Steven Spielberg’s Long-awaited Film Adaptation of West Side Story Finally Arrives.
By: Ellis Nassour
December 9, 2021: As we waited for the COVID-19-delayed adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s vision of West Side Story, with screenplay by Pulitzer and Tony winner Tony Kushner, questions were raised about whether there was a reason to mess with a classic and vastly popular film; and if, indeed, there even needed to be a new WSS.
The surprising decision to not reopen the much-hyped reimagining of West Side Story for the stage by Ivo Van Hove; the hugely disappointing box office for the screen adaptation [as opposed to filmed stage productions] of Cats, which was certainly now, but not forever; the much-hyped film of Dear Even Hansen, even starring Ben Platt, the Tony-winning and much-loved star of the Tony-winning play; and the stunning failure of the long-awaited and much-hypedLin-Manuel Miranda’s screen adaptation of In the Heights had many wondering about the fate of movie musicals with the noisy munching set dipping their hands in buckets of popcorn.
It was proof-positive that a La La Land, Moulin Rouge, or Hamilton doesn’t come along every weekend. It made one wonder how would the The Prom and Diana, without the power of Netflix, would have fared in theatres.
Now three-time Oscar and four-time Emmy winner Steven Spielberg (14 Oscar nominations), the most successful film director of all time[as far as box office grosses are concerned], who certainly knows something about making movies, has thrown his hat into the ring – and directed his first musical [decades ago, Spielberg directed a musical short and, of course, there’s the spectacular “Anything Goes” production number featuring Kate Capshaw [the second Mrs. Steven Spielberg] that opens Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom].
The WSS adaptation is by frequent collaborator (Lincoln, Munich), Pulitzer Prize and two-time Tony winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) (also a two-time Tony nominee for the original Caroline, or Change, now in revival).
“The time has come again,” says Spielberg, “for a West Side Story for a new generation. There’s so much about it which is a celebration of how you sing the language of love, how you communicate your deepest feelings to another person. I’m so proud and honored that I got this shot so late in my career.”
West Side Story is adapted from the 1957 musical written by Arthur Laurents, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim. The celebrated choreography was by the legendary Jerome Robbins. The musical was loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers of the classic tragedy set in Verona against two feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets.
For the stage, Laurents set the story in the mid-1950s on New York’s Upper West Side, then a multiracial, blue-collar neighborhood. The musical explores the rivalry between street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, each protecting their turf from outsiders.
Spielberg was asked why he was so compelled to make West Side Story, said to be budgeted at $100- million, he described a childhood where he listened to the original cast album until he wore it out. “I memorized all the songs.” Even though he never got to see it, “It became my favorite musical my whole life. And I did it because I loved Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins.
But he says he didn’t wish to approach the West Side Story for today’s audience as a remake. “It needed to be authentic. It would have to be realistic. It had to feel like these were the real streets these stories and tragedies were taking place on. I wanted it to feel like 1957 New York.”
The director also chose to not subtitle sequences with Spanish dialogue, which pleased cast members and was another effort to make the film feel more authentic. “It was out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast. We have 20 performers from Puerto Rico alone. That was very important and went hand-in-hand with my reasoning for not subtitling the Spanish. It would have been doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. That was not going to happen. I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it.”
Tony-winning theater legend and Puerto Rican native Chita Rivera, who won critical acclaim as Anita in the 1957 Broadway production [which starred Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence] says “I felt so privileged to be a part of West Side Story. It still is very much alive – actually it might be more relevant today than it was back then. It has everything: drama, romance, passion, humor.”
“The stage musical was a bold attempt at something that had never been done,” says Moreno. “Steven’s film is not a remake but a reimaging, an attempt to get everything right.”
Audition tapes poured in from around the world. One of the earliest caught Spielberg’s ear. It was from Rachel Zegler, a Puerto Rican right out of high school musicals [where she had portrayed Maria]. She was the second Maria hopeful out of 30, whittled down from over 30,000 submisions, that Spielberg saw and heard the first day of live auditions. She’s making her film debut at 19.
You’ll be seeing a lot of Zegler. She’s signed to portray Snow White in Disney’s live-action remake – a surreal dream for the girl who grew up singing along to songs from Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. “To say, ‘Now you’re going to be a Disney princess,’ it’s kind of crazy. It’s not lost on me how lucky I’ve been. I’m so fortunate.”
Unlike Natalie Wood’s take on Maria, of course, guided by acclaimed director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), Zegler/Spielberg’s Maria is hopeful yet headstrong as she attempts to live her life as a proud Latina. “It’s important for people like us to see people like us on screen.”
“We wanted Maria to be very young,” says the director. “It was really important because this is a story about youth. It also had to be someone who could act, sing, and dance. Rachel was 17 when she auditioned. And she could sing and dance – and, as it turned out, act!”
Film critic David Ehrlich described Spielberg’s decision to omit English subtitles a “genius move that offers a richer sense of context than any previous version of the show has been allowed. It’s a wonderful musical, and an unabashed Steven Spielberg movie. The moments in which it most comfortably allows itself to be both you are convinced some harmonies are worth waiting for.”
Former New York City Ballet dancer and resident choreographer Justin Peck, who won the 2018 Tony for Choreography for the revival of Carousel, did the choreography and dance combat.
Among the producers working with Spielberg is Broadway’s prolific Kevin McCollum (Rent).
The cast, estimated to be between 50 and 60, is also led by Ansel Elgort as Tony. He, like Zegler did lots of high school musicals. He hoped he’d land on Broadway, but film intervened.
Ariana DeBose, a Featured Actress Tony nominee for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, who was in Bring It On, Motown, the Pippin revival, and Hamilton and the TV adaption of The Prom, is Anita. Tony winner David Alvarez (one of the trio of young actors/dancers from Billy Elliott, was hand-picked by Spielberg for the reimagined role of Bernado, Maria’s brother and leader of the Sharks.
The Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-winning Rita Moreno, an executive producer on the film and who won the Featured Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, is Valentina, a role especially written for her. Tony nominee Mike Faist (Dear Evan Hanson) is featured as Tony’s best friend Riff, the leader of the finger-snapping Jets. Brian d’Arcy James plays Officer Krupke, alongside Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank.
Janusz Kaminski, a film director and the Oscar-winning cinematographer on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. He worked with the director on A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Amistad, Bridge of Spies, Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Lincoln, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Minority Report, Munich, War Horse, andthe TV movie Oslo. He’s cinematographer on upcoming The Fablemans, Spielberg’s autobiographical film written by Kushner.
Music direction is by acclaimed Venezuelan violinist Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramirez, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden.
The lavish production design is by Oscar winner Adam Stockhausen. Kaminski and Stockhausen create quite an opening sequence, a sort of homage to the opening of the 1961 film, with a complex aerial shot over the Upper West Side rubble brought about by infamous urban designer Robert Moses that made way for Lincoln Center and, going a step further, a fly-over a mock-up of the finished product.
Costume design is by Tony-winning Paul Tazewell (Hamilton). The film editors were Sarah Brosher and Michael Kahn.
The film started development in 2014 at 20th Century Fox. Kushner began penning the screenplay in 2017. In January 2018, Spielberg was hired and casting began in September. The film shoot ran from July to September 2019. Production occurred on the streets of New York’s Upper West Side, in Harlem, and New Jersey.
Like so many other film and TV projects, the release of West Side Story was delayed a year due to COVID-19. Another factor was that the new entity, 20th Century Studios, now part of Disney, didn’t think it a good idea to go up against Van Hove’s production.