NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The film version of the acclaimed Broadway musical "West Side Story" turns 50 tomorrow. The production set "Romeo and Juliet" against the backdrop of 1950s New York and told the story of Tony and Maria, two young people from feuding communities who fell very madly in love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONIGHT")
MARNI NIXON: (As Maria) (singing) Tonight, tonight, it all began tonight. I saw you and the world went away. Tonight, tonight, there's only you tonight. What you are, what you do, what you say.
JIMMY BRYANT: (as Tony) (singing) Today, all day I had the feeling a miracle would happen...
CONAN: The musical was not always set on the West Side and was not always a smash hit. For many, the story of romance, racial prejudice and heart-breaking tragedy holds up as well today as it did five decades ago. What do you think? Does the film still hold up? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson on "The End Of Sparta." But first, "West Side Story." In a few minutes we'll talk with two of the film's award-winning stars, George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, but we begin with Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson, who joins us from member station KUOW. She's the author of "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination." Nice to have you with us today.
MISHA BERSON: My pleasure.
CONAN: And I understand if things had gone differently this could have been "East Side Story."
BERSON: Yes. Originally, when Leonard Bernstein, the composer, and Arthur Laurents, the writer, got together and started thinking about this, they originally thought the best thing to do would be to make it about Italian Catholic kids and Jewish kids in the lower East Side. And they and Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer, spent quite a lot of time working on this version, which would have been called "East Side Story."
CONAN: So it would have been a very different show completely.
BERSON: Completely. And I think they made the right decision, obviously. But after they tried a bunch of scenes they had outlined, they really went, you know, fairly far in that direction, they just realized that this was not - this just wasn't current enough. It wasn't fresh enough and they dropped it. And they went on the hiatus from this idea and years passed before they came back to it and made the decision to reset it among Puerto Rican kids and Anglo kids on the Upper West Side.
CONAN: And interesting, you mentioned a few of the luminaries who were involved in the production, a young Stephen Sondheim brought in to write lyrics.
BERSON: That's right. Well, originally, Leonard Bernstein was going to write both the lyrics and also the music. Well, Leonard Bernstein, during this period, and I should say there's about nine years there from the beginning of this idea until the fruition, he was a little busy. He was conductor for the New York Philharmonic. He was doing television shows. He was writing the music for "Candide," a very ambitious musical. And he was kind of a superman. But at a certain point, he had to say, wait a minute. I can't handle it all.
And they looked for a lyricist. They considered a number of people and Arthur Laurents knew Sondheim. And even though Sondheim had never done a Broadway show and he was much younger than his colleagues, he got the job and it was obviously a great fit.
CONAN: And the resetting finally opens on Broadway. Of course, like every Broadway musical, it's got its funding problems and the stories of what went wrong during rehearsals and everything else. But it took the critics by storm when it opened in 1957.
BERSON: Well, it was completely fresh. I mean, there really are so many innovations in "West Side Story" in terms of Broadway musical that you could go on and on about it. There had never been a romantic Broadway musical where the three main male characters wound up dead. This was really a musical tragedy. That was one thing. Another thing was that the music was very jarring. It was very modernist, quite different than the usual tune-some Broadway show.
And the show was about bigotry and about young people. This was really the first show, first Broadway show, that was about teenage angst.
CONAN: We're talking with Misha Berson of the Seattle Times where she's an award-winning theater critic. She's also the author of "Something Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination." We want to hear from you. Does the film - film version opens, what, 50 ago years tomorrow, does it still hold up? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's begin with Martha. Martha with us from Jacksonville in Florida.
MARTHA: Hi. Yes, I think it held up extremely well. I have never seen the movie. I saw it over the weekend. It was part of the Jacksonville Film Festival and they were commemorating the 50th anniversary. Even though I was 10 or 11 when the movie came out and had read the score, you know, the screenplay a couple of times, knew all the songs, I had never seen the movie. And I was blown away. Even now, I was absolutely blown away. There's still so much prejudice, ethnic, racial, what have you in the world.
I don't think that this story will ever fade away and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it.
CONAN: And if there's one scene in the movie that particularly gripped you, what was it?
MARTHA: Oh, my. Well, of course, the ending. That was a tear-jerker. Be sure and take some Kleenex because it's just - it's tragic. It's a tragic love story. It's a tragic story of misunderstanding.
CONAN: After 50 years, we can give away the ending.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTHA: We all know the ending.
BERSON: Well, the appeal - I should say that the appeal of this story is very much the appeal of the great play it's based on, "Romeo and Juliet." In fact, the writer, Arthur Laurents, really took a lot of plot points from "Romeo and Juliet." But this - in "Romeo and Juliet," there were these warring houses. You never understood what the feud was between the Montagues and the Capulets. In "West Side Story," it's very clear that it's these poor, white gang members versus these young, immigrant Puerto Rican - or I should say, they were, of course, United States citizens, but these newcomers to New York. So it gives it an extra modernity that really still, unfortunately, still rings true.
CONAN: Well, Martha, thanks for the call and good luck on your discovery over the weekend.
MARTHA: Sure. Thank you.
CONAN: George Chakiris won an Oscar in the film for his role as Bernardo the leader of the Sharks. And when Bernardo's sister, Maria, starts dating Tony, a member of the Jets, a showdown ensues.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")
RUSS TAMBLYN: (as Riff) We challenge you to a rumble. All out, once and for all. Accept?
GEORGE CHAKIRIS: (as Bernardo) On what terms?
TAMBLYN: (as Riff) Whatever terms you're calling. You crossed the line once too often.
CHAKIRIS: (as Bernardo) You started it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Riff) Who jumped Baby John this afternoon?
CHAKIRIS: (as Bernardo) Who jumped me the first day I moved here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Action) Who asked you to move here?
CHAKIRIS: (as Bernardo) Who asked you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Go back where you came from.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Spics.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Mick.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Wops.
CONAN: That kind of language rarely used in productions at that time, another element of the show that pushed conventional boundaries. George Chakiris now joins us to talk more about the film and his role in it. He's at our studios at NPR West. Nice to have you with us today.
CHAKIRIS: Hello, there.
CONAN: Hi, there and welcome to the program.
CHAKIRIS: Thank you very much.
CONAN: It's hard to believe it's 50 years.
CHAKIRIS: It is hard to believe. This feels like it's a - it was yesterday, actually, yeah.
CONAN: And we should point out that, I think, in the London production, you were on the other team. You've played Sharks and Jets.
CHAKIRIS: Well, I - in London, I played the role of Riff, the leader of the Jets. That was my first experience of "West Side Story," and working for Jerry Robbins as well. But it was an incredible, incredible time. And by the way, it took London by storm, as well.
CONAN: And what was it that you think appealed to people in London about it? There was so much in New York, set on Broadway. Sure. But London?
CHAKIRIS: Well, you know that was such an incredibly rich time in British theatrical experience. The Royal Court Theatre, Lindsay Anderson, all these - Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney were just about to burst on the scene, so it was just a very rich, rich time in London and they had never seen anything like "West Side," just as they hadn't in New York, either. So it just was the theatrical experience, I'm sure, much more than that, it was something just so exciting and they kept coming back. Princess Margaret came to see the show many times, as well. It was just an exciting, unique theatrical experience, to just put it mildly.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Ivan. Ivan calling us from Little Rock.
IVAN: Hello. Yes. I just wanted to say I know musical theater as well as anyone in this country. I have my father's old records from '20s, '30s, '40s and I was an actor. I was Tony years ago. Almost did it on Broadway in the revival in the '80s. Not quite. I've seen every musical since then. I still consider it in the top three with "Guys and Dolls" and "Carousel."
CONAN: And what part - you said you were almost Tony on Broadway and we're sorry you didn't make it, but what part of the show works most for you as somebody who's performed in it?
IVAN: Oh, well, as a singer, it's perfection. I mean, there's not a bad note in it. It lies well if you're of that voice. The duets with Maria are unlike anything I've ever done in operetta. And it is so close to operetta, I did want to say one thing. I think you know that - you may not know - Sondheim was not proud of those lyrics. He was such a young man, I think he was embarrassed by the lyrics to "Maria," for example.
And his later shows were much better, but those guys were geniuses. And add in the fact that they were all gay. I love the fact that it's such a great love story. Arthur Laurents - they were all homosexuals and to have written such a wonderful heterosexual story, I think, is an added - I don't know - extraordinary feature of the show.
I just still love it. I still listen to the old LP. No one's topped it. Sondheim hasn't topped it since. He lost - he didn't have a collaborator.
CONAN: I think "I Feel Pretty" was the particular lyric in which he's expressed some regrets, Misha Berson.
BERSON: I just want to say here that the men involved - at least two of them were bisexual and had relationships with women, so just to be a little careful about that historically.
But there were two songs that Sondheim in his recent book talked about being very proud of and he was proud of being part of this show. This was an incredible education for him. It just absolutely vaulted him onto Broadway. And two songs that he says he loves the lyrics for are "Something's Coming," my personal favorite, and "The Jet Song."
CONAN: Well, more about that in a bit. Misha Berson is with us from KUOW, our member station in Seattle. Also with us, George Chakiris. When we come back, his girlfriend in the film, Rita Moreno, will join us. She played Anita in the film. We'll reunite the two of them when we come back and more of your calls. Does "West Side Story" still hold up? I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The film version of "West Side Story" premiered in New York City on October 18, 1961, 50 years ago tomorrow. Our question to you today: does the movie still hold up? 800-989-8255. Email TALK@NPR.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at NPR.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Seattle Times critic, Misha Berson, and George Chakiris, who played Bernardo in the film. His girlfriend in the film, Anita, was played by Rita Moreno. The two of them share the screen in one of the film's most memorable songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")
RITA MORENO: (As Anita) (Singing) I like to be in America. Okay by me in America. Everything free in America.
CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) (Singing) For a small fee in America.
MORENO: (As Anita) (Singing) Buying on credit is so nice.
CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) (Singing) One look at us and they charge twice.
MORENO: (As Anita) (Singing) I have my own washing machine.
CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) (Singing) What will you have, though, to keep clean?
CONAN: Rita Moreno joins us now from her home in Berkeley Hills, California. Her new show, "Life Without Makeup," is playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through the end of the month. And nice to have you with us today.
MORENO: Oh, I'm delighted. I'm such a fan of yours.
CONAN: Oh, well, thank you very much for that.
MORENO: I listen to you almost every day.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much, Rita Moreno. That's an endorsement I'll treasure.
MORENO: It's definitely an endorsement.
CONAN: After 50 years, what do you still think of the movie?
MORENO: I think it's a treasure. You know, there's one thing about it that's dated and it's a lot of the dialogue. I talk about that in my play because there are some things that are kind of hilarious like who in their right minds in the ghetto would say things like, hey, daddio, cut the frabba jabba?
CONAN: I'm not sure anybody said it then, either.
MORENO: Exactly, exactly. I think some of that stuff was - the gang dialogue was dated before we even did the film. In any event, that really is neither here nor there because I do think it's held up rather well and, you know, how can you question whether "Romeo and Juliet" holds up? I do understand that the dialog there was infinitely more beautiful and lyrical. Nevertheless, I think the concept of doing a musical about that and putting it into the 20th century was just brilliant.
CONAN: George Chakiris, as you know, is also with us and I wonder...
MORENO: No. Hi, George.
CHAKIRIS: Hi, Rita. How are you?
CHAKIRIS: I'm coming up to see you.
MORENO: Oh, when?
CHAKIRIS: Well, I don't know yet. Maybe next week, hopefully.
MORENO: Okay. I just thought I'd get you on the air and force you to come.
CHAKIRIS: Oh, you don't have to force me. I'm coming.
CONAN: There's one sale you've made.
MORENO: So what can we tell you?
CONAN: Well, I wonder, what was it like playing with him on the movie set?
MORENO: With George?
MORENO: Oh, God, we had so much fun.
CHAKIRIS: We did.
MORENO: We laughed and laughed and laughed and when I laugh really, really hard, I wet my knickers and I was constantly changing my hose.
CHAKIRIS: I remember that.
MORENO: And we had the best fun. There were a little mafia group. It was myself and George and a terrific dancer-actress named Yvonne Othon and we used to hang out together and just laugh.
MORENO: And I think most dancers do that because they work so bloody hard that the only way to live through some of the physical torture was just to, you know, employ your sense of humor.
CHAKIRIS: Yeah. Well, I've always thought dancers, because of the hard work that they have to endure in their training and so on, they always have great senses of humor because it's the only way to get through it, as you're saying.
CONAN: And Misha Berson, as we hear the songs and we're talking about the dialogue, a lot of this was dance.
BERSON: Yeah. And I think the great innovation there was there had been musicals where people like Agnes de Mille and George Balanchine had done these kind of story ballets in the middle of the musical, but a lot of the story of this musical is told through dance and Robbins was just a genius at that. That long sequence at the beginning, which was really hell to film - I'm sure George Chakiris has many memories of that.
MORENO: So long. So long. Yeah.
BERSON: It was twice as long as it was onstage and, for me, if the film had just been that, it would have been great, so but - yeah. He used dance in a very narrative way and all the parts...
MORENO: You know what's really interesting, too...
MORENO: ...in line with that is that he actually choreographed for character. The steps he would give to Anita, for instance, my character, would not be good on anybody else in the play or in the film. They were specifically - very specifically Anita steps, as George Chakiris playing Bernardo had steps that were very specifically for his character, which I think is just extraordinary.
CHAKIRIS: Well, and also this idea of narrative is absolutely true. In the usual, you know, Hollywood movie musical that I love very much, very often, in fact, most of the time, the plot would come to a certain point. Then they would do a musical number and then the plot would pick up where they left off.
CHAKIRIS: And what Jerry does - it's true.
MORENO: MGM musicals, but you know, and George, tell them. There used to be a young chorus boy in a lot of those MGM films.
CHAKIRIS: Oh, yes. I did all of that, too, but again...
BERSON: "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," right? I've spotted you in that one.
CHAKIRIS: Oh, yes. Yes. One of my favorite credits is saying I was on the set with Marilyn Monroe, but - yeah. The narrative thing - every - I don't like to say dance number. Every musical sequence, whether it was through movement or through song, advances the story. The story keeps moving along with everything and so you're on this perpetual ride.
CONAN: Let's get Steven(ph) on the line. Steven's calling us from Duluth.
CONAN: Hi, Steven. You're on the air.
STEVEN: Hi. Number one, it's really a pleasure to talk to you. I'm a huge fan of the movie and the show, so thank you for your contributions. Second, I would say the thing that makes it modern for me - I'm a performance major - a graduate vocal performance major in university right now and I've performed in "West Side Story."
What makes it so modern for me is the rhythm, actually, the mixed meter in some of the numbers. I'm specifically thinking some of it is "Dance at the Gym" and then possibly the rooftop dance when they're going in those different time signatures. It's very, very difficult to do and I recall my director at one point saying that, you know, originally, people had sort of struck out against it. They thought it was too hard to sing and to dance to, so that's definitely what makes it for me.
MORENO: Yeah. I'm so glad you brought that up because I remember that, after the film came out, for some - God knows what kind of reason. Bing Crosby, who had a special on TV every now and then decided - hard to believe - decided to sing "America" and this is the time meter he used.
(Singing) I like to be in America. Okay by me in America.
And I went, no.
CHAKIRIS: Doesn't sound like a good marriage, does it?
MORENO: What are you doing to this song? In fact, I can't remember. Is that six-eight time, George?
CHAKIRIS: I'm sorry.
BERSON: It's written in two times or...
MORENO: Is that six-eight time?
BERSON: I believe it's in...
STEVEN: I believe it's in 12-8, but it alternates between compound and simple time, so it has...
STEVEN: ...two beats in compound time and then three smaller beats in simple.
MORENO: And you think that's complicated. What about the rumble? That was insane. The counts. The musical counts.
STEVEN: Oh, that was very difficult.
MORENO: I don't want to throw off the audience because this is very complicated stuff, but that was really difficult.
CONAN: Steven, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
STEVEN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: There were those complicated tunes and then there were - well, ones that had a different function in the show. For example, this is any good gang in a musical. The Jets have their own theme.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JET SONG")
TUCKER SMITH: (As Riff) (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day. When you're a Jet, let them do what they can. You've got brothers around. You're a family, man.
CONAN: And George Chakiris, that tune and I guess there was "Officer Krupke," too. Those are different.
CHAKIRIS: Well, the "Jet Song" is the same. Krupke is different in Russ - I'm sorry. Because that was just Russ Tamblyn that we...
CHAKIRIS: ...heard. Actually, Tucker Smith that we heard, but it was Riff who sings that, of course, in the theatre version, the "Jet Song." And also, he sang, "Cool." He was not in "Officer Krupke" in the theater version. The film version is altered in a fantastic way by a beautiful screenplay by Ernest Lehman because "Officer Krupke" comes before "The Rumble" and not after, so I'm sorry. I may not be answering your question, but it's structured differently and, again, in the theater version, it was Riff who sang "Cool" and in the film version, it is the character Ice, incredibly played by Tucker Smith, so is that any help or not?
CONAN: Well, we'll move on at any...
MORENO: I'd like to add that...
CHAKIRIS: Yeah, move on.
MORENO: ...the role of Ice was not - didn't even exist in the play. He added it for the film.
CHAKIRIS: That's right.
BERSON: Sergeant Krupke was fascinating because they had to change a few words. I don't know what I can say on the air, but some of the things they change, like, there was a line about my grandma pushes tea, which, of course, was marijuana, and they had to change that, which...
CONAN: Just for the film version, though.
BERSON: I just want to say one thing about the, you know, kind of made-up slang. One of the reasons for that, whether it was successful or not, is that they could not swear at all on stage then. I mean, when you think about it, in 1957, forget about nudity. You couldn't even say, you know, damn, hell - all kinds of words that young people would say to each other. So Arthur Laurents had to kind of invent some.
CONAN: Here's an...
MORENO: Well, my personal favorite is the - and there's no excuse for this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORENO: My personal favorite is when the Jets are desperately looking for Tony because he's killed Bernardo. And in the midst of this melee, when they're all desperately trying to find Tony - you take the river, I'll take the park. And one of the tough Jet girls says, I and Graziella will take to the streets. Explain that to me. It's like (unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: All right. Here's an email from Susan in Tulsa: I was in love with George when that movie came out. And my favorite, absolute favorite part of the movie was the opening dance sequence. I saw it so many times I could practically dance it myself. This from Bill in Tallahassee: Thanks to Rita Moreno for the kindness she showed to three Marine officers in 1968 in Puerto Rico. It is a memory I will have forever.
MORENO: Oh, that's very nice. Thank you.
CONAN: And I think this was from - I'm not sure who wrote this, but: I have never met a Puerto Rican who liked West Side Story, with the exception of Rita Moreno. What about that, Rita? Have you ever heard that before?
MORENO: No, that's really interesting because as I understand it, every Latino in the world was thrilled to pieces when I won that Oscar. Maybe I'm not answering the question directly. I've never, ever heard that from - there was one Puerto Rican person I know who was very upset about the film, and that was the mayor at the time of Puerto Rico, Dona Felisa Rincon, and she just thought it was offensive and all that kind of stuff. Other than that, no, I never heard that before.
CONAN: Offensive in the darken skins and the broad accents.
BERSON: I'm sorry?
CONAN: Offensive because - she took offense at the broad Puerto Rican accents and the darkened skin.
MORENO: Well, you know, very likely. I wasn't told about that myself. Again, it's something I cover in my show because there were several things that bothered me as a Hispanic. One, was that we all had to be the same extremely dark color. And I remember asking the makeup man one time why the makeup couldn't match our different skin tones. And he really immediately assumed that, one, I did not want to be Latina and, two, that I was racist. And not every Puerto Rican in the world, in New York, has a Hispanic accent. And I wasn't thrilled about that, but that was Jerry's choice. He wanted the big contrast between the Jets and the Sharks, and he actually had some of the boys in the Jets dye - bleach their hair for the contrast. And they had exceedingly pale makeup.
CONAN: Rita Moreno and George Chakiris both won Oscars for their parts in "West Side Story," which opened 50 years ago tomorrow. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. George, I didn't mean to cut you off.
CHAKIRIS: Oh, no that's OK. It's all right.
CONAN: It's OK. But...
BERSON: Yeah. I was going to say there's a chapter in my book about bigotry in "West Side Story." And it's kind of ironic that since the musical, some Latino academics have taken some exception with it, mainly because they felt that it showed just, you know, one very tiny aspect of Puerto Rican life. And this is sometimes what happens when there's a first - this was the first time there were any Puerto Rican characters at a Broadway musical. And...
MORENO: I'm glad you brought that up. That's really important. It was a first. And very likely, that's why most Hispanics, including Puerto Ricans, did not complain. They were just so thrilled to be depicted in a film that - in a film where it defended them that I - that's why I really honestly never heard what this person said. And, you know, I'm sure he wasn't telling a tale, but I'm (unintelligible)...
CHAKIRIS: I never heard anything like that. I remember - Rita, I don't know if I was with you or not. I think I was not. But one of those things where UA sent us to another country - Spain, which of course is a Spanish-speaking country. And they - for years, by the way, everybody thought I was Puerto Rican. I mean, they just presumed I was Puerto Rican. But the - in Spain, it had been playing for a few years in the same theater just as it done in Paris on the Champs-Elysees for five years. But they...
MORENO: That's right.
CHAKIRIS: ...absolutely loved it. No one was offended. And I never heard that ever, ever, ever.
BERSON: I know. That's the first time for me. And again, I don't know what this person said. He may have run into a passel of Puerto Ricans who were not happy about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Marcy(ph), Marcy with us from Oakland.
MARCY: Oh, hello. Thank you for taking my call. And, Rita and George, thank you so much for that movie. I was 16 years old the first time I saw it. By now, I must have seen you about 40 times. When I first called, the woman who screened me said I should say what doesn't hold up. And the only thing I felt for years now that didn't hold up as well as some of the love scenes, the getting married in the shop, and the - even the "Tonight, Tonight" scene. But the rest of the movie - oh, my favorite is "America." My favorite is the two of you dancing. Ah.
MORENO: Thank you.
CHAKIRIS: Thank you.
MORENO: I have to say, though, that I love the lyrical qualities of the wedding in the shop.
MARCY: Well, I like the song. I do love the song, and I play the album all the time. I'm going to watch this tomorrow. I'm declaring tomorrow a national holiday.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARCY: It's an amazing movie.
CONAN: Marcy, thanks very much. We will celebrate with you.
MARCY: Thank you.
CHAKIRIS: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And thank you so much, both of you, for being with us today. It's such a pleasure to talk to you.
MORENO: Well, I'm delighted.
CHAKIRIS: Thank you very much.
MORENO: Thanks again for your interest. Bye-bye.
CHAKIRIS: Yeah. Absolutely.
CONAN: Rita Moreno, who joined us from Berkeley, California, where she's currently appearing in a one-woman show, "Life Without Makeup," where she - which she's playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And George Chakiris joined us from NPR West. Thank you very much, George.
CHAKIRIS: Yeah. Thank you.
CONAN: Also thanks to Misha Berson, award-winning theater critic for the Seattle Times. Her new book is "Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination." She was with us from KUOW, our member station in Seattle.
Up next, historian Victor Davis Hanson takes a plunge into fiction. He will join us next to talk about "The End of Sparta." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Fifty years ago, the film version of the acclaimed Broadway musical premiered in theaters across the country. Two of the film's stars — Rita Moreno and George Chakiris — and theater critic Misha Berson join NPR's Neal Conan to discuss the movie's legacy.
George Chakiris (left) and Rita Moreno (center) play the couple Anita and Bernardo in 1961's West Side Story.
United Artists / Courtesy American Film Institute
Fifty years ago, the film version of the acclaimed Broadway musical West Side Story premiered in theaters across the country. Like the original production, the film set Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of 1950s New York, and for many the story holds up just as well today as it did five decades ago.
Two of the film's stars — Rita Moreno, who played Anita, and George Chakiris, who played Bernardo — join NPR's Neal Conan to talk about the film's enduring meaning. Theater critic Misha Berson, author of Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, also joins the conversation to discuss the musical's evolution and its lasting influence on musical theater and pop culture.
On why it could only be West Side Story, not East Side Story
Berson: "Originally, when Leonard Bernstein, the composer, and Arthur Laurents, the writer, got together and started thinking about this, they originally thought the best thing to do would be to make it about Italian Catholic kids and Jewish kids in the Lower East Side. And they and Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer, spent quite a lot of time working on this version, which would have been called East Side Story.
"But after they tried a bunch of scenes they had outlined — they really went fairly far in that direction — they just realized that this ... wasn't current enough. It wasn't fresh enough, and they dropped it. And they went on [a] hiatus from this idea and years passed before they came back to it and made the decision to reset it among Puerto Rican kids and Anglo kids on the Upper West Side."
On why the musical was ultimately a success
Berson: "There really are so many innovations in West Side Story in terms of [the] Broadway musical that you could go on and on about it. There had never been a romantic Broadway musical where the three main male characters wound up dead. This was really a musical tragedy. That was one thing. Another thing was that the music was very jarring. It was very modernist, quite different than the usual ... Broadway show.
"And the show was about bigotry and about young people. This was really the first show, first Broadway show, that was about teenage angst."
On the movie's timelessness
Berson: "The appeal of this story is very much the appeal of the great play it's based on, Romeo and Juliet. In fact, the writer, Arthur Laurents, really took a lot of plot points from Romeo and Juliet. But ... in Romeo and Juliet, there were these warring houses. You never understood what the feud was between the Montagues and the Capulets. In West Side Story, it's very clear that it's these poor, white gang members versus these young, immigrant Puerto Rican[s] — or I should say, they were, of course, United States citizens, but these newcomers to New York. So it gives it an extra modernity that really still, unfortunately, still rings true."
On what hasn't aged well — the dialogue
Moreno: "There are some things that are kind of hilarious, like who in their right minds in the ghetto would say things like, 'Hey daddio, cut the frabba jabba'? ...
"I think some of ... the gang dialogue was dated before we even did the film. In any event, that really is neither here nor there, because I do think it's held up rather well and, you know, how can you question whether Romeo and Juliet holds up? I do understand that the dialogue there was infinitely more beautiful and lyrical. Nevertheless, I think the concept of doing a musical about that and putting it into the 20th century was just brilliant."
On how the choreography advanced the story
Berson: "A lot of the story of this musical is told through dance, and Robbins was just a genius at that. ... He used dance in a very narrative way."
Moreno: "The steps he would give to Anita, for instance, my character, would not be good on anybody else in the play or in the film. They were specifically, very specifically, Anita steps, as George Chakiris playing Bernardo had steps that were very specifically for his character, which I think is just extraordinary."
Chakiris: "This idea of narrative is absolutely true. In the usual Hollywood movie musical that I love very much, very often — in fact, most of the time — the plot would come to a certain point, then they would do a musical number, and then the plot would pick up where they left off."
On the movie's broad Puerto Rican accents and dark makeup
Moreno: "There were several things that bothered me as a Hispanic. One was that we all had to be the same extremely dark color. And I remember asking the makeup man one time why the makeup couldn't match our different skin tones. And he really immediately assumed that, one, I did not want to be Latina and, two, that I was racist.
"And not every Puerto Rican in the world, in New York, has a Hispanic accent. And I wasn't thrilled about that, but that was [Jerome Robbins'] choice. He wanted the big contrast between the Jets and the Sharks, and he actually had some of the boys in the Jets dye — bleach — their hair for the contrast. And they had exceedingly pale makeup."