When the film version of West Side Story was released on October 18, 1961, it quickly surpassed its theatrical predecessor — a moderate success that had closed after 732 performances — to become a smash hit. Audiences were blown away by the forbidden love story of Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) and captivated by the dancing and singing of Anita (Rita Moreno) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).
West Side Story swept the Academy Awards, winning 10 statuettes, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress and Actor for Moreno and Chakiris, respectively. The film remained on movie screens for years in the 1960s, running at the George V Theatre in Paris until 1966. Today, it's still one of the most-watched, lauded, and beloved films of all time. Here are six surprising facts about the movie musical, whose remake hits theaters in December 2021.
Wood Wasn’t Originally Tapped to Play Maria
Audrey Hepburn, one of the biggest actresses of her time, was originally asked to play the lead character of Maria. However, Hepburn was pregnant with her son Sean and previously suffered several miscarriages, so she turned down the role to not over-exert herself.
Despite saying no to the blockbuster, Hepburn still made a splash on the big screen that same year with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
One Big Star — and a Few Stars-to-Be — Might Have Portrayed Tony
In one account of West Side Story's casting, Elvis Presley was in the running to play the lead role of Tony — until his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reportedly rejected the part. And while Presley's name may only have been bandied about and never under serious consideration, several actors who hadn't yet had their big breaks did audition for the film. These include Warren Beatty (who was also considered for the stage version as Riff), Robert Redford, and Burt Reynolds (though the interview sheet listed him as "Bert").
Beymer eventually won the part of Tony. However, he ended up displeased with his performance. "It’s a thankless role," he admitted in 1990. "It could have been played more street-wise, with someone other than me."
Wood and Beymer Didn't Get Along
In West Side Story, Tony and Maria embody the instantaneous pull of young love at first sight. Away from the cameras, Wood, by far the movie's biggest star at the time, didn't connect with her leading man. One theory posited to explain Wood's distant attitude was that she would have preferred acting opposite her then-husband, Robert Wagner.
According to West Side Story costar Russ Tamblyn (Riff), Wood's dressing room contained a "hit list" of people who'd gotten on her bad side, and Beymer was one of the names on that list. When Tamblyn asked Wood what Beymer had done, she reportedly answered, "I just don't like him."
Wood’s Singing Voice Was Dubbed — To the Surprise of the Actress
After accepting the lead role of Maria, Wood spent the entire production certain her vocals would be heard when the movie headed to theaters. She received intense coaching, and the music department assured Wood that her takes were wonderful. Though singer Marni Nixon also recorded Maria's songs, Wood believed Nixon's voice would solely be used for a few high notes. (Ironically, Nixon also was the singing voice for Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”)
It wasn't until the end of production that Wood discovered Nixon would be singing the entire role. Wood was an actress, not a trained singer, so it's not shocking filmmakers wanted a more skilled vocalist to perform Maria's challenging songs. But Wood would never forgive co-director Robert Wise for keeping her in the dark for so long.
The Dancers Suffered an Array of Injurie
West Side Story is lauded for choreographer Jerome Robbins' inventive and demanding dance moves. But his choreography was taxing, and often had to be performed in difficult conditions. Case in point: the opening number, which was filmed on the cement streets in New York City. Later in the production, a sweltering parking garage set provided the backdrop for "Cool."
Dancers experienced shin splints, ligament injuries, and sprains. Others were struck with illnesses like pneumonia and mononucleosis. An assistant director later said, "I don't ever believe I've been on a picture, and I've been on some pretty big action pictures, where there were so many injuries." As "Cool" called for dancers to be on their knees for long periods, a celebratory kneepad burning took place when the intense choreography was finally completed.
Robbins Was Fired as the Movie’s Co-Director
Making West Side Story wouldn't have been possible without Robbins, who conceptualized the stage musical and did the choreography. So when Robbins wanted to direct the movie version, producers agreed, though they did install Robert Wise as co-director.
As the film was shot, Robbins' choreography was, as always, impressive. But he demanded numerous takes, which held back production. When most of the big dance numbers were finished, the producers fired Robbins. His assistants handled the remaining dance scenes in the movie. Robbins considered removing his name from the finished project but ultimately decided not to, which turned out to be a wise decision, as he (along with Wise) ended up being awarded an Oscar for Best Director.
The Original Title Was “East Side Story”
When Robbins ideated the show in 1949, the original plot was about a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, appropriately called “East Side Story.” The project was eventually shelved while Robbins, along with composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents, took on other projects.
The show resurfaced in 1955 — but with a plot twist. Latin gang violence in Los Angeles was making headlines, inspiring Laurents to propose switching locations from the swanky Upper East Side to the then-rundown Upper West Side and centering the conflict around Puerto Rican and white gangs.