'It Has To Be Visceral': How Spielberg's 'West Side Story' Probes New York History

The original 1961 movie filmed on the site that was razed to build Lincoln Center. The new version makes it part of the story.

west side story
The Jets | 20th Century Pictures
The Jets | 20th Century Pictures

The opening shots in Steven Spielberg's new West Side Story are of rubble. The camera lingers on craggy rocks before panning up to reveal a sign announcing that the land was "purchased by the New York Housing Authority for Slum Clearance." Then comes a gleaming indication of what will be erected where demolished housing once stood: the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, now one of Manhattan's crown jewels.

At the film's New York premiere—taking place at Jazz at Lincoln Center, located in a towering shopping complex near Central Park—there were titters of recognition when the image appeared on screen. Then the Jets came bursting out of a hole in the ground, and the movie began in earnest. 

West Side Story, especially in its film iterations, has long been interconnected with the history of his specific part of land in New York. The 1961 version filmed its prologue partially on the demolition site that would become a highbrow home to music, dance, and theater. The creators of West Side Story, specifically the choreographer Jerome Robbins, who first concocted the idea of a Romeo and Juliet-inspired musical about warring gangs in New York, would spend his career working alongside the New York City Ballet, which later performed his work at the New York State Theater (now grimly known as the David H. Koch Theater). And looming in the background of all this is the neighborhood once known as San Juan Hill, at one point a largely Black community known as the home of jazz legend Thelonious Monk. San Juan Hill was already disappearing by 1948 when the projects known as the Amsterdam Houses were constructed on the site. In 1959, after the area was declared a slum by Robert Moses' Committee on Slum Clearance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground on the Lincoln Center Project, appeasing institutions like Fordham University, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic.

"Honestly, this campus is still trying to wrap its head around what it has meant to be built on a site that displaced a community," says Linda Murray, the curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library's Library for the Performing Arts, based in Lincoln Center. "I know that's the story of any city anyway, but I think particularly in this case, given that the story of West Side Story is about two communities that are already at the bottom of the rung."

I was thinking of Murray's words when I ventured out to the library one chilly morning, walking through the nearly empty plaza decorated with posters for the Metropolitan Opera's productions of Cinderella and Eurydice. I was heading there to look at Robbins' photo collection, including location-scouting images from the production of the 1961 film, where a dancer leaps in front of a gas tank and women in pencil skirts assemble before hollow buildings.

west side story 1961
The prologue, 1961. | United Artists

According to historian Julia Foulkes, who wrote the book A Place for Us: 'West Side Story' and New York, the idea of urban renewal was always embedded in West Side Story's tale of the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, even when the musical was only envisioned as a stage production. "Just the idea that you could literally radically demolish something and set up something else had been an experience of the city at that time," Foulkes says. "So those are things that I think you see in the stage version too—the fragility of belonging to a place that's in constant destruction and creation." In her book, Foulkes explains that Robbins, who directed the dance sequences in the film, was initially worried about using actual locations on screen, fearful that it would challenge the audience's ability to accept music as part of the story.

When they did ultimately choose to shoot the prologue—a wordless number that uses dance (set to Leonard Bernstein's score) to lay out the animosity between the Sharks and the Jets—on location, the Lincoln Center demolition site, used in tandem with a schoolyard on 110th Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues, made sense. "I think he was looking for senses of violence and decay in the landscape, and obviously something being rubble and torn down, it gets to the sense of everything being broken," Murray says. "It's that sense of the landscape emotionally underlining what the characters were going through. Plus, from a very logical perspective, it gives them an urban environment where there is a lot of open expanse for dance to occur." The emptiness of the space allowed Robbins and his crew to essentially dig a trench in the ground so as to capture the dancers from below. Murray and Foulkes both insist that, for Robbins, how the choreography interacted with the space was crucial.

While the urban renewal project exists in the background of the 1961 West Side Story, it's in the foreground of Spielberg's, written by Tony Kushner. The choice to include the real history roots the action in that destruction. "It has to be visceral," production designer Adam Stockhausen tells me. "It has to be real. This is not an academic exercise that the Sharks hate the Jets and the Jets hate the Sharks. We need to understand why. We need to feel it." Of course, in Stockhausen's case, the location didn't exist anymore. He had to scour the tri-state area for places where he could build a replica. He settled on parking lots in Paterson, New Jersey, that, helpfully, abutted a street that already had a period-appropriate look.

In the empty lots, Stockhausen and his team built five or six structures that Spielberg wanted to serve as the centerpiece of their set. "You see these buildings—they look a little bit like skeletons because you see the ribs of them," Stockhausen says. "One thing that was really important to Steven is you see the rooms cut in half, and you see these kind of shocking reveals of a bathroom and a bedroom with the wallpaper. You see pictures still on the walls and you see fragments of life still clinging, even though three-quarters of the room is gone. All of that helped with our storytelling to say these are not just buildings and facades—these are people's lives and families and communities that are getting torn apart." Dance was just as crucial to telling the new version of the story as it was the old: Stockhausen had to make sure the constructed spaces could accommodate the ensemble. Moving to new choreography by Justin Peck, the performers needed to reach certain beats at the right point in the music. "Somehow, for me, it was viscerally exciting to see them dancing through the rubble because there's an element of danger to it, I guess, but also an element of incredible grace," Stockhausen explains.

Spielberg's West Side Story, in large part due to Kushner's screenplay, ties the story to the actual history of New York in a way the 1961 version never attempted. Robbins and co-director Robert Wise's West Side used the changing landscape of the city as a set; this one weaves it into the fabric of the narrative. That, of course, reflects the value of hindsight. "The consensus at the time was these are tenements and this is great for the city that we're doing this and we're going to clear away this terrible housing and we're going to build this cultural palace for the people and it will all be wonderful and it's all very well-intentioned," Murray says. "What the passage of time has allowed to surface is the stories of the people who were displaced. It allows us to reflect upon the impact of the communities who were living in that housing and what it means to disturb a community and what it does to an identity of a neighborhood and what it does to the connection of the people within that community."

The history also heightens the tragedy. "There was a moment when we were all standing around on set and we were like, 'Look what they are fighting over. It's a pile of rubble. They are killing each other over a pile of rubble,'" Stockhausen says. "The weight of that was suddenly very real and palpable."

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.