Hollywood Flashback: 'West Side Story' Rumbled Its Way to Awards in 1961

United Artists/Photofest
Actors Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood worked with music conductor/musical supervisor Johnny Green on 'West Side Story.'

"I think it was the first musical to take utterly serious subject matter and not try to prettify it," says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin of the movie, which won multiple Golden Globes and Oscars.

For a 1957 Broadway musical that was about juvenile delinquents, racial prejudice, gangs and homicide, West Side Story did exceptionally well. It ran for 732 New York performances and had a national tour and a two-year run in London before returning to Broadway for another 249 shows.

The basic plot has white Jets gang member Tony falling for Maria, the Puerto Rican Sharks leader's sister, and that leads to problems. "I think it was the first musical to take utterly serious subject matter and not try to prettify it," says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. "And while it drew on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the songs and dialogue made it completely contemporary." The Broadway production formed the basis for the $6 million ($51 million today) screen version that United Artists released in 1961. Co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins each handled his own turf: Wise steered the nonmusical dramatic parts, and Robbins choreographed the dance numbers. While some of the cast were from the original Broadway production, the star came from Hollywood. Natalie Wood, then 23, was coming off a major success with Splendor in the Grass, and The Hollywood Reporter said that with the lead role of Maria, "she sets herself firmly as the most important young star of the time." Wood was paid $250,000 ($2.1 million today).

Elvis Presley was at one point considered for the part of her knife-wielding boyfriend, Tony. (In Steven Spielberg's upcoming reboot, Tony will be played by Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort; Maria has yet to be cast.) While the production had exceptionally strong elements, there were some tense moments during the shoot. Robbins was perceived as working too slowly and was removed during shooting. And it wasn't until the last day of production that Wood was told that her singing of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics wasn't strong enough and she'd be dubbed by Marni Nixon. But the film was a smash hit with a domestic gross of $44 million ($372 million today).

It went on to receive three Golden Globes (for best musical and supporting actress and actor for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris; they would also win Oscars) and was, as THR said, "so good that superlatives are superfluous." 

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.