Jeffrey Katzenberg Tried to Pitch ‘West Side Story’ with Cats to Leonard Bernstein

"You could tell it wasn’t going well," director Christopher Sanders recalled thinking of the pitch.
WEST SIDE STORY, George Chakiris (front), 1961
"West Side Story"
Courtesy Everett Collection

Former Walt Disney Studios chairman and DreamWorks Animation co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to take “West Side Story” to the next level.

In an oral history of the 2002 Disney film “Lilo & Stitch,” co-writer and director Christopher Sanders recalled how Katzenberg pitched a failed feline animated reimagining of “West Side Story” to legendary composer Leonard Bernstein.

“Jeffrey Katzenberg once flew me out to New York City because he wanted us to do ‘West Side Story’ with cats,” Sanders told Vulture. “I boarded this huge sequence where these cats were battling each other. Jeffrey said, ‘We’re going to fly to New York, and you’re going to pitch it to Leonard Bernstein.’ All of a sudden, I was on Disney’s corporate jet. I went to the room and I set up all the boards, and I practiced and I practiced and I practiced.”

Sanders continued, “As it turned out, Leonard Bernstein didn’t show up for the meeting. He sent representatives. I’m sure they were people of some prominence; there was one woman in particular who had a lot of necklaces on. But you could tell it wasn’t going well. Like, ‘Oh, I think we may have made a mistake by coming here.'”

With Bernstein at the center of this year’s “TÁR” and Bradley Cooper’s upcoming musical biopic “Maestro,” it seems like a Disney version of “West Side Story” could have given Steven Spielberg a run for his Oscar-nominated remake of the classic musical. Spielberg was set to direct “Maestro” before handing the reins to Cooper, hot off the Academy Award-winning modern musical epic “A Star Is Born.”

“I’ll never forget this. He came, we were sitting there and I’m showing him ‘A Star Is Born’ and he’s all the way on the other side on the front row, it’s a pretty huge screen,” Cooper said earlier this year. “The next thing I know I feel his face here and he says, because it’s loud, ‘You’re fucking directing ‘Maestro!'”

Cooper previously said he spent “hundreds of hours” pretending to be a conductor as a child to emulate his idol Bernstein. Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) and stars as Bernstein opposite Jeremy Strong, Carey Mulligan, Matt Bomer, and Maya Hawke. Spielberg executive produces along with Martin Scorsese. The Netflix film is expected to premiere in 2023 after a first look was released.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.