & Juliet centering around the tensions between gangs of Catholics and Jews set around the high holy days of Easter and Passover. Initially called East Side Story, the musical took years to make a reality as different projects kept the men from working on the project. It eventually moved forward in 1955 when Bernstein read a newspaper article about local fighting between gangs of Mexicans and Anglos in Los Angeles. It was after that reading when Bernstein and Robbins decided to change the focus of the musical from gangs of Catholics and Jews to gangs of Puerto Ricans arriving in mainland America and first-generation white European-Americans.
During its creation, the musical was renamed West Side Story after noticing that gang fighting in New York had moved to the West Side from the East Side. As Bernstein wrote and composed the music, the musical’s writer Arthur Laurents asked a rising young lyricist Stephen Sondheim to write the lyrics even though Sondheim didn’t have a huge resume on Broadway. His only major experience was writing songs for Saturday Night, a musical that was canceled before it opened due to the producer’s death.
West Side Story opened on Broadway in September 1957 to immediate praise and success running for nearly two years and 732 performances. So naturally, a film adaptation was the next step in spreading its success. As with most movie musicals of the time, many of the people involved in the Broadway production were brought on for the film including Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins. United Artists brought on Robert Wise to direct as he had experience with directing urban dramas around New York but not so much with directing musicals though he’d later go on to direct 1965’s blockbuster musical The Sound of Music.
Due to this inexperience, Robbins was brought on to direct along with Wise. Robbins would direct the musical and dance scenes while Wise would direct everything else. This didn’t work out as the film’s production company dismissed Robbins during filming concerned about the movie going over budget with the rest of the musical and dance scenes being directed by Robbins’ assistant though Robbins still assisted Wise and got a co-directing credit in the film.
West Side Story takes place on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the summer of 1957 where we see two rival gangs battle for control of the neighborhood: the Jets (whites) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans). The gangs decide to settle their feud by challenging to a rumble at a dance. At that dance, Tony, a former Jet, meets and falls in love with Maria, the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo. They both fall in love despite the objections from both groups. Later on, the Jets and the Sharks agree to a fight under the highway where shit goes down and Bernardo ends up killing Riff, the Jets leader, and Tony ends up killing Bernardo. Maria quickly forgives Tony for killing her brother and when they try to meet up at a playground, Maria’s arranged husband, Chino, kills Tony. Maria winds up getting angry and pointing out the hate that led to Tony’s death.
Casting wise, most of the actors in West Side Story were virtual unknowns of film and theater except for Natalie Wood, who plays Maria. Wood had already made a name for herself as a child star in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street and had transitioned well into adult roles appearing in classics like 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean and 1961’s Splendor In The Grass with Warren Beatty. It was her role in Splendor in the Grass that netted her the role of Maria after the West Side Story producers saw a clip of her in the movie.
Wood is the only major cast member not alive today. In 1981, Wood drowned off the coast of California at the age of 43 while out on a yacht Thanksgiving weekend with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, and fellow actor Christopher Walken. Her death was quickly ruled an accident but lingering suspicions and speculation surrounding the events leading up to her death led to renewed interest by investigators who reopened the case in 2011 changing her cause of death to include undetermined factors and in 2018 called Robert Wagner a person of interest. Wagner hasn’t spoken to investigators and from this vantage point, it doesn’t look like the case is anywhere close to being solved.
Another notable casting choice is Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita as she’s the only Puerto Rican actress to play any of the Puerto Ricans in the movie. The rest are portrayed by white actors wearing brownface to darken their skin which was common in films of the time. Even Moreno had to wear brownface to match the other actors’ skin tone and recalled being called racist when she confronted the film’s makeup artist about it. At age 88, Moreno is an EGOT legend continuing to act in various mediums through the years and will appear in Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake as the shopkeeper Doc.
Upon release in October 1961, West Side Story was an immediate phenomenon garnering major critical acclaim and box office success becoming 1961’s highest-grossing film. At the 1962 Oscars, West Side Story won 10 of the 11 awards it was up for including Best Picture, a record for a movie musical and the second most Oscar wins overall next to Ben-Hur just two years before. Everyone was seeing the movie. My dad’s first theater experience was seeing West Side Story with my nana at only a year old. But more importantly, people were listening to its soundtrack.
The West Side Story soundtrack spent an astonishing 54 weeks on top of Billboard’s album charts, just more than a year, becoming the best-selling album of both 1962 and 1963, the second album to be the best-seller in two different years after the My Fair Lady Broadway soundtrack in 1957 and 1958. The West Side Story soundtrack also wound up being the best-selling album of the entire 1960s. It was a bigger seller than anything from the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, and all the other big names of the ‘60s. But could you blame the record buyers of the ‘60s?
Rewatching West Side Story for this post, the film still dazzles almost 60 years later and much of it easily comes down to the songs. Bernstein and Sondheim managed to make songs that have become immortal musical classics mixing sweeping orchestral arrangements with a tilt of Latin influence fitting with the culture presented in the movie. You don’t have to be a musical theater nerd to recognize the many classics of West Side Story. I know for me West Side Story and its songs have felt like they’ve always existed growing up. Songs like “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Jet Song,” and “Maria” have been well-rembered over the years being brought up time and time again in pop culture.
On the soundtrack, we get two songs that deal with the larger societal aspect of the musical from both sides: “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” “America,” with its constantly shifting time signatures, is about the conflicting feelings many non-white immigrants have about America being in a land that promises a new beginning that’s also hostile toward them because of their skin color and ethnicity. The Sharks sing about the rampant discrimination they as Puerto Ricans face wanting to go back to their home territory while Anita and the girls sing about the good life America provides.
From the Jets, we get “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a comedic jab at the titular police sergeant where Riff sings about all the personal and societal struggles that lead him into the gang life. He’s not a bad guy because he wants to but because he came up from a worthless family and never got the skills to know any better. Despite all the help he gets, Riff is still disenfranchised by society because as he puts it, “cause no one wants a fella with a social disease.” And in one hilarious moment, the Jets end with one final jab, “Gee, Officer Krupke. Krup you.” Sondheim had wanted to use fuck you instead of krup you but Columbia Records, the distributor of both the Broadway and film soundtrack, wouldn’t let him. So the line could be seen as a jab at both the police officer and the record label.
Elsewhere on the soundtrack, we get songs concerting Tony and Maria’s romance from the lovestruck “Maria” from Tony and “I Feel Pretty” from Maria to the giddy anticipation of “Tonight” and “Tonight Quintet.” We get songs that deal with the gangs and their activities like “Cool” which boasts a nice little guitar lick lending the musical a fun edge and “Jet Song” provides us with a fun introduction to the Jets. Lastly, we have a bunch of instrumental passages soundtracking the opening credits and scene where the Jets and Sharks meet each other along with the dance, the rumble, and the end credits. Instrumental pieces like “Dance At The Gym” and “Rumble” do a good job at portraying the mood and atmosphere of their respective scenes and help to immerse you into the action.
One major fact to point out about the performances is that the actors you see in the movie do not sing the songs for the most part. As common practice for movie musicals at the time, the studio would get singers to ghost sing over a song if the studio felt that the actor in question was not capable enough of carrying a song with their own voice. These singers despite defining the voice of these songs were hidden from the public and not credited anywhere in the movie or on the soundtrack.
The most notable example of this in West Side Story is legendary ghost singer Marni Nixon dubbing Natalie Wood’s voice. Wood had recorded her vocals for the songs and despite finding the songs to be complicated for her voice felt she did well. Wood was assured by the studio that her tracks would be used in the movie. So when Wood learned her tracks were discarded and Nixon would be dubbing her singing after filming was done she understandably felt angry and betrayed about the decision. In a CBS interview, Nixon pointed out how hard it was to sing over Natalie Wood’s voice trying to match her singing with Wood’s movements on screen. Nixon had already dubbed the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in 1956’s The King and I and would later dub Audrey Hepburn’s voice in 1964’s My Fair Lady.
For the other actors, Jimmy Bryant dubbed the voice of Richard Beymer, who plays Tony, through every song. Tucker Smith, who plays Jet member Ice, dubbed Rus Tamblyn’s voice on “Jet Song.” Betty Wand dubbed Rita Moreno’s voice on “A Boy Like That” due to Moreno’s voice being too low for the song.
There’s a clip I found on YouTube showing “I Feel Pretty” and “Jet Song” as sung by Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn respectively and listening to it I can see why United Artists got someone else to sing their parts. Both of their voices are too small and weak to carry the majestic and sweeping nature that these songs require. It’s clear from the video that both actors don’t have singing voices trained enough for a big scale musical.
If there’s a weak part of the soundtrack and the film, in general, it is the songs about Tony and Maria. There are genuine head-scratching moments in the film like how Maria takes little time to forgive Tony, a guy she barely knows, for killing her brother but the bigger problem is that both the actors and singers just don’t convey the feeling of being in love. They don’t feel believable as a couple for me which is not a good thing for a musical.
Specifically, Jimmy Bryant’s singing as Tony comes across as a bland ‘50s/early ‘60s crooner type especially on “Maria” which easily sounds like your typical drippy pop ballad of the time. Elvis Presley was originally sought for the role of Tony but his infamous manager Col. Tom Parker likes saying no to everything. Singing wise, Elvis would have been undoubtedly better as Tony with the legendary charismatic style he brought to everything. Just his presence alone would have been an improvement over what we wound up with.
Looking at the albums West Side Story was competing with in 1962 and 1963, you can start to see the major shift that would define the ‘60s in the public imagination. The big albums of 1962 continue on the Broadway/movie musical trend that had been going on for a while with other big albums including soundtracks to movies like Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Elvis’ own Blue Hawaii at #2 and #3 respectively. Further down, there’s the West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast Recording) at #4, likely given a boost from the film’s popularity, and 1960’s best-seller The Sound of Music (Original Broadway Cast Recording) at #5.
Compare that to 1963 where under West Side Story, the next three albums are all folk albums by the big rising folk acts of the time. Peter, Paul & Mary had an especially big year with their self-titled debut album and its follow-up Moving as the #2 and #3 album of 1963 respectively. Just under that at #4 was Joan Baez’s live album, Joan Baez in Concert. This was at the moment when the counterculture started to rise in the mainstream culture defining the various social movements of the ‘60s. Acts like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary would become the soundtrack of the counterculture to the baby boomer generation. The success of these albums almost acts like an early indicator that the old way of hit albums was at its last legs with a new generation of music buyers ready to have their music be heard.
Not that it would happen right away, as shown by the #5 album of 1963 being crooner Tony Bennett’s I Left My Heart In San Francisco. Old-time Broadway and movie musical soundtracks will still show up for the next couple of posts so the older generations still had power for a little while longer before the baby boomers began to make their presence known in their album buying.
Almost six decades later, it feels pointless to be giving any real opinion on West Side Story. Everyone knows the movie and how much of a classic it is. We all know the songs and sing them. There are aspects of the movie that haven’t aged well most obviously the brownface as well as an attempted rape scene and lyrics like hoping Puerto Rico sinks beneath the ocean in “America” which considering the island’s problems today seems like a very insensitive thing to say. But despite all that, as the recent Broadway revival and upcoming movie remake prove, West Side Story and its songs still manage to electrify us in 2020 as it did in the early ‘60s.
Next time: Beatlemania wasn’t the only mania sweeping America in 1964. A month before teenagers went crazy over the Fab Four, a new musical, Hello, Dolly!, opened on Broadway which spawned its own mania that even went toe to toe with the Beatles on the charts.