Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story has just arrived in cinemas. I hope the director had a better on-set experience than the original cast, says Richard Morrison in The Times. I met the four men behind the 1961 movie-musical and was stunned by the egos. There was Leonard Bernstein, the classical composer; Arthur Laurents, the hard-bitten leftie screenwriter; Stephen Sondheim, the twentysomething lyricist; and Jerome Robbins, the talented but dictatorial director. They were all Jewish and secretly gay, and they all hated each other.
Robbins was the root of the problem. In the early 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, he was called to testify before the Senate’s House Committee on Un-American Activities because he had once been a member of the Communist party. They asked him to denounce others and threatened to expose his homosexuality if he refused. Robbins caved in, ratting out 10 people as communists, and they were all duly blacklisted. Bernstein and Laurents were among them.
Bernstein called Robbins “Black Jerome” the entire time they filmed, and Laurents was furious. When asked why he agreed to work with Robbins, Laurents replied: “What do you do? Cut off your nose to spite your face? The man was absolutely brilliant. The fact that he was also a monster was irrelevant, or so it seemed.” That was the trouble. No matter how much they hated each other, they couldn’t resist each other either. By the time filming finished, all four men vowed never to collaborate again. But West Side Story was so brilliant – and made them all so rich and famous – they did it anyway. As Bernstein told friends at the opening night: “I will never, never work with Jerome Robbins again as long as I live – at least for a while.”