|Carol Lawrence: the original Broadway Maria|
The first order of business in bringing West Side Story to the screen was casting. This was left largely to Robert Wise,who had been chosen as co-director primarily for his work with film actors (stage choreographer-director Jerome Robbins would handle the musical sequences). The Broadway leads, Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence, were deemed too old by 1961, a curious decision considering the "teenagers" in the film were eventually played by people ranging from their early 20s to 30s.
For the role of Tony, everyone from Marlon Brando to Elvis Presley was mentioned. Brando, who made his musical debut in Guys and Dolls (1955), was reported by The New York Times as being "very anxious" to do the picture, "however, he wants to play the young lead and is worried at 34 whether this will be plausible on screen." The question turned out to be moot. The producers decided early on not to seek major stars since the project was considered to have enough advance appeal to attract large audiences on its own.
|Natalie Wood: the movie Maria|
Natalie Wood was Ernest Lehman's choice for Maria, but when it was decided to go with unknowns, she was eliminated, and the long testing process began. Ina Balin was an early favorite, but her deep voice contrasted too much with the soprano requirements of the songs. Barbara Luna was the tentative choice after all the tests, but suddenly Lehman's suggestion was reconsidered. Former child star Wood was just coming off the success of her first adult role in Splendor in the Grass (1961) when she was offered the script for West Side Story and one for Parrish(1961), a melodrama being produced by her studio, Warner Brothers.
She thought the latter script was "crap," but knew if she refused it, Jack Warner would make it impossible for her to go to United Artists for West Side Story. So she faked a case of tonsillitis and checked into the hospital to have them removed, effectively ending her obligation to star in Parrish. Her plan almost backfired when she contracted an infection that developed into pneumonia. She was in critical condition for three days, but recovered in time to report to work on West Side Story in April 1961.
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