A report by Samantha Bergeson for Indie Wire.
“West Side Story”
20th Century Studios
The highly anticipated film adaptation makes a series of firsts (and seconds). The beloved Broadway musical about rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, has already been made into a movie that won 10 Academy Awards in 1962, including Best Picture. Spielberg’s take on the “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired story will be the acclaimed director’s first musical, and he hand-picked newcomer Rachel Zegler to play lead love interest Maria opposite Ansel Elgort as Tony. Spielberg has also teamed up again with frequent collaborator and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony Kushner, with whom he had previously worked on “Munich” and “Lincoln.”
The “West Side Story” ensemble cast includes Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, and Brian d’Arcy James. Best Supporting Actress winner Rita Moreno will return in the role of Valentina. Spielberg was adamant that only Hispanic performers play Hispanic characters in the film; according to the director, 20 out of the 33 Puerto Rican characters are “specifically Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent.”
This updated “West Side Story” may still be set in the late 1950s, but over a half-century after the initial film’s release, Spielberg is looking to reflect the modern era with this timeless love story. “This story is not only a product of its time, but that time has returned, and it’s returned with a kind of social fury,” Spielberg explained to Vanity Fair in 2020. “I really wanted to tell that Puerto Rican, Nuyorican experience of basically the migration to this country and the struggle to make a living, and to have children, and to battle against the obstacles of xenophobia and racial prejudice.”
Get all the details about Spielberg’s “West Side Story” ahead of its December 10 theatrical release below.
Steven Spielberg Had His Heart Set on Adapting “West Side Story”
What Steven Spielberg wants, Steven Spielberg gets. Of course, it helps to be one of the most famous directors of all time. Back in 2014, 20th Century Fox had opened the vault to Robert Wise’s “West Side Story” after Spielberg expressed interest in remaking the film.
The “Ready Player One” director went on to tease a new “West Side Story” adaptation during an appearance on Good Morning America in 2014. “‘West Side Story’ is one of my favorite Broadway musicals and one of the greatest pieces of musical literature, my goodness, one of the greatest scores and some of the greatest lyrics ever written for a musical so just let me put it this way: it’s on my mind,” he hinted.
Spielberg secured the rights to the musical 15 years after first pursuing them, and by 2016, was already working with screenwriter Tony Kushner on a script.
Spielberg later gushed to Vanity Fair in 2020 that the musical always held a special place in his heart. “West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home,” the Arizona native explained. “I absconded with it — this was the cast album from the 1957 Broadway musical — and just fell completely in love with it as a kid. ‘West Side Story’ has been that one haunting temptation that I have finally given in to.”
Now, it seems Spielberg can finally indulge himself by bringing his passion for the musical to life.
Rachel Zegler Makes Her Screen Debut as Maria
The open casting call certainly paid off: director/producer Steven Spielberg discovered the perfect Maria in newcomer Rachel Zegler. The then-17-year-old star submitted a video of herself singing the songs “Me Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”) and “Tonight” as part of the audition process, beating out 30,000 other actors.
The Colombian-American, triple-threat talent graced the cover of Town & Country in August 2021, telling the magazine that a Tony Award was her “endgame” goal since age 12. Zegler clarified that her Maria is not a reboot, but rather a reimagining of the beloved character last portrayed onscreen by Natalie Wood.
“We’re not trying to recreate, frame for frame, the 1961 film. That film exists as this incredible piece of pop culture that everyone has seen and been affected by in some way. I don’t think any of us would ever try to recreate that,” Zegler said. “There are things to improve on and things to address. It’s such a cultural phenomenon, that film and the musical in general. I think the way Steven [Spielberg] and Tony [Kushner] framed it to all of us when we were auditioning, when we were rehearsing, when we were shooting, was, ‘We are making a movie of the original Broadway musical. This is our take on a story that every-one has heard, and knows so well, and really loves.’”
Zegler also mused on the iconography of Maria in the 21st century: “What does it mean to be an 18-year-old discovering all of these things about herself in 2019 — or in 1957, which is when ‘West Side Story’ takes place? There are layers of being an immigrant: How long has she been here? How long does she plan to stay?”
Since being cast in “West Side Story,” Zegler landed roles in the “Shazam” sequel, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” as well as another musical, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
“I’m constantly pinching myself, there’s no way this is my life,” Zegler said of being cast as Disney‘s Snow White. “That comes with a lot of gratitude.”
Ansel Elgort Plays Tony
Ansel Elgort officially landed the role of optimistic Jets member Tony. The “Baby Driver” actor nabbed the lead part after an opening cast call was announced in early 2018.
The character Tony was originated on Broadway by Larry Kert, while Richard Beymer played the lead in the 1961 movie.
Elgort shared his excitement about “West Side Story” on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” almost a year after his casting. “Musical theatre is my first love,” the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art alum said. “I saw ‘Oklahoma!’ when I was four and decided, ‘That’s me, the guy with the lasso!’” Elgort even sang a snippet of Sondheim’s “Officer Krupke” before detailing how intense rehearsals for “West Side Story” have been under Tony-winning choreographer Justin Peck. https://9db71a0397fdfe23f114857a80efa3e3.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Rita Moreno Returns as an Executive Producer
However, that is only after Moreno insisted her character Anita not sing an offensive lyric in her hit song “America.” As Moreno recalled, she was “this close” to walking away from the role before Stephen Sondheim changed the line to: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.”
Moreno revealed, “And that’s how Stephen Sondheim saved me from turning down this magnificent role.” Moreno went on to make history as the first Latin-American actress to win an Academy Award.
After news of the new “West Side Story” was announced, Moreno revealed that she was “nervous” about how the film would fare. “I’m kind of torn about the Kushner aspect of it,” Moreno said during a Beverly Hills Paley Center event honoring choreographer Jerome Robbins in October 2018. She added that any cameo would be “distracting” to audiences.
However, just one month later, Moreno joined Spielberg’s “West Side Story” as an executive producer. The Oscar winner also plays a new character, Valentina, the bodega owner whom Tony (Ansel Elgort) works for.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself revisiting this seminal work,” Moreno said to Deadline. “And to be asked by Steven Spielberg to participate is simply thrilling! Then to work together with the brilliant playwright Tony Kushner, what a glorious stew! I am tingling!”
Director/producer Spielberg noted, “From our earliest discussions, we wanted to include Rita Moreno in our production. Her Anita is one of the greatest musical performances ever filmed, and a personal favorite of mine.”
He continued, “We created an original role for her, and we feel beyond fortunate that Rita will bring her extraordinary gifts as an actress, as well as her deep understanding of ‘West Side Story’ to this production as an executive producer.”
The Cast Reflects Reality with Diverse Actors, According to Spielberg
Rita Moreno applauded Steven Spielberg for righting the “wrongs” of the original film when it came to casting. “The  film had a lot of things that were wrong with it, aside from the fact that it had a lot of things that were very right,” Moreno admitted to Vanity Fair.
The most glaring issue? Non-Latinx actors portraying Puerto Rican characters. “That’s what they were trying to fix and ameliorate, and I think they have done an incredible job,” Moreno noted.
Spielberg openly acknowledged the mission behind his casting process, particularly with the characters of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino, and the Sharks. “I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community,” Spielberg told Deadline. “I am in awe of the sheer force of the talent of these young performers, and I believe they’ll bring a new and electrifying energy to a magnificent musical that’s more relevant than ever.”
Spielberg also credited Moreno for being instrumental on set in maintaining the musical’s accuracy.
“Hamilton” actress Ariana DeBose will take over Moreno’s 1961 role of Anita, with Tony winner David Alvarez playing Bernardo, and Josh Andrés Rivera starring as Chino.
“They brought an authenticity, they brought themselves, and everything they believe and everything about them—they brought that to the work,” Spielberg stressed to Vanity Fair. “And there was so much interaction between the cast wanting to be able to commit to the Puerto Rican experience. They all represent, I think, a diversity, both within the Puerto Rican, Nuyorican community as well as the broader Latinx community. And they took that seriously.”
Expect “West Side Story” To Have a Different Sound
This “West Side Story” film will both look and sound different from its predecessor. The music team for Steven Spielberg’s 2021 musical includes conductor Gustavo Dudamel and Academy Award-nominated composer and conductor David Newman. Dudamel oversees the updated recording of Bernstein’s iconic score, while Newman arranges the new score for the latest adaptation.
“When asked to collaborate with the greatest film director of our time, on one of the greatest musicals ever written and conduct a score composed by one of your heroes, first you catch your breath and ask yourself, ‘Is this really happening?’ After you realize this is true, you humbly, yet very quickly, say, ‘YES, thank you,’” Dudamel, the Venezuelan-born conductor and music director of the LA Philharmonic, said to The Hollywood Reporter. “I view this adaptation of ‘West Side Story’ as one of the highlights of my career. It is one of the most beautiful and beloved scores in the history of musical theatre and I can’t wait for the chance to conduct some of the most magnificent songs that Leonard Bernstein ever wrote.”
Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori will be working with the cast on vocals, and Matt Sullivan will oversee the project as executive music producer for the film.
“West Side Story” Will Open in Theaters December 10
The wait is over for “West Side Story”: the film is expected to be released in theaters on December 10. However, the Disney and 20th Century Studios big-budget musical may face more COVID-19 delays. The film was originally supposed to come out December 2020, but following pandemic-related theater closures, the studio opted to wait another year for distribution.
Per an IndieWire report, “West Side Story” is expected to be a big box office draw this holiday season as the musical is “a proven commodity, a beloved classic which has been regularly revived on Broadway,” New York literary agent Eric Myers said.
Pixar’s “Sing 2” and “Cyrano” starring Peter Dinklage are both set to open in December, with release dates of December 22 and Decemeber 31, respectively. “Cyrano” made its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2.
So, how will “West Side Story” measure up to its fellow musicals in 2021? We will know right away, soon as it shows.