By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 06, 2021 at 08:30 PM EDT
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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?'"

Watch the clip above for more. The TCM classic film festival is airing on TCM and streaming on HBO Max through Sunday, May 9.

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