The names associated with the creation of that great American musical, West Side Story, comprise a who’s who of theatrical brilliance: Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, William Shakespeare …
Right. Shakespeare. After all, the narrative elements that drive the high-octane action in West Side Story — star-crossed lovers from feuding families; young men brawling in the streets; the blinding power of sexual desire — are lifted directly from Romeo and Juliet. That Laurents, Sondheim and the rest saw that the major plot devices of a 16th-century tragedy could so seamlessly — and entertainingly — be transferred to 1950s New York City speaks volumes about the vision of the musical’s creators, and about the consummate genius of the Bard.
The Broadway production of West Side Story opened to largely ecstatic reviews six decades ago, on Sept. 26, 1957. The movie version, which went on to win 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, opened four years later, in 1961, and has been rightfully celebrated ever since as one of the most dynamic, appealing and imaginative American pop-culture creations of the 20th century.
(That’s choreographer Jerome Robbins in the chair, at left, suspended above co-director Robert Wise, seated on the ladder, during filming on the streets of New York City in 1960.)
The film ranks high on more than a few of the American Film Institute’s famed lists — “100 Years, 100 Movies”; “100 Years, 100 Songs”; “Greatest Movie Musicals,” of course — and is one of those rare Hollywood confections that, decades after its creation, remains critically acclaimed while enjoying the sort of routine, if kindhearted, skewering reserved exclusively for those entertainments that have earned a permanent and prominent place in the hearts of millions.
After all, how many times has the “Jet Song” (When you’re a jet, you’re a jet all the way!) been parodied? Or “Cool” (Boy, boy, crazy boy … keep coolie cool boy)? Or the gang bangers who break into elegant, soaring, Robbins-esque dance numbers at the drop of a hat?
Here, LIFE.com presents a series of photos by Gjon Mili made on the set of West Side Story. Some of these pictures ran in LIFE, while many more were not published in the magazine: but what comes across in every frame is the energy and the dedication of the men and women who were bringing a story that had already conquered Broadway to the big screen. Here, quite literally, is a classic in the making.