Interesting Facts

Hidden Secrets of West Side Story – 10 Facts You Didn’t Know

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

“West Side Story,” the classic musical adapted from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” has become one of the most iconic and beloved pieces of theater in the 20th century. Whether you’ve seen it performed by the original Broadway cast, in film, or on television, it’s hard to miss how much people love this piece.

But what do you know about West Side Story?

Did you know that when it was first released, some moviegoers were so appalled by its content that they attempted to leave in the middle of the show?

In this article, we will share 10 surprising West Side Story facts. So, prepare yourself to be taken back in time as we learn more about the history and development of this beloved musical!

1. It was supposed to be an ‘East Side Story

When “West Side Story” was first conceived, it wasn’t called West Side Story; it was going to be an ‘East Side Story’. The idea for the show came from Jerome Robbins’ concept of an ill-fated romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl living on the Upper East Side.

Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Robbins worked on this project together before the trio ended up working on other projects. Years later, while they were at a hotel in LA, they noticed one of the headlines that hit them hard – the rise of teen gangs around town.

So instead of East Side Story, they agreed to move it to the West side and focus their story more on clashes between two gangs – white American teens and Puerto Rican immigrants.

The first story still has a touch in “West Side Story”, though – when the Jets fight with their previous enemies; The Emeralds. This was Nichols’ way to pay homage to his original script as Emeralds were what he named his Jewish gang in that original script.

2. Audrey Hepburn declined the role of Maria in the film adaptation

Audrey Hepburn, star of Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was asked to play the lead character of Maria in the film West Side Story. However, she had to turn down the role due to personal reasons – she was pregnant and had suffered several miscarriages in the past, which made her wary of overexerting herself.

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn/ Source

It’s a coincidence that Maria’s singing voice was Marni Nixon, who also sang for Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Both Natalia Wood and Audrey Hepburn were eventually dubbed with Nixon’s astonishing vocals.

3. The choreographer posed as a student at a real New York high school

When Jerome Robbins, the choreographer for West Side Story, was looking to incorporate some new moves into his musical, he went undercover at a real New York high school in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Harlem. He wanted to capture the unique dances and body movements that were popular among those living there.

Robbins even wrote a letter to his friend, the dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq while researching stating that he had never seen such amazing dances before! His mission was successful as many of the steps he witnessed at that high school ended up influencing some of West Side Story’s iconic dance numbers.

4. However, there was a real-life cross-gang love affair as well

Despite all the gang rivalry, there was still a cross-gang love affair happening on the West Side Story set. Chita Rivera, the Broadway star who played one of the Sharks, fell in love with Tony Mordente, one of the Jets. This unlikely couple got married and even had a baby together! So even though there wasn’t any love between the Sharks and Jets on stage, it turns out there was real-life romance blossoming off stage and between two cast members. It just goes to show that sometimes enemies can come together in peace and true love.

5. For the show, Arthur Laurents made up some of his languages

When it comes to West Side Story, one of the best decisions Arthur Laurents made was coming up with his language. Knowing that street slang could quickly become out-of-date, he chose to create a special “Riga Tiga tum tum” language that served as its sort of Alice in Wonderland. According to Stephen Sondheim, Laurents knew it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, which is perhaps why this musical still feels so relevant more than 50 years later.

6. Spielberg had long wanted to direct a musical

For years, Steven Spielberg had longed to direct a musical of his own. Hook was one of his first projects that were originally imagined as a musical, but only a few numbers remained in the final version. After inspiration from Maria von Trapp’s The Sound of Music and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he decided to direct West Side Story as his first musical feature.

The timeless classic is now celebrating its 60th anniversary, and for many moviegoers, it has become an instant classic. From catchy songs and iconic dance moves to unforgettable characters and stunning visuals, Spielberg achieved great success with the film.

What makes this movie even more remarkable is that it provided one of the most iconic musical soundtracks in history – just listen to “Tonight” or “America” and you’ll be hooked. It is no surprise then that West Side Story has made its mark on popular culture by inspiring subsequent projects such as Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Sister Act.

7. They looked everywhere for the cast

When the directors of West Side Story wanted to find the perfect actors and actresses to play Maria and Tony, they went on a search far and wide.

An open casting call was announced in January 2018 for the main characters in the movie. Despite this, eventually, Ansel Elgort was chosen as Tony, while newcomer Rachel Zegler won the role of Maria – without having any previous film or TV credits!

The original production team was so impressed with her audition tape that they couldn’t help but give her the part. It just goes to show that talent knows no bounds when it comes to making a successful movie!

8. One actor had to lose weight for his role

If you’ve seen West Side Story, then you know Mike Faist’s performance as Riff was stellar.

To get that perfect look for the role, Faist took matters into his own hands to make a lasting impression.

Mike Faist In West Side Story
Mike Faist In West Side Story/ Source: Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

After studying photos of gang members from the 1950s, he decided to go on a diet plan and shed 20 pounds to match their physique. His hard work paid off and his commitment to the role helped make him one of the standout performers in the entire production.

It just goes to show that when it comes to truly immersing yourself in a character – even physical changes are part of the job!

9. This production follows its path

West Side Story is doing its own thing when it comes to the iconic musical. Playwright Tony Kushner said that his screenplay was influenced more by the stage version, but Director Steven Spielberg made sure to put his personal touch on it.

Justin Peck was hired to take care of the choreography, and while they still pay homage to Jerome Robbins original choreography, some moves are entirely original and done just for this movie.

To top it off, composer David Newman did an amazing adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s score for the movie. So if you were expecting a 100% replica of the original play, then think again – West Side Story is bringing something special to this classic.


10. The songs were performed live

Believe it or not, two songs from the iconic musical West Side Story were sung live on set! While most of the sound from the films was pre-recorded, “One Hand, One Heart”, “Somewhere” and “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” were performed live by the cast. This added an extra layer of realism to the scene – especially given their near-perfect synchronization with the recorded music! It truly is impressive considering all the exact choreography and chaos of shooting a movie.

In conclusion, West Side Story is one of the most iconic musicals of all time—and now we know 10 facts you probably didn’t know about this musical film. From its Broadway debut to its legendary songs to its impact on pop culture, West Side Story has truly made a mark on history. And let’s face it: what’s brighter than the stars in the sky? Nothing can outshine this classic show!