Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (2023)

I was at the original production of "West Side Story."

I can't say that I saw it.

It opened on Broadway Sept. 26, 1957, and I was born eight months later on June 14, 1958.I therefore experienced it in utero —absorbing Leonard Bernstein's nervy music and Jerome Robbins' explosivechoreographythrough the abdominal wall.

Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (1)

It certainly made an impression on my mother. In later years, she talked about how she had never seen anything like it. Nobody had. And the moment she really remembered— the moment that made her cry — was not the tragic finale, where the hero Tony lies dead in the city streets, victim of gang violence. It was not the song "Somewhere," or the shock of the knife fight.

It was a moment late in the first act, when the two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, sing contrapuntally about how they are going to prevail in the coming rumble, while Tony and Mariasing about their newfound love, and Anita sings about theromantic evening ahead.

The feeling of onrushing, tragic destiny was overwhelming, my mother said.The much-lauded 1961 film version, which won 10 Oscars, never came near it, for her.

I wonder what my mother, who died last year, would have thought of Steven Spielberg's new version of "West Side Story," which opened this past weekend — after several years of anticipation — to excellentreviews and pretty dismalbox office numbers ($10.5 million).

Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (2)

Several things could explain thispoor showing — starting with the keyfact that COVID has disrupted ourmoviegoing habits, and made a lotof usnervous aboutbeing in atheater. "West Side Story" will probably fare betterin living rooms than it did in the multiplexes.

But there is another thing. The show "West Side Story," created in 1957 by Bernstein, Robbins, lyricist Stephen Sondheimand playwright Arthur Laurents, may in 2021 be a victim of its own success.

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Job well done

For the record: The lackluster ticket sales are not due to thequality of Spielberg's film.Heturned out an excellent movie. In many ways, an improvement on the 1961 original, which had itsproblems.

Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (3)

The two leading roles, 60 years ago, were grossly miscast: wimpy Richard Beymer, as the former gang member Tony, looks like he could have barely handled a butter knife, let alone a switchblade. As Maria, Natalie Wood— putting aside the fact that she was not Latina, an issue not on the Hollywoodradar in 1961 — was pretty but plastic. Neither did their own singing.Rachel Zegler (originally from Clifton) and Ansel Elgort are a vast improvement.

Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (4)

In general, Spielberg has done a better job of integrating the naturalistic world of the city streets with the stylized world of dance. Thechoreography ofJustin Peck, mostlydazzling,falls short on a couple ofoccasions — "Cool," a high pointof the 1961 film, is a disappointment here — but there are also none of thoseembarrassing moments in the old film where the gang members pirouette like ballerinas before sticking their knives into someone.

The originaldialogue, pretty awful in spots ("cut the frabbajabba!"), is greatly improved by screenwriter Tony Kushner— even ifhis teen gang-bangers do sound at timeslike sociologists, walking us throughthe racial and economic changesintheir city.

Opening up

The two films feel very different. The1961 version — shot on location in west side tenements,soon to be demolished to buildLincoln Center — had a dark, claustrophobic feel. The new version, partly shot in Paterson and Newark, and actually incorporating the building of Lincoln Center into the plot, is more airy and open. The city streetsfeel inhabited. The two lovers are not prisoners of the slums: At one point, they take a subway to The Cloisters.

Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (5)

Possibly, this was a mistake. In the original show and film,the feeling of the walls closing in, of the characters trapped in a grim environment they can't get out of, was part of the urgency. On the upside, Spielberg's take allows for a morevibrant picture of the city, and in particular of the Puerto Rican culture that is starting to add flavor and color to the drab streets.

So why isn't this new "West Side Story" resonating with audiences?

It may simply be that "West Side Story"—so shocking and groundbreaking in 1957, and to movie audiences in 1961 — no longer seems new.

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It cannot be stressed enough how innovative, how stunning, the showseemed to the first audiences — to people like my mother. It was Broadway's Big Bang.

There had been one or two previous Broadway musicals where characters died — considered a daring innovation — but either they were villains ("Oklahoma!") or they were poignant secondary characters ("South Pacific"), and in any case the shows had happy endings. Tragic endings were for opera.

But Act 1 of "West Side Story" ends with two corpses on stage. And thefinal curtain comes down with the hero dead, and his buddies carrying away his lifeless body. Apart from two songs, "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke," there isno humor.

Turning point

People sometimes refer to "Sgt. Pepper" as the album in which rock-and-roll became Rock. "West Side Story" was the show that turned "musical comedy" into The Musical.

It's ironic, by the way, that Steven Spielberg directed the new "West Side Story." In many ways, he owes his career to the old one.

Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (6)

Because of theenormoussuccess of the 1961 film,Hollywood rushed a whole bunch of mammoth, big-budgeted musicals into production.

A couple, like "My Fair Lady" (1964) and "The Sound of Music" (1965), were hits. Most were expensive flops ("Camelot,"1967;"DoctorDolittle," 1967;"Star!" 1968; "Paint Your Wagon," 1969; "Hello, Dolly!" 1969) that came near to bankrupting their studios. In desperation, Hollywood turned to outsiders, young directors who were "in touch." Among them were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas — founding fathers of the New Hollywood.

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Second opinion

Amid the critical raves for the 1961 film,there was one famous dissenting opinion.

Pauline Kael, then an unknown West Coast film critic, eviscerated "West Side Story,"in areview that helped launch her career. She lit intonot only Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, but also the "derivative" Leonard Bernstein music, and the arrogance of the screenwriters who removed "all that cumbersome poetry" from Shakespeare ("West Side Story," it seems obvious, isn't trying to "improve" on "Romeo and Juliet," just echo it).

"How can so many critics have fallen for all this frenzied hokum?" Kael asked.

Surprisingly, she saved her most vicious barbs for Jerome Robbins' "calisthenic" choreography. "It's trying so hard to be great it isn't even good." Within a few years, she predicted, the dances in "West Side Story" would look like "hilariously limited, dated period pieces."

That part, at any rate, she got amazingly wrong. The "West Side Story" brand of choreography was quickly absorbed into the cultural bloodstream.

Today, that athletic, tense, edgy style of dance is everywhere: in musicals, inaward shows, in almost every video Michael Jackson ever made. The new "West Side Story" has a new choreographer, but even he doesn't stray too far from the original.

So maybe that's the problem: "West Side Story," once innovative, is now familiar.

As late as 1972, when the film made its debut on network TV, it still had some of its original impact. I remember the next morning, in school, many of the kids came in snapping their fingers.

Changing times

But musicals with serious themes arenow par for the course. Stephen Sondheim, who did the "West Side Story" lyrics (he died in Novemberat age 91, the last surviving "West Side Story" collaborator), went on to do shows about assassins, French impressionist paintersand a barber who cuts the throats of his victims. There have been plenty of musicals about restless young people ("Rent," "Spring Awakening")andmean streets("In the Heights," "Capeman," "A Bronx Tale").

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As for the violence that so shocked audiences in 1957: In a world of "Saw" and "Kill Bill: Vol. 2," it barely registers. A switchblade fight? Quaint.

It would be hard, in short, for anyone today to come to "West Side Story" with the cleanslate that our parents and grandparents brought to it. When the curtain came down on opening night, 1957, the story goes, the audience was silent. The show's creators, waiting anxiously in the wings, thought they had hatched a turkey.

Why was 'West Side Story' a box office flop? We have a few ideas (7)

Then the wild applause began. The standing ovations. The audience, for a moment, had simply been too stunned to clap.

For its earliest audiences, "West Side Story" was a revelation.

I guess you had to be there. As I was. Sort of.

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access tohis insightfulreports about how you spend your leisure time,please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email:beckerman@northjersey.com

Twitter:@jimbeckerman1

FAQs

What was the main problem in West Side Story? ›

The Conflict in West Side Story is the rivalry between the two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and the developing relationship between Tony of the Jets and Maria of the Sharks. This conflict ends up not being completely resolved. The two rival gangs agree to have a rumble to settle their dispute once and for all.

Is West Side Story a hit or flop? ›

In addition to having to incentivize audiences to attend despite the problematic past of its male lead, West Side Story dealt with a myriad of other factors that led to its weak box office debut. The film grossed only $10.6 million, while needing $300 million to break even.

Why was West Side Story so successful? ›

Arguably, its greatest influence was in the theatricality of its presentation—the seamlessness and cinematic flow of its staging—and the integration of script, song, dance, and set. In its original Broadway run, West Side Story ran for 732 performances—a success, but not a smash hit.

Will West Side Story break even? ›

Given its price tag, industry insiders estimate “West Side Story” needs to generate at least $300 million globally to break even in its theatrical run.

What is controversial about West Side Story? ›

Even with all the representation it brought to minority communities, the new film fell under a wave of controversy when Ansel Elgort, the actor who played Tony, was alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct against a minor named Gabby in 2014.

Why do the Sharks and Jets hate each other? ›

The sharks and the jets are rival gangs fighting for the same territory. Tensions rise as a shark girl named Maria and a Jet named Tony fall for eachother, but there's a problem they can never be allowed to be together. The sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants. A rumble is planned and Maria pleades with Tony to stop it.

Is the new West Side Story better than the original? ›

Spielberg made the right choices to keep his version as close to the original while still changing certain aspects. Ultimately, these choices made Spielberg's West Side Story the best version to date.

Did Ansel Elgort do his own singing in West Side Story? ›

Elgort does his own singing as the boy who just met a girl named Maria, unlike his predecessor, whose vocals were supplied by crooner Jimmy Bryant—a fairly standard bit of movie magic when the studio's desired face didn't match the necessary pipes.

How much did Ansel Elgort make in West Side Story? ›

1/6 Ansel Elgort Has A Very Impressive Net Worth

Ansel reportedly demands about $5 million per big-budget film appearance. However, he reportedly settled for significantly less than $5 million when appearing in West Side Story due to his passion for the project.

Why did people criticize West Side Story? ›

As Brian Eugenio Herrera noted, since 1957, many Latinx view the problem with West Side Story and its adaptations as one of systemic racism at the level of text (stereotyping and story) and context (cultural appropriation and inability to access self-representation).

Was the original West Side Story a flop? ›

“West Side Story,” too, is a beloved musical. The 1961 film, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, made $43.7 million (or about $400 million adjusted for inflation) and won 10 Oscars, including best picture.

What ethnicity is Tony in West Side Story? ›

The character that eventually became Tony – the Polish-Irish Catholic boy in West Side Story – was an Irish Catholic.

Did they change anything in West Side Story? ›

The Puerto Rican community garners new authenticity

Gone are the days of the '61 film, where white actors (including Natalie Wood, the original Maria) played Hispanic characters and Puerto Rican native Moreno had to wear makeup to darken her skin.

What were the casting issues with original West Side Story? ›

In the original “West Side Story” film released in 1961, the majority of the cast was white. For a movie that highlights the issues with racism against Puerto Ricans, wouldn't it be important to cast people who can actually represent them?

How accurate is West Side Story? ›

That said, West Side Story isn't based on a true story. Even though West Side Story has been associated with a modern and American telling of Romeo and Juliet for decades, Tony Kushner, who worked on the screenplay of the 2021 flick, thinks differently.

What do the critics say about the new West Side Story? ›

December 23, 2021 | Rating: 4.5/5 | Full Review… Everything here has been turned up to 11, and you can really feel it -- even in numbers that we've heard a thousand times before. "There's no way to get around the fact that Spielberg's West Side Story is a modern masterpiece.

Why is West Side Story tanking? ›

Box-office analysts say the film suffered because it was targeted at older audiences, who are hesitant to return to cinemas during the Covid pandemic, lacked a major Hollywood star and was pit against “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

What did Steven Spielberg say about West Side Story? ›

"I was ten years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away," says Spielberg. "I've been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself. 'You must make West Side Story. '"

What are shark afraid of? ›

Sharks prefer to avoid dolphins. Dolphins are mammals that live in pods and are very clever. They know how to protect themselves. When they see an aggressive shark, they immediately attack it with the whole pod.

Can a shark hold a grudge? ›

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We know sharks can learn. For instance, those that are fed by controversial baiting dives may learn to associate people with free food. But the idea that they could hold a grudge or seek revenge is without evidence, says Burgess.

Do sharks want affection? ›

Sharks are not affectionate. They aren't fluffy, cuddly, or warm. They don't care for their babies (in fact, sometimes they eat them) and shark mothers do not stick around to raise their young. But, as this new research shows, sharks do socialize in their own way.

How old is Maria in the new West Side Story? ›

Rachel Zegler was born on May 3, 2001, making her 20 years old at the time of West Side Story's December 2021 premiere. She was just 17 when she auditioned for West Side Story, and at that time was only thinking about her high school's spring musical and then going to college in the fall.

How old was Maria in West Side Story? ›

Personality. María is a fiercely independent 18-year-old girl who desires to have a life of her own away from the harshness of New York City's gentrification. She is shown to be slightly subservient to her brother, Bernardo, but upon meeting Tony aims to make her own decisions.

Did Tony do his own singing in West Side Story? ›

In the multi-Oscar-winning 1961 film version of West Side Story, Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer appear as Maria and Tony — but the stars' singing voices were provided by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant, who dubbed every note of their vocals for no credit and relatively little pay.

Did Rachel zegler actually sing in West Side Story? ›

While in the 1961 film, the actors lip-synched the voices of ghost singers, the 2021 version featured the actual voices of the ensemble cast, especially Zegler and Elgort, as the iconic songs of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein were performed.

Did Natalie do her own singing in West Side Story? ›

Natalie Wood recorded all the songs she would sing in the film and was told that only some of her higher notes would be dubbed, but eventually they were all dubbed by Marni Nixon. Natalie's actual singing voice can be heard in the movie "Inside Daisy Clover", when she performs the number "You're Gonna Hear from Me."

Did they use autotune in West Side Story? ›

I love Ansel Elgort as an actor overall, but as Tony, he is alarmingly one-note. This goes for not just his acting, but for his vocal range for about half the songs. The rare times he does change register, it's for a weak falsetto that's clearly aided by auto-tune. The same goes for newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria.

What is Rachel Zegler salary? ›

Rachel Zegler is an actress and singer who has a net worth of $3 million.

Did West Side Story do well at box office? ›

'West Side Story' bombed at the box office

The production budget was around $100 million, although that doesn't include its expensive marketing costs. Unsurprisingly, West Side Story performed best in Los Angeles and New York, leaving middle America in the dark. Spielberg's musical hit theaters on Dec.

How much did Will Smith make for Wild West? ›

How much did Will Smith get paid for Wild Wild West? Smith made $7 million for Wild Wild West, but he wishes that he hadn't.

Why does Maria forgive Tony? ›

Instead of choosing to hate Tony, she understands that there was always going to be a death, and what happened to Bernardo was a tragic result of a deathly feud. Maria forgives Tony in West Side Story so as not to continue the cycle of pain.

What is the message in West Side Story? ›

Their love story unleashed a series of tragic events brought about solely by racism and discrimination. The movie's tragic ending reveals the devastating consequences that racism can have in the lives of people. West Side Story shows the hardships of the American dream.

Who was actually Puerto Rican in West Side Story? ›

Rita Moreno On 'West Side Story' And Becoming The Role Model She Needed. DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Now we're going to hear an excerpt of our 2001 interview with Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita. She was one of the few actors playing a Puerto Rican who was actually from Puerto Rico.

How Did West Side Story do at the box office? ›

Is West Side Story the greatest musical? ›

West Side Story is regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time.

Is Steven Spielberg's West Side Story the same as the original? ›

Spielberg's film is more closely modelled on the original stage production, and it restores the placement and narrative tension to songs such as “Cool” and “I Feel Pretty”, while also bringing new poignancy to “Somewhere,” sung this time by 90-year-old Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar as Anita in the 1961 film and for ...

Is West Side Story whitewashed? ›

White actors played the majority of the Latino roles in the 1961 film, which was criticized for using brownface (something that's painfully obvious when rewatching the old film today), Spanish accents, and stereotyping all Puerto Ricans as having one skin tone.

What race is Maria in West Side Story? ›

In West Side Story, Maria is of Puerto Rican descent. In the 1961 film adaptation she was played by American actor Natalie Wood. Spielberg told Variety: “When we began this process a year ago, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors.”

How old is Maria and Tony? ›

It's a beloved story about romance and resilience. According to Broadway World, there's a substantial age gap between Tony and María, with Tony being an estimated 30 years old and María just 21.

Why did they take I feel pretty out of West Side Story? ›

The song was cut from the 2019 Broadway revival in order to streamline the plot and condense it to a 90-minute intermissionless show.

Why is the ending of West Side Story so sad? ›

West Side Story (one of many movies based on Shakespeare plays) is incredibly sad but everything that happens, including Tony's death, serves to prove the real meaning of the movie's end. The story shows that racial prejudice is senseless and leads to unwarranted violence that hurts everyone.

What is Tony's last name in West Side Story? ›

Irving Shulman wrote the novelization of Arthur Laurents' "book" in which he provided family names for the characters: Tony (Anton) Wyzek, Maria (and Bernardo) Nunez, Riff Lorton, Chino Martin, Anita Palacio, and (now it can be told) Glad Hand was "christened" Murray Benowitz!

How was the original West Side Story different? ›

Another significant difference between the original West Side Story and 2021 is the character of Anybodys. In the original, Anybodys is depicted as a tomboyish girl trying to fit in with the gang, but in the remake, Anybodys is a trans character portrayed by non-binary actor Ezra Menas.

Did they use blackface in West Side Story? ›

In the original "West Side Story" movie, Rita Moreno and other actors were forced to wear brownface. In Spielberg's version, Moreno is back in a new role, without the offensive makeup. Thankfully, no one in the 2021 film is wearing brownface.

Who is the conflict between in West Side Story? ›

It shows the growing tensions between the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and the Jets, a gang made up of "American" boys. An incident between the Jets and Shark leader, Bernardo, escalates into an all out fight between the two gangs.

What is the climax of West Side Story? ›

At the climax of West Side Story, Maria brandishes the gun that killed her star-crossed lover, Tony, and declares that, “We all killed him,” because of the unbroken cycle of violence and hate between the two rival gangs.

What is the meaning behind West Side Story? ›

The original idea for “West Side Story” dates back to 1949 when Jerome Robbins conceived of a musical update of “Romeo & Juliet.” Originally set on the New York's East Side, and conceived as a societal war between Jews and Gentiles, “West Side Story” eventually morphed into a tale of two street gangs, the mostly Puerto ...

What was West Side Story supposed to be about? ›

Jerome Robbins' original premise for the show was an ill-fated romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl on the Upper East Side. However, the project, a collaboration between Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Robbins, was put on the back-burner while the trio worked on other projects.

Why does Maria still love Tony? ›

Instead of choosing to hate Tony, she understands that there was always going to be a death, and what happened to Bernardo was a tragic result of a deathly feud. Maria forgives Tony in West Side Story so as not to continue the cycle of pain.

What did Maria tell Tony in the church? ›

Maria finds herself in love with Tony as well. She learns that his name is derived from “Anton”, so she tells him, “Te adoro, Anton”.

What does the whistle mean in West Side Story? ›

Before you hear a single line of dialogue, you hear it: that three-note whistle, ominous and predatory, the last thing you want to hear on a dark New York street in the middle of the night. It belongs to the Jets: a way of signaling to each other that there are buddies nearby and warning everyone else to steer clear.

Who is the tragic hero in West Side Story? ›

Tragic Hero. Despite all Tony's idealism, love, and hope, the hate he's fighting against is stronger than all that. All his attempts to fix things fail, and he ends up killing his lover's brother and having to go on the run. He feels every moment of it, too, which is why he's ultimately a tragic character.

Who lied about Maria's death? ›

Anita, angry about her treatment by the Jets, gets a phony message to Tony saying that Maria was killed.

Why is Anita's dress yellow? ›

For somebody like Anita in West Side Story, that yellow dress [in “America”] is a kind of energetic explosion of who her character is, an expression of the joy of being in America, and also how she pulls the rest of the community into that joy.”

What does jets mean in West Side Story? ›

Act 1. Two rival teenage gangs, the Jets (white Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans), struggle for control of their neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (Prologue). Police officers Krupke and Lt.

How old is Maria in West Side Story? ›

Personality. María is a fiercely independent 18-year-old girl who desires to have a life of her own away from the harshness of New York City's gentrification. She is shown to be slightly subservient to her brother, Bernardo, but upon meeting Tony aims to make her own decisions.

How is New West Side Story different from original? ›

The remake has cast only actors with Hispanic backgrounds for the film's Hispanic characters, in contrast to the 1961 film version starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer which cast a number of white actors in makeup to play Puerto Rican characters.

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