'West Side Story': Rita Moreno declined audition to play Maria in OG Broadway production

Rita Moreno delivered a legendary performance as Anita in the 1961 film "West Side Story," earning the Oscar for best supporting actress.

But the actress, now 89, had the opportunity to be part of "West Side Story" history years before the classic film came to be.

In a virtual reunion with former co-stars George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn, shared on HBO Max Thursday, Moreno revealed she was invited to audition for Maria in the original Broadway production, but turned it down due to nerves.

"I got cold feet," she said. "I got scared."

The source of her fear, Moreno said, was the prospect of working for legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins, who offered her the audition. Robbins conceived, choreographed and directed the stage musical and met Moreno while working on the 1956 film "The King and I."

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Rita Moreno's Anita, right, is a close friend and confidante to Natalie Wood's Maria in 1961 movie musical "West Side Story."

Though Moreno praised Robbins as a genius choreographer, she recalled he "could be unbelievably cruel to dancers." After mounting the Broadway production of "West Side Story," Robbins co-directed the film version alongside Robert Wise, but was fired mid-production.

"It's one thing to be doing take after take until you get it right," Moreno said. "But to work for someone as severe and difficult and demanding as Jerry Robbins in a Broadway situation scared the living daylights out of me."

Though Moreno declined Robbins' audition offer, the choreographer kept her in mind for the film, suggesting to Wise that they let her try out for Anita.

Rita Moreno poses with her Oscar and actor Rock Hudson after she was named best supporting actress of the year at the Academy Award Oscars at Santa Monica, Ca., on April 9, 1962. She won her award for best supporting actress for her part in the film West Side Story.

"I had developed into Anita," Moreno said. "I no longer looked like a Maria to him. And I really didn't. That would have been so wrong."

Natalie Wood ended up starring in the film as Maria. Though Moreno praised Wood's acting, especially during the film's tragic finale, she took issue with an iconic Puerto Rican role going to a white actress.

"I don't think she was anything like the Maria that I envisioned in my head. I think a great deal of it had to do with the fact that she was not a Hispanic," Moreno said. "I found her wanting in terms of her interest in getting it as right as she could."

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