13 Weird Facts You Never Knew About West Side Story

Photo: Youtube
Maria and Tony embrace

West Side Story is the finger-snapping, Romeo and Juliet-inspired, urban Americana story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria set in 1950s New York.

The West Side Story plot has won awards both on stage and on the silver screen and has inspired a score of reboots, references, and characters. Most recently was the 2021 West Side Story reboot, directed by Steven Speilberg — which, so far since its release date on December 10, 2021, has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes (despite its lackluster ticket sales). 

The filming of the 1961 movie by the same name is not without both facts and controversy. Here are 13 fun little-known facts about the original West Side Story production you probably never knew.

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Rita Moreno was the only actual Puerto Rican member of the cast

Photo: Youtube
Rita Moreno

Out of the entire cast of the 1961 film, there were no actual Puerto Ricans besides Rita Moreno. This meant that Moreno became, for all intents and purposes, the resident accent expert and often helped other actors that were portraying Puerto Rican characters with their accents.

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The 1961 West Side Story film used brownface

Photo: Youtube
The Sharks gang

The West Side Story brownface scandal is a contentious one when considering the history of West Side Story’s 1961 film. In order to help differentiate the members of the Jets and Sharks, the Puerto Rican characters were put in brownface in order to darken their complexion compared to the non-Puerto Rican characters.

West Side Story contains depictions of immigrant minorities that, when West Side Story was made were revolutionary. Its use of brownface has somewhat soured modern viewings of the 1961 film as it comes across as tasteless and unnecessary.

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The Jets and Sharks were told not to associate, even off stage

Photo: Youtube
The Jets and the Sharks

In order to further enhance the rivalry between the West Side Story gangs, the members of both the Jets and Sharks were told not to associate with members of the other gang, even when they weren’t shooting.

The tension between the gangs in the 1961 film is absolutely palpable, maybe even real.

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Rita Moreno almost quit over the lyrics in the song America

Photo: Youtube
The Sharks Perform "America"

To audiences wondering “what is West Side Story about,” would likely walk out of a viewing of the 1961 film thinking that it was a Romeo and Juliet-inspired love story with the backdrop of 1950s American urban strife. What Rita Moreno did not want it to be was a racist depiction of Puerto Ricans and she nearly quit over the lines to one of the songs in the film, America.

In the song American, Puerto Rico was originally referred to as an ugly island of tropical disease. This unfairly negative representation of Puerto Rico did not sit right with Moreno and she might have left the film if it were not changed.

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Over the course of filming, over 100 lbs of makeup was applied

Photo: Youtube
The ballroom scene in West Side Story

Between the controversial use of brownface and the long shooting period, a lot of clothing and equipment was used over the whole production.

Included in the laundry list of expenses of the 1961 film was over 100 lbs of makeup. Just makeup. It seems like directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise were really committed to the use of brownface.

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Maria wears a bracelet because Natalie Wood had sustained an injury on a previous set

Photo: Youtube
Natalie Wood as Maria

Before becoming her trademark accessory, Natalie Wood first wore her signature bracelet on the set of West Side Story. She didn’t wear it for any sort of aesthetic purpose, however. Initially, Wood wore the bracelet to cover up an unsightly injury on her wrist that she had sustained on a previous shoot.

In time, however, the bracelet became synonymous with the actor.

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The movie was originally about a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl and called “East Side Story”

Photo: Youtube
Maria and Tony embrace

In the original concept pitched to Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein, the play would have been called “East Side Story” and would have been centered around the conflict between a Jewish family and an Irish Catholic family.

The plot was changed almost entirely to what we know as West Side Story today before it hit the stage.

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West Side Story won 10 academy awards, is the musical with the most academy awards

Photo: Youtube
Maria and Tony hold hands

West Side Story is the musical with the most academy awards, having won 10 different awards. West Side Story’s recognition in the form of its Academy Awards has solidified it as a true American classic.

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Elvis Presley might have been asked to play the role of Tony

Photo: Youtube
Elvis Presley

Before Richard Beymer got the role, it’s rumored that Elvis Presley was asked to play the part of Tony in the 1961 movie.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role of Tony, but if anyone fits the bill of a slick gangster type, it would definitely have been Elvis Presley.

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Snapping had to be dubbed in because Natalie Wood couldn’t snap her fingers

Natalie Wood as Maria

Natalie Wood, for one reason or another, couldn’t snap her fingers. While the 1961 film has lots of singing voices dubbed in, it also had to have a snapping noise dubbed in for Maria.

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Dancers burned their kneepads after the filming of “Cool”

Photo: Youtube
Performance of "Cool"

West Side Story has many memorable musical numbers, including “Feel Pretty” and “Gee Officer Krupke.” Among the most memorable is when the Jets, one of the westside gangs, perform the song and dance sequences for “Cool.”

Reportedly, the filming of this particular scene was so brutal that the actors burned their kneepads afterward in front of choreographer Jerome Robbins, who wrote West Side Story (original).

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Audrey Hepburn was originally asked to play Maria in the film version

Photo: Youtube
Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn was the original pick for the part of Maria before the role was taken by Natalie Wood, with her singing voice dubbed over by Marni Nixon.

Hepburn was pregnant when she was asked to take up the role and did not want to risk another miscarriage so she didn’t want to strain herself by taking on such an intensive role

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There was a real relationship sparked between a Shark and a Jet on set

Photo: Youtube
Members of the Jets gang

It turns out that there really was a secret relationship between a Shark and a Jet that started on set of the film and it wasn’t between the West Side Story main characters. Tony Mordente, a Jet dancer in the film, and Chita Rivera, a Shark, really did fall for each other on set.

After filming, the two continued their relationship, eventually getting married and starting a family. It turns out that a Jet and a Shark can get together and have a happily ever after after all.

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Dan O'Reilly is a writer who covers news, politics, and social justice. Follow him on Twitter.