West Side Story is a musical by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is set in New York in the 1950s and follows two star-crossed lovers from the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The musical premiered on Broadway in 1957 and ran for 732 performances for which it was nominated for six Tony Awards. In 1961, a film adaptation was released, which was nominated for eleven Academy Awards for which it won ten, including Best Picture. Read on to take a peek behind the curtain to learn more about this iconic musical.
It Was Going To Be About A Catholic Boy And A Jewish Girl
Initially, not only was the film going to be about ethnic backgrounds but religion as well. Also, according to choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, the project was also going to be called East Side Story when they first started working on it in 1949. In the end, however, they decided that “the whole Jewish-Catholic reference was not very fresh.”
Six years later, at a meeting in Beverly Hills, they came up with the idea to focus on two teenage gangs with one being Puerto Ricans and the other “Americans.” By then, Manhattan’s eastern neighborhoods had been mostly gentrified, so they changed the project to its current title.
The Jets And The Sharks Weren’t Allowed To Associate Off-Camera
In an effort to create genuine hostility between the two gangs, Jerome Robbins kept the groups as separated as possible. According to producer Hal Prince, “They were not allowed socialize out of the theater, [and] they were not allowed to eat their lunches together.”
Apparently, the plan worked, and the groups began to show mild hostility towards each other with each gang pranking the other. Of course, neither group actually hated the other, but it was a nice way to evoke true emotion from the actors.
Maria Had A Deleted Death Scene
While William Shakespeare might have killed both of his star-crossed lovers in Rome & Juliet, West Side Story took a different approach that left one of the main characters still alive at the end. Yet, this wasn’t always the plan. In an early draft, Maria was supposed to have an untimely suicide.
However, composer Richard Rogers gave his opinion on the idea that changed everything. He commented that there was no reason for Maria to die because “She’s already dead after this all happens to her.”
The Song “Something’s Coming” Was Written At The Last Minute
Incredibly, just 12 days before play premiered in D.C., Bernstein and Sondheim scrambled to write one of Tony’s ballads. Their inspiration for the song came from a line that Tony was supposed to say during his first scene which was, “Something’s coming, it may be around the corner, whistling down the river, twitching at the dance-who knows.”
When they asked playwright Arthur Laurents if they could turn it into a song, he replied “Yes, take it, make it a song.” Surely, there was quite the scramble to execute this new addition to the performance.
Audrey Hepburn Turned Down The Role Of Maria In The Film
One of the biggest actors at the time of the film’s release, Audrey Hepburn, originally asked if she could play the lead character, Maria. Of course, the studio didn’t dare say no to have Hepburn in their film.
Yet, as it turned out, Hepburn had become pregnant, and after having experienced several miscarriages previously, she turned down for fear that overexerting herself might affect her pregnancy. Ironically, Maria’s singing voice, Marni Nixon, would become Audrey’s singing voice in My Fair Lady.
Jerome Robbins Went Undercover At A New York High School
In order to research dance moves for West Side Story without being obvious, choreographer Jerome Robbins took a hands-on approach. Much like he did with his project The King and I, he went undercover to a real high school, this time at a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Harlem.
While working on West Side Story, Robbins wrote a letter to dancer Tranquil Le Clercq, “They do dances I’ve never seen before, evolving their own style and approach.” Watching the students dance helped provide the play with a contemporary and relatable feel.
A Bilingual Version Of The Play Opened In 2009
Eventually, Laurents teamed up with producers Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander to do a different rendition of the story he developed more than 50 years earlier. On his new take, he stated, “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the gangs somehow.”
This resulted in the Sharks to speak and sing in their native language for the majority of the production. Much like the original musical, after some time in Washington D.C., it moved to New York where it ran for 748 performances, finishing its run in 2011.
Lin Manuel Miranda Helped With Translations For The 2009 Version
Before Lin Manuel Miranda became one of the most respected artists in theater, winning awards ranging from Tonys, Grammys, Emmys, and more, he helped with West Side Story. More specifically, he worked on the Spanish translations for the bilingual version of the musical in 2009.
His translations were used for the periods in the performance when the Puerto Rican gang speaks and sings their negative language. He also helped to adjust some of the less culturally sensitive aspects of the original production.
The Musical Tried To Say Something Never Before
While making West Side Story, lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted it to be the first musical ever to use the “F-word” and planned to have the word appear in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
But, unsurprisingly, Columbia Records pointed out that using such words would violate obscenity laws, which would prevent the show from ever going over state lines. So, they had to change the line to “Krup you!” instead. However, they still managed to get their point across.
The Song “One Hand, One Heart” Was From A Completely Different Musical
At the time that composer Leonard Bernstein was working on West Side Story, he was also working on Candide, based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name.
While he originally intended for his song “One Hand, One Heart” to be for Candide, he repurposed the song to become a romantic duet between Tony and Maria. Since he had taken a song from Candide, he took “O Happy We,” which was for West Side Story and put it in the first act of Candide.
Dancers Literally Burned Through Their Clothes
Jerome Robbins is notorious for pushing his dancers to their limits, and that’s exactly what he did when perfecting the dances for West Side Story. He had them rehearse for weeks longer than most usual Broadway shows.
Furthermore, when shooting the film, the actors in the “Cool” scene reportedly burned through their jeans and their knee pads from dancing so hard. The cast also went through an estimated 200 pairs of shoes by the time filming had wrapped.
There’s Some Made-Up Language
When playwright Arthur Laurents was writing the script for the project, he was afraid that the youth street slang would quickly go out of date. To make sure that this didn’t happen, he made up a few phrases of his own such as “riga tiga tum tum.”
According to Sondheim, Laurents created “a sort of Alice in Wonderland language that doesn’t date.” This could be a factor why the musical is still relevant so many years later.
The Creators Had Been Verbal About Racism Before
West Side Story wasn’t the first time that the creators decided to comment on political subject matters such as racism. In 1944’s On The Town put on by composer Leonard Bernstein and director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, they tackled a similar social issue.
At the time, Jim Crow was at its height, but the creators still had their chorus featuring black men holding hands with white women. Furthermore, despite the anti-Japanese sentiments regarding World War II, they still cast a Japanese-American dancer in a major role.
There Was A Real Life Cross-Gang Love Affair
Regardless that Robbins did all he could to keep the two gangs separated from each other while not performing, a couple did meet and fall in love during production. Well-known Broadway star Chita Rivera, a Shark, and dancer Tony Mordente, a Jet, fell in love.
Not only that, but the couple eventually got married and had a baby together. Luckily for the couple, their relationship had a much happier ending than that of Maria and Tony.
Richard Beymer Wasn’t Thrilled With His Performance
In a later interview, Richard Beymer, who played Tony, admitted that he wasn’t that happy with his performance. He wanted Tony to be a rougher character and more like a street kid that enjoyed being in a gang and starting fights.
However, director Robert Wise turned Tony into an incredibly nice guy, which Beymer didn’t think made sense considering the character’s backstory. Supposedly, Beymer went so far as to walk out of the London premiere because he was so embarrassed, even though it turned out to be his most memorable role.
“The Taunting Scene” Was Extremely Emotional For Rita Moreno
When filming “The Taunting Scene,” Rita Moreno, who played Anita, had a very difficult time shooting it. She was brought to tears when she was being harassed and nearly assaulted by the Jets. As if that wouldn’t be hard enough to act, she had been hurt similarly in the past, which made it all the more real.
When she started crying, the Jets immediately stopped what they were doing and began to comfort her. They also pointed out that the scene was going to make the audiences hate the Jets even more for what they were doing to her character.
Jerome Robbins Insisted On Directing The Film
In the beginning, Jerome Robbins refused to work on the film unless he could direct it himself. Producer Walter Mirisch was hesitant to agree to this ultimatum considering that Robbins had never made a film before.
So, he gave the reins to director Robert Wise on the agreement that Robbins would be able to manage the singing and dancing sequences. Nevertheless, Robbins had the habit of shooting numerous takes of each scene to the point that the film went over budget and behind schedule. This resulted in him being fired.
Natalie Wood Wore A Bracelet For A Reason
In the film, Natalie Wood can be seen wearing a bracelet on her left wrist. However, this wasn’t just for aesthetic purposes. It’s because she had a hurt wrist filming a scene in The Green Promise, which was released in 1949.
In the scene when she fell when the bridge collapsed during the rainstorm, it created a slight bone protrusion. So, she wore a bracelet to cover it up, which became a trademark in all of her movies.
Dispute Over Royalties
Marni Nixon was the singing voice for Natalie Wood, but she also did a number for Rita Moreno, which required a high vocal registry. Having sung for both Wood and Moreno, Nixon believed that she deserved a cut of the movie-album royalties.
Both the movie and record producers denied her requests, until Leonard Bernstein offered her part of his income, as the two had been performer-colleagues at New York Philharmonic concerts. In the end, he gave her one-quarter of one percent of his royalties to her, which was a very generous amount.
Beymer And Wood Weren’t All That Friendly
After the film’s release, Beymer revealed that he and Wood didn’t have a very close relationship off-camera and that Wood was often distant towards him at the time of filming.
Nevertheless, Beymer believes it was because Wood had a screen test for a previous film that didn’t go well. Years later, the two ran into each other at a night club, and she came up to him, and they talked for a few minutes. Beymer said that he was shocked by how nice she was to him.