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BWW Reviews: WEST SIDE STORY Film is Accompanied by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

I will always remember the date I first saw the film WEST SIDE STORY. It was February 20, 1962, the day John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in a space capsule. And I saw it at the Gary theatre in Boston.

I had already been in love with the Broadway cast album and really enjoyed the film.

When the Baltimore Symphony announced it would be showing the film and under the baton of Maestra Marin Alsop the BSO would be playing along, I couldn't wait for the big day. And what a momentous event it was.

The musicians were all dressed in black shirts and slacks like they were in a Broadway orchestra pit. Very clever. The orchestra was simply spectacular. Special kudos to Principal Trumpet player, Andrew Balio who made his trumpet sore. Steven Barta on clarinet and Emily Skala on flute shined. And the entire percussion section earned their pay check, especially during the rumble.

The song "Tonight" featured a beautiful solo by Concertmaster Jonathan Carney. After "America" the sold-out audience burst into applause.

During "Somewhere" I noticed the orchestrations called for the cello to begin alone, followed by the viola, and then Concertmaster Carney with a solo.

It was evidence this was an exhausting evening for Alsop. She occasionally used a stool to rest on. At the end of the film, as she was listening to the tremendous standing ovation, she looked drained and it was understandable. Alsop studied under composer Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and I'm sure she must have been thinking of him during the incredible evening.

The evening began with a round-table discussion of the film featuring three members of the cast. WBJC radio programming director Jonathan Palevsky moderated the panel comprised of Jet Bert Michaels (Snowboy), Jet Harry Evans (Mouth Piece) and Shark Eddie Verso (Juano). Marni Nixon, who sang the role of Natalie Wood and called "The Ghost Voice of Hollywood" was unable to attend due to an illness.

They had so many tales to tell. Michaels (who didn't look much different from his role in the film) mentioned that the film took place where the area around Lincoln Center was being demolished. The playground used in the film actually was filmed on 110th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue.

All three raved about Jerome Robbins and were shocked he was fired from the film towards the end of filming. Both Director Robert Wise and Robbins shared the Oscar for "Best Director".

Evens spoke of the claustraphobic set for "Cool" and the double knee turns Robbins choreographed. The dancers all wore knee pads during rehearsals and after filming the scene, burned all their knee pads in front of Robbins. He added the actors were told "We're not showing this is going to work."

Verso stated he was in high school when he auditioned for the production of West Side Story going to London where he played a Jet and then was a Shark in the film. He has vivid memories of the film.

Evans recalls seeing it for the first time and called it an epic film thanks to being filmed in Panavision.

None of the actors knew about the dubbing of Natalie Wood as "Maria". There was much other dubbing as well for Rita Moreno as Anita, Russ Tamblyn (Riff) and Richard Beymer (Tony).

There were only 7 members of the original Broadway cast that made the film and they all had to go through a screen test.

When asked about Natalie Wood, they told a story about her first visit to the dancers warming up in Hollywood in a hot room. She later that day arranged air-conditioning for them.

They spoke about Betty Walberg the dance arranger who was responsible for keeping time during the filming of the dance scenes in New York. Since there was no music while they danced, she was the one who clapped her hands for the syncapation. She also put a piano on a cart and raced down the street following the dancers playing the piano. Can you picture this?

During intermission, the three actors signed copies of the book "Our Story Jets and Sharks, Then and Now" as told by cast members from the movie. It's an easy and enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. I don't think I ever read a book so fast.

You will learn that only three Jet girls and Shark girls were given credit in the film. That while filming in New York, actors would do a "rain dance" hoping for a day off and it worked. So they were later banned from rain dancing. I was surprised to learn that Tony Mordente's wife was Chita Rivera from the original Broadway cast and he did not recall ever talking about why she was not asked to do the film. Finally, you walk away knowing the amazing respect they all had for Jerome Robbins. For those who loved the film, read the book.

Thanks to the BSO for an incredible experience. It was quite a thrill to meet three actors from the film and learn so much about the making of WEST SIDE STORY.

Photo Credit: Charles Shubow

Moderator Jonathan Palevsky, Jet Harvey Hohnecker (Evans), Shark Eddie Verso, and Jet Bert Michaels

Bert Michaels

Bert Michaels, Harvey Hohnecker and Eddie Verso

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