By Maureen Lee Lenker
I like to be in America...
West Side Story's riotous production number "America" remains one of the most iconic musical moments ever put to screen. But it turns out one of its cheekiest moments was improvised.
While sitting down with TCM for a 60th-anniversary reunion as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn reminisced about their time making the 1961 Best Picture winner. But they also revealed some behind-the-scenes stories, including the fact that the line "I know you do!" as a rejoinder to Anita's "I like the island Manhattan" in the "America" number was improvised.
It was added by actress Yvonne Wilder, then credited as Yvonne Othon.
"The voice that you hear, 'I know you do,' that is Yvonne," explained Moreno. "That was not part of the song, and ever since then everybody who does the [stage] musical has one of the girls say, 'I know you do' and that's Yvonne Othon."
Chakiris credited Wilder with helping to instill the entire cast and atmosphere on set with a vibrant sense of fun. "One of the Shark girls, Yvonne Wilder had an extraordinary, unique sense of humor," he recalled. "I did the play in London with Yvonne so I knew her before the movie. But Yvonne's humor was adopted by all of us."
For all three original cast members, "America" remains a personal favorite. "I simply adore watching 'America,'" said Moreno. "Not only for my part of the dance, but I adore watching George. He is just so bloody elegant; he's just a super, very unusual dancer. He has that Astaire thing about him. I love watching it. I love me in it; I think I'm funny."
Tamblyn said his one disappointment, which he feels each time he sees the number, is not having shared screen time with Moreno. "The one big regret I have is that I never got to work with Rita," he mused. "I got to work with George a lot, we did a knife fight, but I'm such a big fan of Rita's."
Though Tamblyn, who initially auditioned for the lead role of Tony but was ultimately cast as Jets leader Riff, also said working with Chakiris came with its own challenges. "Working with George was awful because he was my arch-enemy in the movie, but he was such a nice guy," Tamblyn joked. "I had to do my best acting to hate him... When the movie finished, George and I became great, great friends."
For all three cast members, the movie permanently changed their lives (and scored Chakiris and Moreno Academy Awards) — and that's just how they like it. "I'm really grateful for this movie and to be identified with it," Chakiris said. "To have played the role of Bernardo and to have people think of me and remember me that way, that's amazing, and it's wonderful. It's a real blessing."
Rita Moreno was invited to audition for Maria in the original Broadway production of West Side Story
By Maureen Lee Lenker
Anita's gonna get her kicks tonight...
Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story, but Broadway history could have looked very different.
While sitting down with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz during the TCM classic film festival 60th-anniversary reunion of the West Side Story cast, Moreno revealed Jerome Robbins had invited her to audition for the lead role of Maria on Broadway.
Moreno met Robbins, who conceived, directed, and choreographed the Broadway show and co-directed the film while playing Tuptim in 1956's screen adaptation of The King and I. He was then preparing to mount West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957, and extended the audition invitation.
"He'd offered me an audition in the Broadway play for Maria, to go and audition in New York, and I got cold feet," Moreno confessed. "I got scared... It's one thing to be doing take after take until you get it right. At that point, I'd been in movies just long enough to get used to that. But to work for someone as severe and demanding and difficult as Jerome Robbins in a Broadway situation scared the living daylights out of me."
WEST SIDE STORY, Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno
Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno in 'West Side Story' | CREDIT: COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION
The revelation surprised even her costar and longtime friend George Chakiris.
But by the time West Side Story rolled around to the big screen in 1961, Robbins had re-conceived where Moreno fit best in the story. "When the movie came along, it was Jerry who suggested to his co-director Robert Wise that they audition Rita Moreno for the part of Anita," she said. "I had developed into the part of Anita; I no longer looked like a Maria to him."
In the end, Carol Lawrence originated the role of Maria on stage, and Broadway legend Chita Rivera first played Moreno's role of Anita. Natalie Wood portrayed Maria in the film.
Moreno was unique among the cast as one of the only Latinx actors, staying true to her own Puerto Rican roots as Anita. But she confessed she found costar Natalie Wood lacking, precisely because she was not a woman of color. "I don't think she was anything like the Maria that I envisioned in my head," Moreno reflected. "I think a great deal had to do with the fact that she was not Puerto Rican. I found her wanting in terms of her interest in getting it as right as she could."
She also decried the film's use of heavy tan make-up and the broader lack of Latinx members of the cast. But Moreno is part of a new take on West Side Story, coming this December from Steven Spielberg, that is, among other things, seeking to correct the racially problematic casting choices of the 1960s.
She plays a new character, Doc's widow Valentina, and is also an executive producer of the film. "You're in for some surprises," Moreno teased. "Because there's some things that were done in this movie that weren't in the original that should have, but you'll say, 'Oh my God, they're doing that?'"