West Side Story is a 1961 film adaptation of what had been a wildly successful stage musical which had taken Broadway by storm just a few years earlier. The film was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and they would make history by coming the first pair to ever the Oscar for Best Direction; a feat not duplicated until the Coen Brothers took home the statues for No Country for Old Men. Oddly enough, West Side Story would be the only film that legendary Broadway director Jerome Robbins ever helmed. Including its Bet Direction award, the film went on to win ten out of its eleven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) with only screenwriter Ernest Lehman going home empty-handed. Success at the Academy Award ceremony was matched by widespread critical acclaim and the film becoming the second biggest box office hit of the year.
The story of rival New York City street gangs dancing their way to an appointment with tragedy resulting from a star-crossed love affair between a former member of one gang and the sister of a member of the other gang is essentially a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What gave the film such resonance that it became equally popular with critics and moviegoers, however, was its social relevance on the subject in addressing a topic that had never been hotter in American society: racism and civil rights. In addition to being a movie set within a genre not known for tackling serious issues, West Side Story broke new ground in that genre—in Hollywood movies in general—by presenting all its myriad issues facing its teenager characters with a seriousness usually reserved only for adult characters. While its gang members may bear no resemblance to any inner city gang member that ever lived, both in song and dialogue West Side Story refuses to belittle the problems they face by simply dismissing them as teenagers so many movies had done.
While star Natalie Wood famously had her singing dubbed by Marni Nixon in the role of Maria, the truth is that of the four actors playing the main characters only Best Supporting Actor winner George Chakiris required no dubbing at all and that is only because his character does sing lead or solo on any musical number.