Moving Pictures: West Side Story

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
February 22, 2017

Promotional photograph by Friedman-Abeles

Last fall, the Google Cultural Institute supported the digitization of over 1300 photographs of the original 1957 production of West Side Story from our Martha Swope, Friedman-Abeles, Florence Vandamm, Kenn Duncan, and Avery Willard photography collections. It is always exciting to be able to provide wider access to our collections, but this project is especially thrilling  because we are seeing, in many cases for the first time in decades, images that the photographer never developed beyond the original negatives. There are hundreds of images of dance and music rehearsals taken (mostly) by Martha Swope. There is the famous Friedman-Abeles shot (used on the original Playbill cover) of Larry Kert (Tony) and Carol Lawrence (Maria) running down a street in the Upper West Side, but there are also the shots just before and just after the moment captured in that iconic image which were not used.

As I examined the wealth of digital photographs we now have, I began to wonder whether it would be possible to join the sequential images from a single negative strip to create a very short movie.  Using the "Animation Assistant" tool in Google Photos, I stitched together a few of these sequences, and I found the results to be a little breathtaking.  There was a rehearsal for "Dance at the Gym" with Jerome Robbins watching and joining in on the snaps! There was Bernstein conducting a music rehearsal while Sondheim played on the piano! Seeing Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert freed from their frozen moment on the Playbill image and actually running down the street felt a little like stepping out of a time machine into 1957.

I am confident there are many, many more such treasures in our photograph collections. The Theatre Division preserves well over a million photographic negatives documenting the last century and a half of theatre, and like these West Side Story photographs, many have never before been seen.  If you are interested in supporting the work of bringing this history into the light of the open web, please drop me a note at dougreside@nypl.org.

For now, those, enjoy these tiny, magical, moments from 1957:

Promotional photograph by Friedman-Abeles

Promotional photograph by Friedman-Abeles

Promotional photograph by Friedman-Abeles

Promotional photograph by Friedman-Abeles

Dance Rehearsal. Photos by Friedman-Abeles

Fight rehearsal.  Photos by Friedman-Abeles

Bernstein conducts music rehearsal while Sondheim accompanies on the piano. Photo by Friedman-Abeles

Bernstein conducts music rehearsal while Sondheim accompanies on the piano. Photos by Friedman-Abeles

Dance rehearsals. Photos by Friedman-Abeles.

Dance rehearsals. Photos by Friedman-Abeles.

Jerome Robbins prepares for rehearsal.  Photos by Friedman-Abeles.

Jerome Robbins prepares for dance rehearsal. Photos by Friedman-Abeles.

Dance rehearsal. Photos by Friedman-Abeles.

Jerome Robbins directs Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence in the death scene. Photos by Friedman-Abeles.

Robbins directs West Side Story rehearsal.  Photos by Friedman-Abeles.

Publicity shot of performers receiving a vacination. Photo by Friedman-Abeles