When it comes to movie musicals, some directors are auteurs and others are doers. In the former category are the likes of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, who put their stamp on their material. Films by Minnelli, in particular, are so his and his alone that you cannot mistake his stamp—and even when he made a drama, it felt and look like a musical (cf. the overheated emotions and choreographed camera work of The Bad and the Beautiful and Some Came Running, or the balletic precision of the sublime Kay Kendall’s body language in The Reluctant Debutante).
In the latter category is Robert Wise, who made West Side Stories, The Sound of Music and Star!, among other films. Wise was a typical product of the old studio system; like directors such as Raoul Walsh, he was a master craftsman who could step up to a higher level of artistry when he connected with one of scripts that were sent his way. Was it the case with West Side Story?Let’s not bother with suspense: As good as it is, I don’t think the film version of West Side Story is the work of an auteur. Rather, it’s the sum of genius parts, added up by a really, really competent guy—but then undermined by the studio system. A real auteur may have been strong enough, willful enough to stand up to the kind of Hollywood tampering that defanged so many Broadway shows on their way to the screen before and after West Side Story.
Sure, it’s amazing how iconic the film remains, from a score loaded with more nuggets than a Christmas fruitcake to Saul Bass‘s red-and-black poster and the finger snaps and leaps devised by choreographer Jerome Robbins, who actually was credited as co-director and ended up sharing an Oscar with Wise. It is also New York in a bottle, even though it was mostly filmed in L.A.—a major exception being the opening dance sequence, which was shot in a neighborhood in the throes of gentrification, since the buildings were about to be bulldozed to make way for Lincoln Center.
But…casting non-singing actors in key parts meant that they had to be dubbed (Marni Nixon subbed for Natalie Wood in the songs, just as she did for Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady), detracting from the overall impact of their performance—sorry, but I’m a snob that way. (Wouldn’t Chicago have been a gazillion times better if Toni Collette had not been lost the part of Roxie Hart to the more bankable Renee Zellweger?)
There were also several minute changes in the WSS lyrics in order to make them more palatable for Hollywood, which has always been more stuck-up than Broadway. For instance, Anita went from singing “He’ll walk in hot and tired./So what?/No matter if he’s tired/As long as he’s hot” in the stage version to “He’ll walk in hot and tired./Poor dear/No matter if he’s tired/As long as he’s here” in the film. (Of course, for some of us the real transition was from stage to Cher.)
Coincidentally, I saw a revival of Rodgers and Hart’s 1940 show Pal Joey over the weekend, and a similar whitewashing was done in the 1957 film: Not only were all the sexual single-entendres dispensed with, but the movie made Joey—an ambitious schemer and cad—much more sympathetic, and made the ending a happy one, which is akin to having Anna Karenina get on the train instead of being crushed by it.