Part of what made the stage version of West Side Story such a smash success at the time of its opening was the revelatory choreography of Broadway legend Jerome Robbins. Robbins had conceived, directed, and choreographed the musical onstage and had won a Tony Award for his choreography. When it came time to turn it into a movie four years later, Robbins was an integral part of the process.
Prior to working on West Side Story, Robbins had gotten his start in the American Ballet Theatre and performing in ballets. After creating a few ballets himself, he switched to making musicals, starting in 1944 with On the Town. While he continued to work in ballet, he worked on musicals such as Call Me Madam, The King and I, Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, and Bells Are Ringing. West Side Story was his opus, which he envisioned as a perfect synthesis of music, narrative, and dance, almost like an opera or a ballet.
Robbins was known for his incredible facility as a choreographer, his ability to blend his ballet training and his rigorous approach with more colloquial or casual styles. The choreography from West Side Story is unmistakable, indivisible from Robbins' legacy. For the movie, Robbins was brought on as a co-director with Robert Wise, taking the helm for the choreographed segments, while Wise covered the narrative scenes. When they had shot all but three musical numbers, Robbins was fired for taking too long with shooting. The decision was an amicable one, and Robbins was in close contact with Wise throughout the rest of shooting. At the Academy Awards that year, Wise and Robbins both collected the Academy Award for Best Director.