Throughout the movie, Natalie Wood wears a bracelet on her left wrist, not for any aesthetic reason, but because she had injured her wrist on in the scene of The Green Promise (1949) when she fell on the bridge that collapsed during the severe rainstorm, causing an unsightly bone protrusion on her wrist. She wore the bracelet to hide the injury. It became her trademark in all of her movies.
The original stage version of Maria's song "I Feel Pretty" included the lyrics "I feel pretty and witty and bright / And I pity / Any girl who isn't me tonight." In the film this night scene was changed to the daytime, and presumably for this reason, the rhyming words "bright" and "tonight" were changed to "gay" and "today."
Opening dance sequences were shot on the upper west side of Manhattan where Lincoln Center stands today. This area was condemned and the buildings were in the process of being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. The demolition of these buildings was delayed so that the filming of these sequences could be completed.
Although the producers tried to keep the different gangs separate during filming to create tension, Russ Tamblyn (Riff) said that he knew of at least one "Jet" who was roommates with a "Shark" through filming.
The stage version was originally planned as a story about a Catholic boy falling in love with a Jewish girl. The working title was "East Side Story". After a boom of Puerto Rican immigration to New York in the late 1940s and 1950s, the story was changed, and the show opened on Broadway in 1957 as "West Side Story". The working title of 'East Side Story' was later used as the title to Mexican-American rapper Kid Frost's second album released in 1992 - with the placement of the 'East Side Story' title reminiscent of the West Side Story movie posters.
Riff and Tony repeat an oath of loyalty to each other: Riff says "womb to tomb" and Tony answers "birth to earth." On stage Tony's original answer was "sperm to worm," but this was changed for the movie because it was beyond the censorship standards of the time.
Lee Theodore, who played Anybodys in the original Broadway production, served as an assistant choreographer for the film. Russ Tamblyn reports that he and most of the rest of the dancers in the film suffered from shin splints at one time or another, the result of extended dancing on pavement as opposed to a wooden stage or soundstage floor.
The stage lyrics for the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" are "My father is a bastard, my ma's an s.o.b. My grandpa's always plastered..." The lyrics had to be changed for the movie to: "My daddy beats my mommy, my mommy clobbers me, my grandpa is a commie..." Also, the stage lyric was, "Dear kindly social worker, they say go earn a buck, like be a soda jerker, which means like be a schmuck." For the film, the lines were changed to "Dear kindly social worker, they say go get a job, like be a soda jerker, which means I'd be a slob."
Marni Nixon (who dubbed for Natalie Wood) had to do the end of quintet for Rita Moreno. The reason was that Betty Wand and Moreno both had colds and could not sing, so the filmmakers asked Nixon to do the end. So she is singing two voices at once.
Gus Trikonis who played Indio, one of the Puerto Rican Sharks - and who is actually Greek - is the brother of Gina Trikonis, who played Graziella, the tough red-haired Italian girlfriend of Riff, leader of the Jets.
The lyrics to "America" were substantially changed for the movie. There had been complaints that the Broadway version was too belittling to Puerto Ricans, in that the song mainly ridiculed Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. The movie lyrics emphasize the racism and discrimination that Puerto Ricans were subjected to in America.
The ship seen in the opening aerial view of the city is the SS United States of the United States Lines. It first sailed in 1952 and was laid up in the late 1960's and has been idle ever since. It was recently bought by NCL to be refurbished as a cruise ship. The SS United States currently sits rusting away at a pier on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. PA.
Russ Tamblyn had originally tried out for the role of Tony. It was down to just him and Richard Beymer, and Beymer ended up getting it. But then the casting directors called him back and asked him to read for Riff, and he got the part.
Even though dubbing Natalie Wood was Marni Nixon's chief assignment, Nixon also did one number for Rita Moreno, which required a relatively high vocal register. Having dubbed Wood as well as Moreno, Nixon felt she deserved a cut of the movie-album royalties. Neither the movie or the record producers would bow to her demands. Leonard Bernstein broke the stalemate by volunteering a percentage of his income, a gesture of loyalty-royalty since Nixon had been a performer-colleague of his at New York Philharmonic concerts. He ceded one-quarter of one percent of his royalties to her (a generous amount).
When filming "The Taunting Scene", Rita Moreno was reduced to tears when she was harassed and nearly raped by the Jets, as it brought back memories of when she was raped as a child. When she started crying, the Jets immediately stopped what they were doing and tried to comfort her, while pointing out that the audience was going to hate them for what they were doing.
Shooting in 65mm was prohibitively expensive. After their experiences making this film - and especially Jerome Robbins' extensive reshooting - the Mirisch brothers refused to make any more films in the format.
Jerome Robbins initially refused to work on the film unless he could direct it. Producer Walter Mirisch was nervous about handing the reins entirely over to Robbins, who had never made a film before, so he enlisted Robert Wise to direct the drama while Robbins would handle the singing and dancing sequences. Robbins developed a habit of shooting numerous takes of each scene, to the point where the film went over budget and behind schedule. This led to his firing.
Jerome Robbins rehearsed with the dancers for three months before shooting began. Once location shooting began, however, he kept revising and revising his original choreography. The dancers all claimed that they had never worked so hard on a dance piece, and most of them at one point or another sustained injuries during shooting.
The original Broadway production of "West Side Story" opened at the Winter Garden Theater on September 26, 1957, ran for 732 performances and was nominated for the 1958 Tony Award for the Best Musical.
In 2010, Stephen Sondheim (who wrote the lyrics) told "Fresh Air" interviewer Terry Gross that while he was writing the stage musical, he originally wanted the show to be the first one in Broadway history to use the words "fuck" and "shit" in its song lyrics. He wanted the end of the song "Gee, Officer Krupke" to be "Gee, Officer Krupke/Fuck you!" (instead of what it became, which is "Gee, Officer Krupke/Krup you!"), and he wanted the lyrics in "The Jets Song" to be "When you're a Jet/If the shit hits the fan" instead of "When you're a Jet/If the spit hits the fan". However, the show's writers were informed that if the Original Cast Album contained those profanities, it would have been illegal to ship the record across state lines. So Sondheim made the substitutions for those words that appear in both the stage show and the movie.
Along with all the other songs that were re-written for the movie perhaps one of the songs that was most worked over was "The Rumble Song" (Sometimes known simply as Quintet). Due to the outcome of the war council the best man from each gang will fight it out fairly. The duel in the stage show is initially meant to be fought between Bernardo and Diesel. Diesel didn't appear in this so the duel is between Ice and Bernardo. Also there is a part when Riff is talking Tony into arriving at the Rumble (I'm counting on you to be there tonight/When Diesel wins it fair and square tonight) which changed (We'll be a-backing you boy/You're gonna flatten him good) due to the change of the fighters.
In 1971 the film was re-released as a double feature with another Oscar winner for best picture, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). Both films made their television debuts the following year, "West Side Story" in March on NBC, and "Around the World in 80 Days" in September on CBS.
Jimmy Bryant was selected over every singer in the world to be the "ghost voice" for Richard Beymer. The producers flew people from all over the world to audition, putting them up at the Beverly Hills Hotel. When the producers decided to hire Jimmy, he was offered a contract at scale, which he took because he needed the money, desperately, at the time. Jimmy Bryant received residuals only for television replays. Inquiring about a Record Album residual, Saul Chaplin told Jimmy he had to deal directly with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim since they kept those rights. Marni Nixon, a friend of Bernstein, flew her agent to New York to negotiate her deal. Marni Nixon made $18,000 in her first check.
Returning to Universal Studios from New York, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise sat together while principal photography was under way. Wise was engaged to film the scenario elements, with the dancing segments directed by Robbins. The Mirsch Brothers decided to send Robbins back to New York because of the numerous "takes" he was filming of the dance sequences. Wise took over, directing all filming, to complete the musical film. All of the remaining dance numbers, to be completed, had been rehearsed and choreographed. Wise continued (directing) shooting the entire film as scheduled finishing the film, and editing, on schedule.
In the scene on the roof before the musical number "America", when the girls are mocking Bernardo's speech, one of the girls say ,"We came with our hearts open", one of the Sharks says, "You came with your pants open!" This line had to be changed to "You came with your mouth open," for the movie because of censorship standards.
During the "Cool" number in the garage a number of Jewel Home Shopping Service trucks can be seen. These were the home network of the Jewel Tea Company, a home routes business delivering coffee, tea, spices, and dry goods to homemakers.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Robert Wise wanted the film to have a single rising line of tension, with no light moments after the rumble. Therefore, "I Feel Pretty" was moved earlier, and the positions of "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" were reversed. Those who feel that the sassy, light-hearted tone of "Gee, Officer Krupke" is out of place following the deaths that end the first act prefer the film's ordering of the numbers. The placement of "I Feel Pretty" and "Gee, Officer Krumpke" after the Rumble in the stage version was meant to help cheer people up after the deaths of Bernardo and Riff, as audiences were not used to death occurring in Broadway musicals. This issue is still heatedly debated among the film's fans.