West Side Story was originally created for the Broadway stage in 1957, and ranks as one of writer/composer Leonard Bernstein's greatest works. He created the play in collaboration with choregrapher/director Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Released in the midst of America's anti-Communist Red Scare, West Side Story and McCarthyism had a few run-ins. That, in addition to Robbins's extreme perfectionism, caused tension on stage and on the set of the 1961 film version, which affected much of the West Side Story cast.
After winning 10 Academy Awards and being hailed for embracing hard realities alongside song-and-dance numbers, West Side Story remains one of the most culturally resonant plays of the 20th century. The behind-the-scenes atmosphere of West Side Story, however, was darker than most people know.
Natalie Wood, who played Maria, struggled with singing and dancing at the same time. It didn't help that choreographer Jerome Robbins was such a perfectionist that he forced Wood to practice 16 hours a day. Robbins required his Broadway cast to rehearse for a grueling eight weeks (the average is four or five). Likewise, he set high standards for his movie and expected the film cast to live up to them. Even with Rita Moreno's help, Wood struggled with her Puerto Rican accent and at one point was so frustrated she tried to quit.
Wood wasn't the only one having problems with Robbins, though. Dancers who participated in take after take of the "Cool" number held a ceremony to burn their kneepads when filming was finally done. Additionally, one dancer caught pneumonia from working outside, and others injured themselves by repeatedly rehearsing on real street pavement.
It was once standard practice for movie studios to dub actors' voices so big name stars could appear in musicals no matter their singing ability. Although Natalie Wood's singing voice wasn't terrible, the studio decided to dub over it, along with the voices of almost every other main actor in the film. George Chakiris was one of the only main cast members to sing his own parts, and although Rita Moreno sang most of hers, a few numbers out of her range were sung by someone else.
It was also standard practice in Hollywood for the actual singers to go uncredited. Marni Nixon, who also provided the singing voices for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, sang for Wood and was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nixon's right to album royalties were denied, but Wood may have gotten the worse end of the deal. No one informed Wood her singing would be dubbed over; in fact, producers repeatedly told her she was doing a good job. Wood was rightfully surprised and angry when she found out her voice wasn't used.
Arthur Laurents, writer of the musical's book, called the stage production a "gang war." In order to help get the actors into character, Jerome Robbins demanded members of each gang to be remain separate. Carol Lawrence, who played Maria on Broadway, adds, "...he deliberately tried to foment animosity, antagonism, between the two opposing gangs, both on stage and off stage. They weren't allowed to eat together. They were not supposed to socialize."
Robbins was also known to post newspaper articles about local gang violence on the walls, saying this was now the actors' lives. While working on the film version of West Side Story, Robbins made the film's actors keep their distance from one another, too.
Since films can take greater liberties with the setting than stage productions, Robbins decided West Side Story would utilize several street locations in New York City. The director thought the real-life settings would add a lot to the film. The scenes were shot in an area later demolished to build the Lincoln Center.
The crew wasn't prepared for the crowds of fans that gathered to watch, nor the people throwing rocks at them from nearby abandoned buildings. The police were called in to manage the scene, but apparently weren't very effective. Co-director Robert Wise then got the brilliant idea to hire local gang members to protect the film's actors and crew.