Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited musical adaptation of West Side Story, an epic retelling of Romeo and Juliet that takes place in Manhattan’s San Juan Hill and Lincoln Square, was actually filmed all over NYC, from Brooklyn to Queens and up to Hamilton Heights and Harlem.
While some important scenes were filmed on sets, a majority of scenes took place on actual NYC streets and inside city venues, which was crucial, according to the production team.
“New York City is another character in West Side Story,” producer Macosko Krieger says. “It was essential to all of us that we capture its energy on film, simply because the narrative is so connected to the history of the communities living in the neighborhood at the time. While I knew filming on the streets of New York would present a logistical challenge, we did all we could to bring that element as we organized the production.”
Production designer Adam Stockhausen says that Spielberg’s direction to him in the very beginning was to get the film outside and make it real. “‘Let’s shoot the film on the streets so we feel the life of San Juan Hill and Lincoln Square and the characters’ he told me,” Stockhausen says. “That’s a pretty tall order given what New York City looks like right now. Somehow, we managed to find locations in Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan that worked beautifully for our objectives. But we knew we also had to look elsewhere.”
Over the course of the production, which took 16 weeks in the steamy summer weather, the cast and crew filmed in Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Ridgewood, Queens and Paterson, New Jersey. (Sections of the “Jet Song” were filmed in Paterson and “I Feel Pretty” was filmed in Newark on a recreated Gimbels store floor.)
So as you watch the new film or think back on it, you might recognize these specific NYC filming locations of West Side Story. (Warning: spoilers):
1. Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal Piers Park
The song “Cool” was filmed here for about five days.
“In the original film the scene takes place in a parking garage,” says Stockhausen. “Here we’re in a different situation entirely, atop piers at the very western edge of the city. Tony Kushner’s idea was that they could almost be in the Old West. And the number has a different dramatic function from the original now having to do with a life and death issue about whether it’s wise to have the weapon.”
2. The abandoned Bowery subway platform
Tony and María meet at this subway, which is turned into the 72nd Street subway station, to head uptown for their date. This particular subway platform has been used for many films and TV shows, according to the New York Post. The JMZ trains still run on the other side of the station, but the platform was taken out of service in 2004 during a construction project.
3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Cloisters
Tony and María’s first date is at the Met Cloisters in Washington Heights, where medieval art and architecture surround them, much like it might’ve been for Romeo & Juliet.
4. The Church of the Intercession in Washington Heights
The couple exchanges vows, singing “One Hand, One Heart” at the Church of the Intercession on West 155th Street, inside the church’s chapel.
5. A rundown bar in Red Hook
Riff buys a gun to protect himself at the upcoming rumble that the Jets and the Sharks have arranged in a “war council.” The production team did not release which bar they used, however.
6. St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School gymnasium in Marine Park
The entire cast of the film turned up to this gym for the “Dance at the Gym” sequence, where Tony and María meet. The production team looked at many gyms but had a hard time finding one that would fit the bill.
“We had so many dancers to fill the space and equipment, and we needed a stage for the band, and proper entrances for the Sharks to come into the scene because the Sharks entrance into the gym is a big event,” Stockhausen says. “Most of the sites we saw were too small and didn’t work.”
“Not to mention, we needed bleachers to carry out Steven and Tony’s vision that María and Tony would retreat behind the bleachers to get to know each other after first meeting on the gym floor. St. Thomas Aquinas’ gym fit the bill,” choreographer Justin Peck adds. “The ‘Dance at the Gym’ was probably the largest number we tackled. With more than sixty dancers and over 150 extras, so many people, complicated choreography and a lot of moving parts, it took time to capture.”
7. The Grace Reformed Church in Flatbush
The police precinct was filmed at this church for one of the musical’s best-known numbers, “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
“It was a tight location,” Peck says. “Steven had the idea of filming it with a minimal number of shots. Every move, every transition had to be air-tight and densely constructed so that the cast could just land, click into position, and flow into the next verse. It’s so immaculate in its construction and performance by the Jets. Each of them was so great to work with on this number.”
8. The streets of Washington Heights and Harlem
The love-struck Tony searches for María’s apartment building in San Juan Hill and “The Prologue” as well as “America” were filmed in Harlem and Hamilton Heights.
Unlike the original, “America” is set in the daytime throughout San Juan Hill’s streets rather than on a rooftop at night.
“We wanted to show the neighborhood that Anita and Bernardo are a part of the shops, the vendors, the street life, even protest marches—to show how the Puerto Ricans interact with their neighbors, their friends, the shopkeepers,” Peck says. “And we wanted to build a sense of community and energy in the number. It culminates into this massive intersection where the entire neighborhood spills out into the street for a block party, a Pachanga [a Caribbean dance style with origins in Cuba]. It’s a big glamourous moment of dance for Bernardo and Anita. And it took more than ten days to film, not necessarily consecutive days.”
Over on 134th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam in West Harlem, the Jets and the Sharks have their hostile encounter in a rubble-strewn backlot. In the prologue, Baby John hurls himself up and over a fence, only to be surrounded by three Sharks who pierce his ear with a rusty nail. The Sharks, claiming their turf, sing out the words to “La Borinqueña”—a big change from the original film.
9. Brooklyn’s Navy Yard
The climactic rumble, the fatal confrontation between the two gangs that results in tragedy, takes place at the Navy Yard, rather than under the West Side Highway.
“Steven and Tony had the idea for it to take place in a sanitation department salt shed near the highway off-ramp where road salt is stored in summer for use on the roads in winter,” says Stockhausen. “We actually found a huge warehouse space near Steiner Studio’s grounds, inside the Navy Yard, a vast galvanized metal box that was un-insulated and felt raw and open.”
The space also has high windows—an aspect that Spielberg insisted on—to mimic the lights of cars going by and have a “repetitive light element,” he added. In the space, Stockhausen dumped giant mounds of salt while outside, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski created the illusion of passing cars with a massive lighting rig.