The transition from the stage to film isn’t an easy feat, but it’s even more complicated when the musical is West Side Story, a musical known for its innovative style. With Jerome Robbins, the stage director of the musical, and veteran director Robert Wise at the helm, The Mirisch Company set out to turn the popular musical into a film that the same critics would love.
It takes a lot of work to produce a film worthy of ten Academy Awards, but the cast and crew of West Side Story were able to create a film the Library of Congress would deem “culturally significant” to join the National Film Registry.
Like the musical, the film captures the hearts of viewers and the eyes of critics for its tense scene. However, the tension wasn’t just limited to on the stage. Here are a few stories about the real-life drama behind the West Side Story film.
The original Broadway cast was too old to be cast in the movie
The original Broadway cast was passed up for being too old to play teenage characters or for looking too old in test shots. Instead, the directors planned to cast Hollywood favorites in the roles and use ghost singers for the soundtrack.
Natalie Wood was forced to practice 16 hours a day
Jerome Robbins demanded perfection and forced Natalie Wood to practice for 16 hours a day to fill the role of Maria. He made her so miserable that at one point, she begged to be fired from the film.
Richard Beymer didn’t enjoy playing Tony
Despite it becoming his most famous role, Richard Beymer disliked his portrayal of Tony so much that he walked out of the film’s London premiere. He had intended to portray the character as a street kid but his director insisted that Tony should be nice.
Russ Tamblyn was almost Tony
Russ Tamblyn originally auditioned for Tony and received a callback. The selection was narrowed down to him and Richard Beymer, with Beymer being chosen. Tamblyn was later cast as Riff.
Wood kept a list of people she didn’t like in her dressing room
Natalie Wood kept a list of people that had gotten on her bad side in her dressing room. Richard Beymer was included on the list because Wood was upset that Beymer received the role and not her then-boyfriend.
“The Taunting Scene”
During the filming of “The Taunting Scene,” where Anita is taunted and sexually harassed by the Jets, Rita Moreno was reduced to tears. As a sexual assault survivor, the scene was difficult for her to film but her cast mates were very supportive. Whenever she started crying during filming, they would immediately stop and comfort her, reassuring her that the scene would make people hate the Jets.
Maria’s secret dub
Whenever Maria sings in the film, you’re actually hearing the voice of Marni Nixon. Although Natalie Wood plays Maria, the director didn’t enjoy her singing and used Nixon’s voice instead—without telling Wood. Afraid that she would walk out before filming was over, the director chose to keep Wood in the dark by telling her that they were only going to use Nixon’s voice on the high notes. She was also asked to dub the end of “Quintet” for Anita when both Rita Moreno and her ghost singer were both ill.
The unlisted star
As the singing voice of both Maria and Anita, Marni Nixon requested to receive a part of the royalties from the movie’s soundtrack. When both the movie and record producers denied her request, Leonard Bernstein offered her one-quarter of one percent of his royalties, setting a precedent for future ghost singers. Bernstein and Nixon had previously performed together with the New York Philharmonic.
Natalia Wood wears a bracelet on her left wrist while performing as Rita. The bracelet was used to hide a bone protrusion injury sustained during the filming of another film.
The Sharks’ leather wristbands
After one of the actors playing a Shark purchased a leather archer wristband at a sporting goods store, the rest of the Sharks ended up purchasing one. The costume designer liked their bracelets and allowed them to wear them during filming.
Brownwashing the Sharks
To make the characters “look Puerto Rican,” they used brown makeup on Natalie Wood and George Takiris. Rita Moreno was also forced to wear the same makeup so the characters would be the same skin tone.
Whitewashing the Jets
Like the Sharks, the Jets were expected to “look white.” Several of the Jets actors were expected to bleach their hair and wear lighter makeup to create a visual contrast between the two gangs.
Moreno helped her cast mates with pronunciation
Rita Moreno was the only Puerto Rican cast in “West Side Story,” which meant her cast mates had to develop their accents. If they had issues with how to pronounce a word or say something, they turned to Moreno.
The filming of “Cool” was very demanding and strenuous for the actors. During filming, Eliot Feld, who played Baby John, ended up collapsing and being hospitalized for pneumonia. After the scene was finished, the cast burned the knee pads used in the scene.
Real gang members were hired to protect the cast and crew
Jerome Robbins wanted to utilize the streets on New York City during filming, but he wasn’t prepared for the crowd of fans that would gather to watch them. At one point, people began to throw rocks at the cast members from the nearby abandoned buildings and the police were called to control the situation. When this proved to be unsuccessful, co-director Robert Wise hired local gang members to protect the cast and crew.
Robbins’ directorial debut
Jerome Robbins originally refused to work on the project unless he was directing, but the producer was nervous about hiring him to direct the entire film. Instead, he was hired to direct choreography and singing and Robert Wise was hired to direct the acting.
Reshoots led to being behind schedule and over budget
The film was shot in 65mm, which made it a very expensive project. It ended up falling behind schedule and over budget due to Jerome Robbin’s extensive reshoots of the choreography.
Wise takes over Robbin’s directorial duties
The producers were not happy with the delays and expense of Jerome Robbin’s numerous reshoots. He was pulled off the project, leaving Robert Wise to finish filming and editing the film according to the schedule.
“America” took multiple takes to film
According to Rita Moreno, “America” took 25 takes to film due to issues with the costume. At the end of the scene, all the girls are pushed up onto a guy’s shoulder. Rita’s dress, which was made of silk, made her slide off the shoulders of George Chakiris, who was wearing a suit made of silk.
Riff inspired a Michael Jackson hit
According to Russ Tamblyn, Riff is the inspiration behind “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. At the end of “When You’re A Jet,” Riff tells Bernardo to “beat it.” The energy and venom behind the line are similar to Jackson’s hit