After this daring musical made its Big Apple debut on September 26, 1957, critics reacted as if an atomic bomb had gone off over Manhattan. The next day, Walter Kerr of The New York Herald Tribune wrote that “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway.” Theatergoers were stunned. Here was an edgy, electrifying show with some of the boldest choreography ever staged. An emotional rollercoaster from start to finish, Tony and Maria’s tragic tale has been moving audiences for over half a century.
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE ABOUT A CATHOLIC BOY & A JEWISH GIRL.
Religion and national identity would’ve driven the drama of East Side Story, which is what choreographer Jerome Robbins & composer Leonard Bernstein called the project they started working on in 1949. But eventually they decided that “the whole Jewish-Catholic premise [was] not very fresh” when they were having a poolside meeting in Beverly Hills six years later. Under the California sun, they decided to instead focus on—in Bernstein’s words—“two teenage gangs … one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’” Because Manhattan’s eastern neighborhoods had been largely gentrified by then, their production was soon given its present title.
2. THE DIRECTOR INSISTED ON AN UNUSUALLY LONG REHEARSAL PERIOD.
Before opening night, your average 1957 musical cast was only given four or five weeks’ worth of practice. Robbins (who also sat in the director’s chair) demanded eight. “We had a lot of work to do,” he recalled, with the show’s intricate dance sequences requiring extra attention.
3. THE JETS & THE SHARKS WERE PROHIBITED FROM INTERACTING OFFSTAGE.
Robbins tried generating real hostility between these fictitious gangs. According to producer Hal Prince, the Broadway veteran kept both groups of actors as far away from each other as possible. “They were not allowed to socialize out of the theater, [and] they were not allowed to take their lunches together.” Obviously, this was an extreme approach. But over time, it started working.
“One day,” says actor Grover Dale (an original Jet), “the Jets got together and—out of big pieces of cardboard—we built a shark and stuffed it with newspapers and drew on it.” They then hauled their masterpiece up over the stage. From a height of five stories, they patiently waited for the Sharks and Robbins to return from lunch. When everyone arrived, the fake fish landed with a thud at their director/choreographer’s feet and the Jets shouted “Sharks have had it!” As Dale recalls, Robbins couldn’t have been happier. “He just loved it because it was like the homework we were supposed to do kicked in.”
4. FOUR-LETTER WORDS WERE REPLACED WITH INOFFENSIVE JIBBERISH.
Through West Side Story, lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted the F-bomb to make its musical theater debut. Initially, this choice word appeared in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but Columbia Records (which released their original cast recording) noted that using such language would violate obscenity laws and—hence—prevent the show from touring across state lines. Defeated, they went with “Krup you!” instead.
5. SPOILER ALERT: MARIA HAD A DELETED DEATH SCENE.
Shakespeare may have killed off both title characters in Romeo & Juliet, but one of West Side Story’s star-crossed lovers lives to see the final curtain drop. Things almost ended much differently. Maria’s untimely suicide was part of an early draft—until composer Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) offered his two cents. “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her,” he told Robbins.
6. BERNSTEIN PLUCKED "ONE HAND, ONE HEART" FROM A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MUSICAL.
At the time, he was scoring West Side Story and Candide—which was based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name—simultaneously. Though Bernstein crafted “One Hand, One Heart” for that production, he repurposed it as a romantic duet between Tony and Maria. In exchange, "O Happy We," which was originally a duet for West Side Story, moved to the first act of Candide.
7. “SOMETHING'S COMING” WAS WRITTEN LAST-MINUTE.
Just 12 days before West Side Story premiered in D.C. (it’d debut in New York later), Bernstein and Sondheim wrote Tony’s hopeful ballad. Their inspiration came from a piece of dialogue that the character was to deliver during his first scene. The line, as penned by playwright Arthur Laurents, went like this: “Something’s coming, it may be around the corner, whistling down the river, twitching at the dance—who knows?” When asked if he’d mind letting the sentence get turned into a number, he enthusiastically replied “Yes, take it, take it, make it a song.” This late arrival had to be re-orchestrated several times, making it a bit of a headache for the pit band.
8. AUDREY HEPBURN WAS TAPPED TO PLAY MARIA FOR THE FILM VERSION.
In 1959, the screen legend was pregnant—and because she’d already suffered two miscarriages, Hepburn wasn’t about to over-exert herself this time. So, when she was offered the lead role in what would arguably become the most celebrated movie musical ever shot, she declined. Rebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood got the part instead, with Marni Nixon dubbing over her singing voice.
9. WEST SIDE STORY'S 1961 CINEMATIC ADAPTATION SET AN ACADEMY AWARDS RECORD.
Seven months after its release, the flick brought home 10 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and even Best Picture. Thus, it won more than any other musical ever had in Academy Award history. As of this writing, the distinction still stands.
10. A BILINGUAL REVIVAL OPENED ON BROADWAY IN 2009.
Laurents joined forces with producers Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander to retell the story he’d helped craft over 50 years earlier. This time, he leveled the playing field. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the gangs somehow,” he explained. By letting the Sharks speak and sing in their native language during large chunks of the musical, Laurents hoped to do exactly that. Like the original, after a run in Washington, D.C. the show moved to New York, where it ran for 748 performances, wrapping up on January 2, 2011.