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Fresh Air

Interview: George Chakiris, Rita Moreno And Marni Nixon Discuss Making The Film "West Side Story"

April 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
. All rights reserved. 

DAVID BIANCULLI, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

A new DVD special edition of the film "West Side Story" is now available. In a year when a film version of the Broadway show "Chicago" has won the best picture Oscar and revived the genre, it seems appropriate to revisit the best movie musical of the past 50 years. The classic 1961 "West Side Story" film, adapted from the groundbreaking 1957 Broadway musical, is about two rival street gangs on the West Side of New York. The Jets are white, and the Sharks are Puerto Rican. The music was composed by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. From the soundtrack of the film, here's the Jets' song.

(Soundbite of Jets' song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day. When you're a Jet, let 'em do what they can. You've got brothers around. You're a family man. You're never alone. You're never disconnected. You're home with your own when company's expected. You're well protected. Then you are set with a capital J, which you'll never forget till they cart you away. When you're a Jet, you stay a Jet.

Now I know Tony like I know me, and I guarantee you can count him in.

Unidentified Man #2: In, out, let's get cracking.

Unidentified Man #3: Where are you going to find Bernardo?

Unidentified Man #2: It ain't safe to go and be in our territory.

Unidentified Man #1: There's a dance tonight at the gym.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, but the gym's neutral territory.

Unidentified Man #1: A-Rab, I'm gonna make nice with him. I'm only gonna challenge him.

Unidentified Man #3: Right, daddy-o.

Unidentified Man #1: So listen. Everybody dress up sweet and sharp. Meet Tony and me at the dance after 10, and walk tall!

Unidentified Man #2: We always walk tall. We're Jets! The greatest!

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're the top cat in town. You're the gold medal kid with a heavyweight crown. When you're a Jet, you're the swingingest thing. Little boy, you're a man. Little man, you're a king.

Group of Men: (Singing) The Jets are in here, our cylinder's are clickin'. The shots will stay clear 'cause every Puerto Rican's a lousy chicken. Here come the Jets like a bat out of hell. Someone gets in our way, someone don't feel so well. Here come the Jets...

BIANCULLI: Actor George Chakiris won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Bernardo, the leader of the rival gang, the Sharks. A little later on FRESH AIR, we'll hear from Marni Nixon, who dubbed Natalie Wood's singing voice for the film, and Rita Moreno, who played Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo.

Here's Chakiris in the war council scene planning a rumble with the Jets.

(Soundbite of "West Side Story")

Unidentified Man #1: We challenge you to a rumble, all out, once and for all, except...

Mr. GEORGE CHAKIRIS (Actor): On what terms?

Unidentified Man #1: Whatever terms you're calling. You've crossed the line once too often.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: You started it.

Unidentified Man #1: Who jumped Baby John this afternoon?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Who jumped me the first day I moved here?

Unidentified Man #2: Who asked you to move here?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Who asked you?

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #3: Back where you came from!

Unidentified Man #1: Spicks.


Unidentified Man #1: What?

BIANCULLI: Before George Chakiris was cast in the film as the leader of the Sharks, he starred in the London production of the show in the role of Riff, the leader of the Jets. Chakiris, who spoke with Terry Gross in 2001, is of Greek descent. He told her what he had to do to make himself appear Puerto Rican for the film.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Well, one of the things they did to us, I'm very pale as a person, so they darkened us, of course, considerably. In fact, I remember when we started shooting the prologue, the very first take out on the streets of New York there, Jerry had them come up and say, `No, I think he needs to be a little darker,' so they made me darker still. So that was one thing that certainly had to be done. And the other thing was the accent, which I think was subtle--I hope anyway. And as I recall, we took Rita as our guide, so to speak, to make sure that we were sort of on track with that.

TERRY GROSS: Well, one of the glorious and silliest thing about "West Side Story" is the singing and dancing gang members. What did Jerome Robbins tell you about the choreography and the kind of choreography he wanted for the gang members, and why would they be dancing in the street?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Well, it was a musical.

GROSS: Exactly. Compelling reason.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: But one of the things that I think Jerry did so brilliantly--and he was, God knows, a brilliant man, and I think genius is not an overblown word to use very directly in describing Jerry--but the way the movement is introduced in the prologue of the film, when you first start to see guys dance on the streets of New York, you know, it's done with a very subtle kind of move, which is not really a dance move. And then there is another move, you know. And...

GROSS: Yeah. What's happening is the Jets are walking along the street...

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Right.

GROSS: ...and one of them will kind of like jump up in a dance, really, move, and then keep walking and then...

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Or just put his arms out, or...

GROSS: Yeah, or just put his arms out.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: ...very subtle stuff that eventually explodes, if you like, into dance.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: But we're introduced to it, I think, in a way that allows us, at least I think, to accept it...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: ...and not think, `Oh, my God, don't they look silly dancing in the street,' you know.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: The theater version started the same way, well, in the sense that they don't start dancing right off the bat. They build up to it. And again, that building up allows it to, quote, unquote, "explode" into the way they feel about their turf and the way they own the street and how the street feels to them and the neighborhood feels to them; it's theirs.

GROSS: Now you actually shot the movie version of "West Side Story" on the streets of New York, yes?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Right, 68th and Amsterdam was one of the locations; that's where Lincoln Center now stands. And the other location was a playground, which is still there, 110th Street and 2nd Avenue. Those were the two locations.

GROSS: Let's talk about the rumble scene, and this is the scene where the two gangs rumble in a school yard, and it's like part dance and part a choreographed fight.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Right.

GROSS: But there's more dance in it than your average choreographed fight in an action film.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So everything in it is really quite stylized. Can you talk a little bit about the choreography of it and learning it and what it's like to stab and to be stabbed in this choreographed kind of way?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Yeah. You know what I'd like to go back to in answering your question was doing the theater version of the rumble because, of course, we had to do it eight times a week. I would say it was staged rather than choreographed because there are no dance moves, per se, really, in the rumble. There are moves that make sense for a knife fight. And I remember--and you don't really notice this particular move, which I thought was such a wonderful move. You don't notice it as well, I think, in the film as I remember the way it felt, at least, in the stage version. And I, as Riff, had to do this to Bernardo in the stage version. It's hard to describe, but I run toward him; I sort of invert myself so that I get a scissor kind of grip with my legs around his legs, and I bring him down to his knees and then bring up the knife like I'm going to stab him, and then somebody pulls me off.

But these were kind of gymnastic things, if you like, although I'm not a gymnast at all. But, again, I think the difference in the rumble is it's staged, but I would not say it's choreographed because there are not dance moves in it.

GROSS: Did the actors playing the members of the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, mingle on the set, or were you advised to keep separately, as if you really were Jets and Sharks?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: It wasn't the same as the theater version. Now I think in the theater version, although, again, I was not there for the creation of it, Jerry Robbins made it clear on the first day of rehearsal that he wanted the Sharks to stay over there, the Jets to stay over there, not have lunch together, not socialize with each other. He encouraged that what he really needed was to create the tension and the danger that is vital to the piece. So that was very much there. Even for us when we were re-creating the piece for the London production, when it came time to the movie, he absolutely wanted that same tension and danger, but he eased up on that particular aspect, but it was still there.

GROSS: Was it helpful, in the London cast, to keep the Jets and Sharks separate? Was that helpful to you?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: It was, and I think one of the reasons it was--I have seen productions of "West Side Story," not many, in the theater, where the danger is not there, and I think Jerry's means of getting that danger there--that is, by keeping us separate--definitely did help. I had never acted in my life. I'd been a chorus dancer. I mean, I wanted to be an actor; I just didn't know how to get there. So it was helpful. And it also made us go further in our own imaginations as to how to keep that feeling alive on the stage. And being younger people, I think Jerry--this was little cutting to the chase. You know, he knew how to make it happen.

GROSS: Now I've read that some of the actors who tested for parts in the film adaptation of "West Side Story" include Tony Perkins, Warren Beatty, Bobby Darin, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain and Troy Donahue.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: And Robert Redford.

GROSS: And Robert Redford? Really?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Yeah. I heard that...

GROSS: For which part?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: I don't know, but I know I've heard that. I don't know if I heard it from Bob Wise, but I think so.

GROSS: Did you know that all those other people had tested?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Had no idea at all, no. And, again, going back to this thing when we were doing it in the theater, never dreaming you'd get--it just never entered our minds that we'd ever be part of this, it was a tremendous thrill and surprise because we were getting news from Los Angeles about, you know, big stars testing--or maybe not testing, but being considered. I think two of the names that I remember hearing--I think I'm correct--one was Elizabeth Taylor and one was Elvis Presley. I don't know if those were, in fact, real considerations or not. It was just part of the bits of things...

GROSS: Right. Interesting.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: newspapers that would be put on the bulletin board for us to see at the stage door.

GROSS: Now you won an Academy Award for your performance as Bernardo.

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Right.

GROSS: How did it change your career to get the Academy Award?

Mr. CHAKIRIS: Well, before that, I didn't have a career. I mean, I was doing well enough, I suppose, really. But what it did was it opened doors for the remainder--and still does, oddly enough. It still does. But it changed everything for me, certainly.

BIANCULLI: George Chakiris speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. He won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Bernardo in the film version of "West Side Story." Coming up we hear from Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the film, and singer Marni Nixon, who dubbed the singing for Natalie Wood.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's hear more about the making of the film "West Side Story." A new DVD special edition of the film is now available. Rita Moreno and Marni Nixon talked with Terry Gross in 2001. Nixon dubbed Natalie Wood's singing part, and Wood's original vocals can be heard for comparison as one of the extras on the new DVD set. Nixon also did the singing for Deborah Kerr in the film "The King and I."

Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her performance as Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, who was the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Moreno just completed a stint as one of the stars of the HBO prison drama "Oz," playing a nun who worked with the inmates. In the film "West Side Story" she was one of the few actors playing a Puerto Rican who actually was from Puerto Rico.

Ms. RITA MORENO (Actress): The reason was that there simply weren't enough Hispanic--forget Puerto Rican--Hispanic male and female dancers at the time who could do the kind of professional job that was needed for Jerome Robbins' choreography, which is, you might have noticed, extremely complex and very difficult. There just weren't any. The reason there weren't any, I am surmising, is that a lot of Latin kids, Latino kids, in those days didn't have the money to take those kind of classes. They were a lot like, in the way, the street dancers of years later, the kids who danced on their backs and all that kind of stuff, who had talent, but didn't have the training. So, as a result, the Sharks--gosh, there were just a few of us, really, who were truly Latino, who were able to get the part.

GROSS: Did you have to do anything to look more, act more or sound more Puerto Rican?

Ms. MORENO: They made me use an accent, which I wasn't thrilled about because a lot of us, obviously, don't have them. The thing that really bothered me the most is that they put the same very muddy, dark-colored makeup on every Shark girl and boy, and that really made me very upset. And I tried to get that changed, and I said, `Look at us. We're all, you know, many, many different colors. Some of us are very white, some of us are olive-skinned, some of us actually have black blood, some of us are Taino Indian,' which is the original Puerto Rican. And nobody paid attention, and that was that. I had no choice in the matter, but I was not happy.

And when I saw the film recently and saw George Chakiris, this beautiful guy, Greek guy, who looked like he had fallen into a bucket of mud, I just started to giggle.

GROSS: Now, Marni Nixon, you dubbed the singing for Natalie Wood. Did she know when she got the part that she was going to be dubbed, that she wouldn't be singing herself?

Ms. MARNI NIXON: No, I think the problem always during the picture was that I think it was very unclear; that she didn't know how much of her voice could be used. They didn't tell her that gradually--I guess as they worked with her, that maybe it wasn't going to be good enough because they were afraid to upset her. And it created an atmosphere of--I felt very uneasy. And when we recorded the songs actually, we recorded them--they said they were going to record them with her doing the complete songs, with maybe there were combinations of me doing the high notes within those complete recordings of her's, and then they would record me doing the complete songs. And then they said they were going to combine those electronically later on, which I knew was not really possible to do.

I think they created a monster, really, in her because they--she would listen to her takes, and she didn't know--it's very hard to know whether you're good or bad and not really being a singer. And these huge speakers that magnified any kind of discrepancy--and, anyway, they would tell her afterwards, `Oh, Natalie, it is just wonderful, absolutely wonderful.'

GROSS: Oh, that's so awful.

Ms. NIXON: And then they would turn to me and wink, and I just felt like I wanted to cringe.

GROSS: What did you think of her takes? Did you think her singing was good? Did you think it needed to be dubbed?

Ms. NIXON: Well, you know, I can't even remember, except that I knew that they probably would all have to be thrown out. I think what happens is that when you're not really trained in music theater or in opera, that you can sing your own things in your tempo and your ownsongs and in your own way, in your own key. But when you're doing a Bernstein score, it's written like an opera. I mean, you have to have the rhythm exactly right, and she had to acquire an accent, which then I had to try to acquire because I had to be her.

GROSS: I'm getting...

Ms. MORENO: I heard her recordings. I heard her recordings because--well, we all had to have stuff like that at home, and actually she had a very bad voice. She wasn't a singer.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. MORENO: And it's not even fair to judge her on her singing because she wasn't a singer. She maintained and obviously insisted that she at least get first crack at it, which I suppose is fair. I think what was terrible is what Marni just related...

Ms. NIXON: Yes, terrible.

Ms. MORENO: ...because, as you know, it would...

Ms. NIXON: Oh, that...

Ms. MORENO: ...she would finish a take, and they'd carry on as though Amelita Galli-Curci had just, you know, come back. That's dreadful.

GROSS: So what was her reaction when she was told, `Well, it's going to be dubbed by Marni Nixon. Your voice isn't going to be used in the songs'?

Ms. NIXON: Well, I think, from what I've heard--now this is only secondhand.

GROSS: You weren't there.

Ms. NIXON: I only learned it through the musical powers that be, and they said that she was just absolutely furious and stomped out of the studio in a total rage. But I guess they knew that that would happen or--anyway, there was nothing she could do about it legally. So then, actually, I never really saw her after that, except months later after the picture had been released. So I didn't have any relationship with her after that, so I never knew--and she certainly didn't take it out on me.

GROSS: Rita Moreno, do you remember Natalie Wood's reaction when she found out that she was being dubbed?

Ms. MORENO: Only what I heard, which is that she was deeply, deeply disappointed, and it's certainly understandable given the way in which they handled it. I think she really believed it was going to be her voice, mostly her voice, with Marni doing, as she says, the tough notes, the hard notes, the long notes. And it must have been horrible for her. It's so unfair. And I'm no fan of hers, but I don't think--I think they dealt with it very, very poorly.

GROSS: You're not a fan of hers?

Ms. NIXON: No, I don't think she was right for the role. She didn't think she was right for the role. It's one of the reasons that she was not terribly friendly to the cast and not because--she was never, ever rude. Let me make that very clear. But she was aloof. And the reason I realize now that she was so aloof is that she felt so out of her element, which indeed she was. But the cast took it in a different way, and it's a shame because it made for a surprising amount of walking on eggs and tension around the set. I mean, it wasn't--I can't say it was horribly stressed. We had a terrific time. But there was always one person missing, and that was Natalie.

BIANCULLI: Marni Nixon and Rita Moreno speaking with Terry Gross. They'll be back in the second half of the show. A new DVD special edition of the film "West Side Story" is now available. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Group of Women: (Singing) I like to be in America. OK by me in America. Everything's free in America.

Unidentified Man #4: For a small fee in America.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Buying on credit is so nice.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) One look at us and they charge twice.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I have my own washing machine.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) What will you have, though, to keep clean?

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) moves in America.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) in America.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Industry boom in America.

Group of Men: (Singing) Twelve in a room in America.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Lots of new housing with more space.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Lots of doors slamming in our face.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I'll get a rich apartment.

Unidentified Man #4: Better get rid of your accent.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Life can be bright in America.

Group of Men: (Singing) If you can fight in America.

Group of Women: (Singing) Life can go right in America.

Group of Men: (Singing) If you're all white in America.


BIANCULLI: Coming up, more "West Side Story." We'll continue our conversation with Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita, and Marni Nixon, who dubbed the singing for Natalie Wood. Also, a satiric look at the world of folk music.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

Let's continue with Terry's interview with Rita Moreno and Marni Nixon. A new special edition DVD of the film "West Side Story" is now available. Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her performance as Anita, the girlfriend of the leader of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. Marni Nixon dubbed the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Wood played Maria, a Puerto Rican girl who falls in love with a former member of the white gang, the Jets. When Natalie Wood was making the movie, she sang her part and wasn't told her songs would later be overdubbed. Here's a couple of excerpts of Natalie Wood singing from the new special edition DVD of "West Side Story."

(Soundbite of various "West Side Story" songs)

Ms. NATALIE WOOD: (Singing) I feel pretty, oh so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and gay. And I pity any girl who isn't me today. I feel charming, oh so charming. It's alarming how charming I feel, and so pretty that I hardly can believe I'm real.

Today the minutes seem like hours. The hours go so slowly, and still the sky is light. Oh, moon, glow bright and make this endless day endless night.

GROSS: Well, Marni Nixon, when you were doing the singing, it must have been complicated since Natalie Wood thought she was singing for real, you know. She was lip-synching to her own recording, and then, well, did you have to sing in such a way as to match her lip movements?

Ms. NIXON: Well, that's usually the process, is that it's always the actress that has to come in and has the job of mouthing to her track or anybody's track. And so when she had filmed it to her track, the problem was also that she wasn't in sync with her own track. And I said, `Well, how am I supposed to fix it up if her lips are already not in sync with the orchestra?' And they said, `Well, you figure out a way.' And so that's the hardest way. I mean, it's so much better if it's prerecorded and decided and then she has to do it and then maybe you'd just fix up a few little spots, but this was in every single song practically, it was that way.

Ms. MORENO: It's also a question of feeling how that person feels when they're singing those particular lines.

Ms. NIXON: Yes.

Ms. MORENO: I was not able to sing "A Boy Like That." I was dubbed by another person for "A Boy Like That" for a very simple reason; not because I can't sing, but because at the time, I was practically a coloratura, which is a very, very high rangy voice, and I could not for the life of me--and believe me, I tried--I could not reach the low notes in the beginning of the song which starts (singing), `A boy like that will kill your brother.' And then it goes up very high to (singing), `Very smart, Maria, very smart.' And I couldn't reach those low notes. So they finally said, `Well, we're going to have to find somebody for you,' which, of course, broke my heart.

And they brought in a woman--at the time, a girl named Betty Wand who sang for me. And let me tell you how difficult that is. I sat in the control room trying to tell her--because I had started this conversation about feeling, how Anita was feeling at that time. But Betty Wand was a singer; she was not an actress who sang. And she just couldn't get it the way I wanted it. I wanted it...

Ms. NIXON: Oh, that's terrible.

Ms. MORENO: Oh, it's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking...

Ms. NIXON: Oh.

Ms. MORENO: ...because I wanted to sound--it should have almost been a growl, `A boy like that,' you know, barely sung. And she ended up sounding--and whenever I hear it, my stomach knots up because she sounded almost like a cliche Mexican. She was going (singing in Mexican accent), `A boy like that will kill your brother.' (In normal voice) I wouldn't dream of ever singing the song that way.

Ms. NIXON: Oh.

Ms. MORENO: And, by the way, I'm not making fun of her. That's the only thing she was able to do, and no one was able to help her even though I was there to do it any differently, because we must have done take after take after take after take trying to get her to do it the way I wanted it done and the way, you know, it should have been done.

GROSS: Well, Rita Moreno, what was it like for you to be singing this duet knowing you were being dubbed by somebody whose performance you didn't really like, singing this duet with Natalie Wood? Because she's singing, `I have a love and it's all that I have. Right or wrong, what else can I do?' And she's being dubbed and she doesn't know she's being dubbed, so, you know, what a kind of odd circumstance to be doing this.

Ms. MORENO: And...

GROSS: Just to clarify what's happening in the scene for listeners who might not have seen the movie. Natalie Wood, Maria's boyfriend, Tony, has just killed Anita's boyfriend at a rumble. And he didn't mean to do it, he didn't want to do it, but he did it to revenge the murder of his best friend. And so Anita, you, Rita Moreno as Anita, is saying, you know, `A boy like that who killed your brother. You know, how can you be in love with him?' And Natalie Wood is saying, `I have a love and it's all that I have.' So that's...

Ms. MORENO: But Anita's not only saying that. She understands when she comes into the bedroom that this girl, Maria, who was a virgin till then...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. MORENO: ...has slept with her boyfriend's murderer because she runs to the window, looks out...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. MORENO: ...Anita does, and sees him running away from the building. So it's just so many things going on; not only that she just found out that Bernardo has been killed by Tony, but that Maria, Maria of all people, has just bedded with this young man.

GROSS: Marni Nixon, you dubbed Natalie Woods' part on this duet. What's your experience of this duet?

Ms. NIXON: You know, I have no recollection except it might have been one of the duets--and maybe Rita would know--that was planned for me to do all along. So maybe she was singing to my voice during the filming. I've forgotten that completely.

Ms. MORENO: You know what, Marni? I think your voice was on that one...

Ms. NIXON: Yeah, I think it was all me.

Ms. MORENO: ...because if had been Natalie, it would have been even more difficult to do.

Ms. NIXON: Well, come to think of it, I don't think she could have even stretched into that. I think it was just the musical directors approved of it. I think I heard her sing it in the rehearsal studio and got a feeling of what it was supposed to be. And then I just recorded it. And then she had to approve of that, and I don't know--I guess she did, because I don't think we had to take it over. But it really wasn't in a duet form. I mean, I never saw Rita in the recording studio at all. So we didn't really do a duet together.

GROSS: Well, now I have to play this duet that we've been talking so much about. So...

Ms. MORENO: Now you're going to hear a very Mexican girl.

GROSS: Right. So imagine on screen, we're seeing Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno, but what we're hearing in this duet is Marni Nixon and...

GROSS and Ms. MORENO: (In unison) ...Betty Wand.

(Soundbite of "A Boy Like That"; music)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) Oh, no, Anita, no! Anita, no!

Ms. BETTY WAND: (Singing) It isn't true, not for me. It's true for you, not for me.

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) And in your words and in my head, I know they're smart. But my heart, Anita, but my heart knows they're wrong. You should know better. You were in love, or so you said. You should know better.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NIXON: (Singing) I have a love, and it's all that I have. Right or wrong, what else can I do? I love him. I'm his and everything he is, I am, too.

GROSS: A duet from "West Side Story" with the voices of Betty Wand and Marni Nixon. And my guests are Rita Moreno and Marni Nixon. Marni Nixon did the dubbing for Natalie Wood; Rita Moreno played Anita in the movie.

I'm wondering after the movie was shot, did Natalie Wood not want anyone to know that you, Marni Nixon, had dubbed her voice, and how did you feel about how much credit you should get? And then, Rita Moreno, I'm wondering how you felt about people finding out that in one song, in your duet, that your voice was dubbed? Did you not want people to know that?

Ms. MORENO: Well, no, I didn't want them to know. At the time, I was very, very--so embarrassed because it sort of seemed to cast a shadow on the rest of the stuff that I did sing, and I got over that. I mean, that's just ridiculous. But I'll tell you what is disconcerting--and I'm going to find out about it soon. Apparently, I think it's Columbia Records has Betty Wand's name on all of the stuff that I did, too, and that's made me very, very unhappy.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross speaking with Rita Moreno and marni Nixon recorded in 2001. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita in "West Side Story," and Marni Nixon, who dubbed the songs for Natalie Wood.

GROSS: Rita Moreno...

Ms. MORENO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I want to ask you about another scene.

Ms. MORENO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: There's a scene toward the end of the movie after your boyfriend, Bernardo, has been stabbed. Maria, the Natalie Wood character, asks you to send a message to her boyfriend, Tony, and this is right after the `I Have A Love' duet.

Ms. MORENO: Right. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so you go to...

Ms. MORENO: The candy store.

GROSS: ...the candy store to give a message to the owner there, and all the Jets are hanging out there. And they start taunting you and the implication is that they've raped you, too. I think that's the implication.

Ms. MORENO: Oh, yes. Yes, if it had been...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. MORENO: ...done a few years ago, that's what would have happened.

GROSS: Right. But it's all kind of stylized and choreographed. Can you talk about that scene?

Ms. MORENO: Gee, I'm glad you brought that up because that was a seminal scene for me. Some interesting and personal emotional pond scum came to the surface.

We rehearsed that number, as we did with everything in that movie, for weeks. And then we got to the shooting, which took, I would say, about seven days. And at some point, having the boys constantly cursing me out and throwing me around and calling me things like `Spick' and `Garlic Mouth' and `Pierced Ear' apparently opened up some wounds that I thought had been healed years and years and years before then. And I remember that at that point--and I think it was in the middle of shooting some part of that scene--I stopped and I sat down at the stool of the candy counter, put my head on my arms and started to sob and cry, and I could not stop. I must have cried for about 45 minutes, and there was no consoling me; I was inconsolable. And it's funny. As I speak of it, I start getting tears in my eyes.

And the boys came to me and said, `Oh, Rita, please, you know we love you. You know we love you. Please don't cry. Please stop. Oh, the audience is going to hate us.' And I couldn't stop. And finally Bob Wise called lunch and, you know, I calmed down, obviously, after lunch and we got it all done. But there is a huge piece of my soul in that scene. It's all of the terrible things that happened to me. Not like that, but it was symbolic of all of the terrible things that happened to me when I was younger that apparently just inundated my soul and seared my soul and I was as surprised as anybody.

GROSS: When you were able to start shooting the film again, do you feel like that personal connection deepened your performance, or did it get in the way of it because it was so upsetting?

Ms. MORENO: No. No, it didn't get in the way. I think it deepened it. And by the time we got to the part of the scene where Doc, the candy store owner, comes in and stops the rape, the symbolic rape and I go to the door and say, `Don't you touch me,' because I think they were saying something like, `Don't let her get away.' And somebody puts their hand on my shoulder and I turn around and say, `Don't you touch me!' Wow! That was filled with every terrible anger that I have ever experienced in my life, that line. It didn't get in the way.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the choreography that Jerry Robbins worked out for the rape scene?

Ms. MORENO: Jerry had an ability, which is rare even now, to choreograph for character. In other words, any step that Anita might do, say in "America" or in the mambo at the gym, was not a step that he would ever have dreamed of giving to some other character on the other side, for instance, to a Jet girl. And he worked that out with us. He was a meticulous, crazy man. He was meticulous with respect to what he wanted. The problem was he didn't always know exactly what he wanted. He just wanted it to be perfect.

And Jerry had several versions of each section of each dance, so that, for instance, if you were rehearsing "America" with him, he, after you did one version, would say, `OK. Let me see version B of section two.' So you were really learning anywhere from two to three other dances beside the original one. That's how he worked. And he would watch it and watch it and watch and then say, `OK. Now let me go back to section one and do version A of that.' He wanted to get the very best he could out of each section of these dances.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MORENO: And that's how the rape scene also happened. It was a question of throwing me around. And when they would throw me around, when someone would grab my blouse to try to tear it off, when somebody would lift up my skirts to humiliate me, all that kind of stuff was very, very planned.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross, speaking with Rita Moreno and Marni Nixon in 2001.

Rita Moreno was an Oscar for her performance as Anita in "West Side Story." Marni Nixon dubbed the songs for Natalie Wood. There's a new DVD special edition of the film "West Side Story" now available.

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