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West Side Story Memories:

Posted by Sirena West on November 1, 2013 at 2:40 AM

West Side Story Memories: 

Fighting over a little pieceof street………..Filming a Hit in Its Habitat

Tothe Jets, a self-made family of disenfranchisedyoung men, their turf was something they fought hard for and they were notgoing give it up.  Not to the Emeralds,not to the Hawks, and for sure, not to the Sharks.  And nothing could possibly prepare the movieaudience for such passion and plot development as the opening prologue; abreathtaking aerial shot of Manhattan from a bird's eye view capturing the citywith its bridge traffic and highway ramps, its waterfront docks, parks andskyscrapers. The camera continues to pass over recognizable landmarks as itmoves steadily to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and then speedily zoomsdown and plunges into a concrete playground, a little piece of street occupiedby the Jets, clicking their fingers to the syncopated rhythm of the musicalscore.

Alongwith the dancing and music, the New York filming, has  received its share of accolades and much ofthe credit can go to Robert Wise, co-director and producer, who fought hard forthe NY location shots, as he felt gritty urban reality could not be recreatedon a  Hollywood back lot.

The exterior locations of the prologue included four blocks that were to be torndown that summer of 1960, to make room for the Lincoln Center.  A deal was made with the contractors, tostart on West Sixty-fourth instead of West Sixty-first.  But it did not have playground.  So they went to East 110th Street in a PuertoRican neighborhood.

 Co-director,Jerome Robbins complained that he had been given the difficult task of puttingthe most stylized dancing in the most realistic set.  He was worried that the stylized dancing inthis most realistic of urban settings would not go over well with the audience.  According to Tony Mordente, they rehearsedthe prologue for months in Hollywood, but once they reached NY, it changeddaily.  Eventually this dazzling sequencebegan with Jets moving slowly, moving a shoulder here and snapping a fingerthere.  It increased in energy as theJets stepped out of formation and spread their arms declaring the turf astheirs.   In time, the Jets broke outinto a highly-stylized dance and then burst into a daring, high-steppingsequence - an exhilarating, inventive, visual ballet of pirouettes, vigorousathletic moves, and running jumps that symbolizes their dominance and energy -they are readying themselves for a gang brawl.

Davidand some of the other Jets recall the camera following the Jets completely downthe street for a few takes.   Then thedance would be broken up and filmed at different angles.  Per Russ Tamblyn, both Robbins and Wise lovedangles and ended up producing scenes that were considered quite innovated for its day. 

Inclassic irony, the anthem of the Jets’ supremacy, the Jet Song, was performed in the heart of this Puerto Ricanneighborhood.  During the filming, theJets lip synched to a previously made recording that was quite audible to theneighborhood residence.  One day, one ofthe locals approached the directors and suggested that they turn down thevolume during the Every Puerto Rican is a………” line.  The directors agreed itwas an excellent idea and did so.  

Whilethe Hollywood moguls were fretting over the extended time and budget that wasbeing spent in New York, David and the other young actors loved being there. 

Itis common knowledge that Robbins kept the two gangs apart and encouraged asense of rivalry and competition between them.  This, of course, only fuel their youthful creativity and the Jets took toproclaiming Jets Are the Greatest onpaper and sheets and leaving them all over the location, including tenementsand schools.  They even hung Sharks ineffigy. 

TheSharks did get the last laugh though, when Robbins choreographed a pouring ofpaint onto the Jets in the opening sequence. According to David, the concoction that doubled for yellow paint smelledhorrendous and was rather sticky.  Itdidn’t help either that the rest of the cast assembled themselves to get abird’s eye view of this sequence, not to mention a good laugh.

Eventhough David and the other actors loved being in New York, it had itschallenges.  First of all, there was themorning Ballet Bar workout, complete with taskmaster, Robbins on a megaphone. 

Itwas also incredibly hot and dancing on the concrete did not help matters.  As David recalls,

“Oneday, while they were filming in New York, it was an incredibly hot day, withnot a cloud in the sky, and some of the crew was actually frying eggs on thesidewalks. The poor dancers were all using shami cloths from the ice bucket ontheir necks between takes, but, there was little they could do about the heat creepingthrough their sneakers and burning their soles. Out of the blue, Tony daredDavid to call God and order some rain. David dialed on an imaginary phone andwho knows what number he dialed, but he told Tony that God decreed that if theywanted rain, they would have to do a Rain Dance, just like the Indians. So thispuckish pair, recruited all the Jets, and together the young men performed aNative American style Circle dance, complete with whooping sounds. And as thefates would have it, within five minutes, the Jets had their rain, forcing thecancellation of the scheduled outdoor shooting. Co-director Wise was furiousand ordered everyone to a local school hall where he announced everyone couldgo home for the day EXCEPT the Jets, who had to stay and rehearse for the restof the day. Oh, and he also announced that there would be no more RainDances!”  For the record, the Rain Dances continued.

Oncethey returned to Hollywood, they thought there New York days were done.  However, at recent big screening of thisclassic, Russ Tamblyn mentioned that upon completionof the filming , it was discovered that the scene where Anybodys begs to joingang got destroyed, so all the Jets had to return to New York to refilm thatscene. He joked that in a turn of a corner, everyone was now a year older, andthose who  who had been enjoyingthemselves in Hollywood might actually look a year older. Then Russ paused andcommented, “Hell David Winters, with all his fun, had to have looked three orfour years older”. Maybe one day, David will tell us those stories. 

Thank you for help with this feature:

David Winters and Tony Mordente

West Side Story Memories

 

 

 

 

 

 

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