This Is Why West Side Story Has Never Left Pop Culture

The 1961 West Side Story film, adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical, is one of those movie musicals that never seem to leave pop culture. The movie “so big it needed two people to direct” (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) was released in the midst of the anti-Communist Red Scare. That, in addition to Robbins’s extreme perfectionism, the film had a few run-ins. Needless to say, there was a fair share of tension both on and off-screen.

Men dancing in the streets in West Side Story / Natalie Wood leaning over the fire escape in a scene from West Side Story / Jerome Robbins behind the scenes on West Side Story / Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, and Jose De Vega in a scene from West Side Story / Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood singing on the fire escape in a scene from West Side Story / A group of men with Russ Tamblyn snapping their fingers next to a fence in a scene from West Side Story
Photo by Moviestore Collection, Shutterstock / Moviestore Collection, Shutterstock / Granger, Shutterstock / Mirisch-7 Arts, United Artists, Kobal, Shutterstock / Mirisch-7 Arts, United Artists, Kobal, Shutterstock / Mirisch-7 Arts, United Artists, Kobal, Shutterstock

After winning 10 Academy Awards and being acknowledged as a film that combines hard realities with song-and-dance numbers, West Side Story is still one of the most culturally significant plays of the 20th century.

But most people don’t know what went on behind the scenes…

Perfectionism on the Set

Natalie Wood, our dear Maria, was an actress who struggled with singing and dancing at the same time. It didn’t help that director and choreographer Jerome Robbins was such a perfectionist. He made Wood practice 16 hours every day. But not just her; Robbins also required his Broadway cast to rehearse for eight weeks straight (the average is four or five).

Natalie Wood leaning against a wall talking to a man in a scene from West Side Story
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

So, it was his style to set high standards. When it came time to make his movie, he expected the film cast to live up to them. There were also the dancers who participated in each take of the “Cool” number. One dancer caught pneumonia from working outside, while others injured themselves by rehearsing on real street pavement. Those dancers held a ceremony when filming was finally done in which they burned their kneepads.

A Tactic to Build Tension

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the musical’s book, referred to the stage production as a “gang war.” To help get the actors into character, Robbins demanded that the members of the Jets and the Sharks remain separate. Carol Lawrence, who played Maria on Broadway, said, “He deliberately tried to foment animosity, antagonism, between the two opposing gangs, both on stage and off stage. They weren’t allowed to eat together. They were not supposed to socialize.”

Carol Lawrence standing on a chair in front of a group of friends and relatives after a performance
Carol Lawrence September 1958. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Robbins apparently posted newspaper articles about local gang violence on the walls of the studio, telling the actors that this was now their reality. While working on the film, Robbins made the actors keep their distance and not communicate. He wanted to create believable tension.

Natalie Wood Almost Quit

Even with Rita Moreno’s help (she played Anita), Natalie Wood really struggled with her role in the film. Not only was dancing and singing a struggle, but her fake Puerto Rican accent also proved to be a difficult task as well. At one point, she was so frustrated that she tried to quit. Although Wood’s singing voice wasn’t all that bad, the studio decided to dub over it (as they did with the voices of almost every other main actor in the movie).

Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno helping her zip her dress u pin a scene from West Side Story
Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno. Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, was one of the only main cast members to sing his own parts (Moreno also sang most of her songs). In those days, it was also common for the actual singers to go uncredited. As it so happened with Wood…

The Worse End of the Deal

Marni Nixon, who also provided the singing voice in The King and I and My Fair Lady, sang for Wood in West Side Story. But she was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which meant that Nixon’s right to album royalties were denied. But it looks like Wood might have gotten the worse end of the deal.

Natalie Wood singing in West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

Why? Because it turned out that no one even informed Wood that her singing would be dubbed over. In fact, the producers repeatedly told her she was doing a good job! So, of course, Wood was surprised and angry when she discovered that her voice wasn’t used in the final product. To not use her voice is one thing – to lie to her face about it is another. (But hey, it’s Hollywood).

Real Gang Members Protected Them

While filming in New York City, the crowds got too rowdy and so real gang members were hired to protect the cast and crew. Since films tend to take greater liberties with the setting than Broadway productions, Robbins decided West Side Story would use certain NYC street locations (one spot was later demolished to build the Lincoln Center). Robbins wanted the musical film to be as authentic as possible.

A scene with the cast members about to play basketball in West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

The crew wasn’t prepared for all the fans that gathered to watch the making of the film. There were even those who threw rocks at them from abandoned buildings. Although the cops were called in to manage the scene, they weren’t very effective. So, co-director Robert Wise decided to hire local gang members to protect the actors and crew.

The Broadway Cast Was Rejected for the Film

When Robbins and Wise adapted the Broadway show into a movie, they agreed that most of the stage cast was too old – something that offended most of them. Other famous actors were considered, including Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, and even Elvis Presley. But after reading the script and seriously considering the role, Elvis’s managers decided that the role wasn’t right for him and advised him to turn it down.

The Broadway cast rehearsing West Side Story choreography
The Broadway cast of West Side Story 1957. Photo by ITV / Shutterstock

While today, many would consider that the cast of West Side Story was “whitewashed,” there weren’t many well-known Puerto Rican actors in the 1950s. Only after Audrey Hepburn turned down the role of Maria (she was pregnant) was the role was offered to Natalie Wood. Wood was of European descent; her father, George Chakiris, was from a Greek family. Rita Moreno was the only actual Puerto Rican to play a main role.

The Makeup Did the Job

Considering that they got light-skinned actors to play Puerto Rican characters, production had to get creative to make Natalie Wood and George Chakiris appear darker-skinned. They had them wear “brownface” makeup. Even though Rita Moreno was Puerto Rican, she also had to wear dark makeup.

George Chakiris and Natalie Wood holding his face by the cheeks in a scene from West Side Story 1961
George Chakiris and Natalie Wood. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Apparently, when Morena questioned why each character on the Sharks’ side had to look the same color, the makeup artist asked her if she was racist. Moreno also wasn’t fond of the accent she had to exaggerate, either. She saw it as an offensive stereotype. In the end, though, she went along with what Robbins wanted, as did the Jets actors, who had to bleach their hair and wear lighter makeup to create a more obvious physical contrast.

The Tale of the Star-Crossed Lovers Was Real

The whole idea for West Side Story started when Robbins approached composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents about collaborating on a musical called East Side Story. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story would tell a tale about forbidden love between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl.

Richard Beymer standing on the side of a fire escape with Natalie Wood leaning down to talk to him in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

They eventually realized that such a story wasn’t unique at all – it had been done. Years later, Bernstein and Laurents noticed a newspaper article about gang violence in California that involved a street fight after a teen dance that had left one person dead. Several gang members were then suspected of the crime. The writers decided to focus on tensions between white Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants. They changed the setting to New York and altered the title.

Go Home Robbins, It’s Been Swell

United Artists, the production company that released the film, wasn’t completely gung-ho on having Jerome Robbins direct it since he had never made a movie before. That’s why they brought Robert Wise in as his co-director. It soon became clear that the two didn’t work well together. Robbins was a perfectionist, and he insisted that the movie and the stage production be as similar as possible.

Jerome Robbins showing George Chakiris some choreography on the set of West Side Story
George Chakiris and Jerome Robbins. Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

However, since Robbins’s contract stated he would be the one to direct all the music numbers, Wise was left with not much to do. They later compromised, giving Wise the direction of the non-musical parts. But he still had to consult Robbins. In the end, Robbins’s method of shooting more takes than necessary, inflated the budget and resulted in him being fired halfway into production. Nevertheless, his vision and dedication earned him Academy Awards for both directing and choreography.

Spielberg Is Taking a Crack at It

Steven Spielberg has wanted to make West Side Story for a very long time, and within the next year (news reports are saying 2021), his dream will come true. When he was just a boy in Phoenix in the late 1950s, Spielberg only had the soundtrack. He said he would try to picture the action and dancing that would accompany it.

Steven Spielberg wearing glasses and a red shirt circa 1978
Steven Spielberg circa 1978. Photo by Fotos International / Shutterstock

“My mom was a classical pianist,” Spielberg recalled. “Our entire home was festooned with classical musical albums, and I grew up surrounded by classical music. West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home.” He admitted that making the film has been a “haunting temptation” that he has finally given in to.

She Really Wanted the Part

Natalie Wood faked tonsillitis to play Maria. Even though she had no prior dancing or singing experience, Wood desperately wanted the role of Maria. But at the time, she had already been offered a role in Parrish by her studio, Warner Brothers. Aware of the fact that Warner wouldn’t permit her to do a film with another studio if she turned the Parrish role down, she still accepted it but found a way out.

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood on their knees holding hands in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

What she did was fake tonsillitis. She even checked herself into a hospital. The tactic worked as she was let out of the Warner contract and thus had the freedom to make West Side Story. But, ironically, she caught pneumonia, went to the hospital, and almost lost the part of Maria. (Karma, I guess?)

Tension in the Writing Room

The movie was made during the Red Scare when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) formed by the US government was trying to weed out Communists and their sympathizers. Hollywood was hit hard, and countless writers, directors, actors, and crew members were accused and blacklisted (if they refused to work with the committee).

Jerome Robbins directing a scene from West Side Story 1961
Behind the scenes of West Side Story. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

At the time, being gay was also a “no-no,” and when Robbins was threatened with being outed if he didn’t help HUAC, he caved and gave up names, including those of some of his colleagues. Many of them held this against him. When West Side Story went into stage production in 1957, there was obvious tension between Robbins and Bernstein and Laurents (who had been blacklisted). Nonetheless, they managed to work with him, despite later regrets.

Changing the Genre

During the 1950s, musicals tended to follow a fixed format, which meant that writers, directors, and composers were limited by the constraints of the genre. West Side Story, however, is credited with changing the genre. It included more mature themes than the usual musical, along with incorporating memorable songs. It was also the first-ever musical film with two directors.

Jerome Robbins directing dancers in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Behind the scenes of West Side Story. Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

Speaking of directors, David Lynch – a director whose work is the furthest thing from musicals – is known for his good casting instincts. When he was casting actors for his TV show Twin Peaks in the 1990s, he chose Richard Beymer (who played Tony in West Side Story) and Russ Tamblyn (who played Riff). It happened to be the first time the duo had acted together since West Side Story.

Krup You!

While Bernstein was composing the song Gee! Officer Krupke, with lyricist Stephen Sondheim, they were thinking of ways to make the film feel more authentic regarding the actors and their characters. While writing the song’s lyrics, Sondheim wanted to use the F-word in the middle of the song. He was later advised by Colombia Records that it would affect the film’s popularity. He then changed the lyrics to “Krup you.”

Rita Moreno and other ladies dancing towards a group of men in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

While Bernstein enjoyed the high-budget facilities of Hollywood with quality recording studios and sizable orchestras, he did have a few issues with some of the studio’s decisions. The main issue was that despite having written the music for a large-scale, 90-piece orchestra, Bernstein agreed that it could be done with a smaller orchestra. The Broadway version used only a third of that.

Both Critical and Box-Office Success

While they were filming, the budget was rising; it would ultimately be roughly $300,000 over-budget. They were also running weeks past their due date. This meant that the entire cast and crew were under immense pressure. Their worries about the film’s reception were eased once they saw how much critical acclaim it received.

A fight scene with two men on their backs on the ground and four men standing over them in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

Not only was it a box-office success, but it won 10 Academy Awards – a record for a musical. The film ended up making $44.1 million. It became the highest-grossing film of 1961 and remained as such until the release of The Sound of Music in 1965.

Rita Moreno’s Breakout Role

After her award-winning appearance on West Side Story, Moreno went on to star in a number of different films. She’s often considered the actress who, after this film, enjoyed the best career. Almost overnight, she became a hot commodity in Hollywood. She was hailed as a “triple threat” who acted, danced and even sang beautifully (she sang her own vocals in the film’s song America).

Rita Moreno and other women dancing in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Her triple-threat talent is how she scored a role in Singin’ in the Rain and The King and I. In the past, she had only played minor roles as the stereotypical Latin-American character. Her most recent appearance was in the 2014 animated movie Rio 2.

A Last-Minute Masterpiece

Stephen Sondheim is a famed songwriter who worked on many films and musicals throughout his life. He studied music under Oscar Hammerstein III but lacked any professional experience. After meeting Robbins, he was asked to help with songwriting and minor arranging for West Side Story. It ended up becoming his break-out musical. He later won a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award.

Barbara Streisand and Stephen Sondheim posing together in 1985
Barbara Streisand with Stephen Sondheim 1985. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Speaking of songwriting, just 12 days before the Broadway musical of West Side Story was supposed to premiere in Washington D.C., Bernstein and Sondheim wrote Something’s Coming. The song was meant to be for Tony – to help with his character exposition. The last-minute masterpiece succeeded.

A Very Different Ending

While Bernstein and Robbins were working on the story for the film, Robbins decided to change the script’s original ending. At first, they wanted Maria to die in a typical Romeo and Juliet style. After all, it was the source of inspiration for their story. But they later agreed that to have Maria continue living after Tony died would be a more powerful and tragic ending.

Richard Beymer on the floor as Natalie Wood runs towards him looking scared and a bunch of guys surrounding them in a scene from West Side Story
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

It was a big change from the original script, but it certainly worked. Not involved in this decision was Robert Wise, who had never worked on a musical before. He was, however, an acclaimed director who had found success with films like Blood on The Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still. When he was offered to work on West Side Story with Robbins, he was saying yes to two firsts: his first musical and his first time co-directing a film.

The Magic Was Real

Back in 1961, the film was still the method of filming, but they still placed a few visual tricks, mostly based on optical illusions (like the moment at the dance when Tony and Maria first meet). For the rest of the film, though, what you see is what you get. The magic came in Robbin’s choreography and directing. When Wise convinced Robbins that filming the Prologue on the “mean streets” would be better, Robbins said:

Three actors dancing in the street in front of a brick apartment building in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

“You’ve given me the most difficult task right off the bat: to take my most stylized dancing in the piece and put it against the most real backgrounds we have in the picture.” They tested out scenes in downtown Los Angeles streets in daylight.

A Pianist, Dancers, and a Trolley

They ran around the studio streets with Betty Wahlberg, the rehearsal pianist, with a little piano on a trolley and an umbrella over her head. They pulled her along as she played the piano and the dancers rehearsed in the streets. Meanwhile, Robbins studied, developed, and adapted the steps to the outdoor setting and sunlight.

A group of men dancing with the crew and cameramen surrounding them getting a shot for West Side Story
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

After the “Something’s Coming” number, the action took place in the evening or at night. Wise felt that the rooftops, alleys, and the gym could be constructed on a soundstage and still look real enough. The opening prologue, where they danced through the West Side, sets an authentic tone that ended up being carried throughout the film.

Richard Beymer Wasn’t into It

Beymer, who played Tony, later said that he “was miserable in West Side Story. I didn’t know enough at the time because I lacked certain knowledge in acting… I came out ridiculous. I didn’t stand up for what I should have, and I didn’t know enough. The blame should be on me.” Ouch. It only makes sense then that he took a break from movies afterward.

Richard Beymer talking to Natalie Wood while she grabs his shirt collar in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

In 1964, he took a political path and got involved in Freedom Summer in Mississippi. “You get tired of being a complainer, passive,” he stated. What he did, though, was start making films. During this time, he filmed A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer, a documentary about the efforts of volunteers registering Blacks to vote. “I never left the movies,” he later said. “I just made different kinds of movies.” It was only in 1982 that Beymer returned to Los Angeles to reactivate his career.

The New Yorker with a Knack for Scriptwriting

With Sondheim and Bernstein handling the musical numbers, all that was really left to do was fill in the blanks. That’s where Ernest Lehman came in. A native New Yorker, from a rich family whose fortunes plummeted during The Great Depression, made ends meet. He started writing for publicity firms and promoting famous people in gossip columns.

Ernest Lehman holding a camera lens
Ernest Lehman. Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

Then, Hollywood called his name. He tried his hand at screenwriting, and that’s when the magic happened. Lehman’s first film was Executive Suite, and so the studio asked him to co-write another one with famed director Billy Wilder (who made Some Like it Hot). Lehman’s second film was Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden. It was an instant classic.

West Side Story Was a No-Brainer for Him

As it turned out, adaptation was his specialty. First, he transposed the musical The King and I into a movie in 1956, which became another classic. Eventually, he was offered to write the script for West Side Story, and he had the hugely successful stage musical to work with. With Sondheim and Bernstein working on the songs, he wasn’t worried about it.

A dancing scene with cast members mid-dance and their right hands in the air in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

But he contributed some terrific sequences, and some of the most significant changes from the musical to the film can be credited to Lehman. For instance, he moved the upbeat tune Gee Officer Krupke song earlier in the film, before Riff gets killed. That way, the happy vibes of the song are more in keeping with the overall storyline. The intense and downbeat song Cool comes after Riff dies.

George Chakiris Was Riff in the Stage Musical

George Chakiris won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Bernardo, which is still considered to be one of the defining projects of his career. The now 86-year-old first played the Jets gang leader Riff in a London stage production of West Side Story before he scored an audition for the 1961 film.

George Chakiris kissing Rita Moreno on the cheek while they held their Oscars in 1961
Rita Moreno and Georg Chakiris at the Oscars 1961. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Chakiris said that one day, during the time he was playing Riff in the stage version, he and a few others got letters from United Artists asking them to audition. His personal letter asked him to pick a scene as Riff as well as a scene as Bernardo. He flew out there with a return ticket for one week later, but they gave him a leave of absence to do further auditions, this time directed by Robbins.

He Learned from the Best

That test was for him to do a scene as Bernardo. After he flew back to London to get back to the musical, weeks passed, and he thought, “Well, that’s that.” One day, he said, he got a telegram from United Artists, telling him he won the role of Bernardo in the film. But he must have liked playing Riff since after the film, he went back to the stage to play the Sharks’ gang leader again.

George Chakiris surrounded by his gang in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

“It was an incredible time because I loved playing Riff in the theater, and, of course, I loved playing Bernardo in the film.” Chakiris said he learned a lot from watching Ken Le Roy, the original Bernardo, every night.

The America Number

In the film, unlike the play, Bernard had a duet with Anita in the America number. In the Broadway musical, it’s just by the girls. “If you have [original Anita] Chita Rivera, you don’t need much more,” Chakiris said. But the nice thing about the America number in the movie is the competitive yet playful feeling between the guys and the girls.

Rita Moreno and George Chakiris dancing surrounded by a crowd of people in a scene from West Side Story 1961
Photo by Mirisch-7 Arts / United Artists / Kobal / Shutterstock

Chakiris said he “loved every minute of that.” One day, he recalled, after they finished filming, they were all walking out of the studio, and Robbins turned to them and said, “That was very good spirit today.” That number was actually pretty daunting to film, at least for Rita Moreno, who said her dress with the lift in the finale was really slippery.

The Story Behind the Bracelets

There’s actually a story behind the distinctive leather bracelets the Jets and the Sharks wore in the movie. Chakiris explained that the two gangs were competitive while filming, but in a way where they tried to one-up each other with humor. He said that the Jets would hang a sign across the street that said, “Sharks stink!” They would also wear T-shirts that said, “Jets.”

Russ Tamblyn standing against a wall with ‘JETS’ painted on it
Russ Tamblyn. Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

One of the Shark guys, Andre Tayir, came to the set one day wearing a wristband, and all the guys loved it, so all decided to get them, too. Irene Sharaff, the film’s costume designer, also loved them so she made it so that they wore them on screen. “We all felt so good when we were all wearing that wristband, Chakiris said, “We all felt we’d put one over on the Jets.”

They Went Their Separate Ways

After West Side Story, Wise and Robbins went their separate ways: Robbins returned to Broadway, directing more hit plays like Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof, whereas Wise went on to make The Sound of Music. Robbins became the ballet master for the New York City Ballet company. The stage was clearly where he belonged.

Jerome Robbins and another man directing West Side Story from the air
Behind the scenes of West Side Story. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

As for Wise, he continued on the musical film path until horror movies called to him, most notably 1963’s The Haunting. He even made a couple of notable sci-fi flicks like 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Robbins died in 1998; Wise in 2005. West Side Story was their only collaboration.

RIP Natalie Wood

Wood died in 1981 at the age of 43 under mysterious circumstances during the making of a movie called Brainstorm. She was on a weekend boat trip to Catalina Island on board her husband Robert Wagner’s yacht. She reportedly drowned, but the circumstances surrounding her death are unknown. For example, it was never determined how exactly she entered the water.

Natalie Wood hooked up to head gear with wires and Christopher Walken in a lab coat standing near her in a scene from Brainstorm 1983
Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken in Brainstorm. Photo by Mgm / Ua / Kobal / Shutterstock

Wood was with Wagner, Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, and the yacht’s captain Dennis Davern on the evening of November 28, 1981. Authorities recovered her body the next morning at 8 a.m., one mile away from the boat. Wagner claimed that she wasn’t with him when he went to bed. Her autopsy revealed bruises on her body and arms, as well as an abrasion on her cheek, but it wasn’t determined how she received them.

Russ Tamblyn

His success as Riff in West Side Story led to additional leading roles, such as the horror film The Haunting (1963), which was directed by Robert Wise. But, in general, Tamblyn wasn’t really able to strengthen his position as a leading man. He later recounted that he “dropped out” after West Side Story and that he devoted himself to art instead.

Russ Tamblyn mid-air with the feet of his heels touching
Russ Tamblyn. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

He apparently turned down several movie roles as well as a role in Gilligan’s Island. He was first married to actress Venetia Stevenson in 1956, and then to showgirl Elizabeth Kempton in Las Vegas in 1960. The 85-year-old underwent open-heart surgery in 2014. But he is, at the moment, alive and well.