George Chakiris: Riff before Bernardo

Dance · Film · Theater
George Chakiris as Riff in West Side Story, in 1959

It’s one of those fascinating show-biz factoids. For fourteen months, circa 1959, George Chakiris, a good friend of artsmeme, performed in the London company of West Side Story, at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End theater district.

What is little known is that the actor/dancer who brought home an Oscar in Spring 1962 for his fierce portrayal of Bernardo, the Puerto Rican leader of the Sharks gang (in the movie) first played Riff, the leader of the Jets, on the London stage.

In WSS on stage, “Cool” was danced before the rumble, at Doc’s drugstore, not after it, as in the movie. George Chakiris, as Riff, led the dancing in “Cool.”

Chakiris was personally cast as Riff by Jerome Robbins (although, try to follow this, he originally read as Bernardo and after doing so, Robbins asked him to read for Riff). While playing Riff in London, he tested for both Bernardo and Riff. The rest was show-biz history. Interestingly, attached to playing Riff, Chakiris was reluctant to make the swap. But, boy, he made the transition well. Sweetening the change of role was a vital change in the “America” number, from all women to men and women. And, of course, Chakiris completely dominates “America,” bringing out excellence in Rita Moreno as Anita.

The great costume designer Irene Sharaff had something to do with it, dressing George in a tight-fitting sharkskin suit with magenta shirt and skinny tie. To see him dance in that costume, in “America” and “Dance at the Gym” was to see something audiences had never experienced from a male dancer.

George Chakiris as Bernardo in ‘West Side Story’ (1961)

In 2014, Lourdes Lopez (seen below, at photo rear) invited George as the honoree at a gala premiere performance of Robbins’s West Side Story Suite by Miami City Ballet. Bernardo caused quite a backstage rumble when he visited his doppleganger (give or take sixty years), Reyneris Reyes, who danced the role of Bernardo in the ballet.

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