Movie musicals aren’t a good bet to win best picture Oscars these days, but that wasn’t the case on Apr. 9, 1962, when WEST SIDE STORY took home 10 Oscars, including best picture & directing.
60 years ago, Academy members didn’t frown on honouring musicals. Still, today musicals, sci-fi, comedies & superheroes are all genres Academy voters are said to consider less worthy than dramas for best picture applause. But in 1962, when United Artists & The Mirisch Corp.’s WEST SIDE STORY hit the Oscar jackpot, Academy voters liked musicals. In fact, they’d been celebrating them almost since the Oscars began.
At the 2nd Annual Academy Awards in 1930, MGM‘s musical THE BROADWAY MELODY won the best picture. Since then, best picture Oscars have also gone to the musicals THE GREAT ZIEGFELD in 1937, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS in 1952, GIGI in 1959, MY FAIR LADY in 1965, THE SOUND OF MUSIC in 1966, AMADEUS in 1985 & CHICAGO in 2003.
The 1957 Broadway musical WEST SIDE STORY was conceived by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Directed & choreographed by Robbins, it played 732 performances and was nominated for six Tony Awards — winning for choreography & scenic design but losing Best Musical to THE MUSIC MAN.
The play started out as “East Side Story,” a romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl. That plot, however, recalled the legendary 1922 hit “Abie’s Irish Rose,” so it was changed to reflect NY’s Puerto Rican immigration boom in the late ’40s and ’50s. By the time it opened on Sept. 26, 1957, at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, it had been retitled WEST SIDE STORY.
Robbins insisted on directing when The Mirisch Corp set out to turn it into a film starring Natalie Wood as Maria. Mirisch was concerned because Robbins hadn’t done a film before, so they signed Robert Wise to direct the story while Robbins directed the musical numbers. Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ 1941 classic CITIZEN KANE, had directed such films as 1951’s THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE. After production began in August 1960, Robbins shot so many musical scenes takes that WEST SIDE STORY was soon over budget and behind schedule.
Robbins was dropped quickly, and Wise completed the film as its sole director. Fortunately, all the dance numbers that still needed to be shot had already been rehearsed and choreographed by Robbins. Wise brought WEST SIDE STORY in on schedule for $6M. It wound up grossing $44M, which would be about $400M today.
Tony: “Tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night; tonight, there will be no morning star…Tonight, tonight, I’ll see my love tonight, and for us, stars will stop where they are…”
Maria: “Today, the minutes seem like hours, the hours go so slowly, and still the sky is light…Oh, moon glows bright, and make this endless day endless night…”