Few films are as beloved as 1961’s West Side Story; a vibrant, big screen retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ told in 1957 New York where the feuding families have been replaced by rival street gangs the Jets and the Sharks.
Taking on the monumental challenge of remaking the film took over 60 years years and a one-of-a-kind team which included iconic, Academy Award winning director Steven Spielberg and the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning screenwriter Tony Kushner.
The original film garnered 10 Oscars wins, including Best Picture, a tough track record to live up to but with Kushner’s words and that Spielberg touch, plus an amazing cast including film legend Rita Moreno, the film is sure to be a major contender this year’s awards season.
Newcomer, (Rachel Zegler), was honored to take on the lead role of María , the young girl in the center of the story, who ignores the rules laid down by her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) lines when she falls for Tony (Ansel Elgort).
“I care a lot about this story. This story informed me as a kid of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When it came to myself and the late great Natalie Wood. I think that original film stands on its own as this iconic piece of film history,” said Zegler.
“That everybody is going to refer to for the rest of time. That was very present in my mind. I didn’t revisit that material because I didn’t want to compare in my own mind. I think that adds unnecessary pressure, and I knew that Ansel and I, like the day before we started filming, we’re just looking at each other going, “I just want it to be good. I just want to do a good job. I just want to do a good job. And that’s really all we wanted to accomplish.”
Respect for the original is echoed across the board by everyone involved in the 2021 version of the film. Writer Tony Kushner explained the challenge of writing a new version of a classic, “I love the ‘61 film… everybody does. It’s a masterpiece. I love West Side Story enormously, but it felt like an impossible thing to do. That even if we did a great job with it, we would be so overshadowed by what was, inarguably, one of the most beloved movie musicals ever, and justifiably so.”
While beloved, there were aspects of the originals that Spielberg needed to make some changes to if he was going to remake this film today. The biggest, and most welcome change, is the cultural appropriate casting. The 1960 version had white actors in makeup for most of the roles meant to be of Puerto Rican descent. That would not cut it today.
When writing the screenplay they took it even further with some creative decisions that just felt right. Kushner explained, “We didn’t subtitle any of the Spanish. That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help. It leaves it in the laps of the audience, or in the minds of the audience, to decide that they’re gonna be more attentive because you can tell pretty much what they’re saying. What I hope is that people who don’t speak Spanish that see the movie will come back with a Spanish-speaking person.”
While changes were made, the decision for the film to remain in its 1950’s setting was an easy one. Kushner credits recently-passed composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, “You’re gonna feel like it’s just happening now. So there’s nothing quaint or old-fashioned about it. And Sondheim who was, you know, the greatest lyricist, and one of the greatest composers ever to work, I would say any language, is a master at a kind of specificity that is certainly timeless in the sense that his insights into the way people think and feel are never gonna get dated.”
Authenticity is a term that seems to encapsulate the spirit of this remake. It was not isolated to the casting and the lyrics, it was also found in the sets. Zegler was inspired by the efforts to capture the feel of the city.
“New York became a character,” Zegler said. “The morning after the balcony scene, the beginning of the scherzo ballet sequence in the music, it’s just shot after shot of New York in the morning, and even if you’re not familiar with 1957 New York, if you’re familiar with New York now -it embraces that so well. I think the film really became a love letter to New York, not only because of how stunning it was visually, but because of the context that Tony Kushner gave it in the script of understanding the political climate as well.”
“It was just so cool to walk on Adam Stockhausen’s beautifully defined 1957 set and feel really transported. I think we were all able to really incorporate it into our performances as well because it was so immersive.”
Spielberg further praised Stockhausen’s work, “He did Bridge of Spies, Ready Player One, and now West Side Story. And he’s an amazing art director, production designer. The other thing I just want to point out is that the only digital work we used in the movie – meaning the only thing we did on the computer, was we had one set extension at the-in the very opening shot. He built five blocks of the ruins of the west side.”
“We actually built, physically built, five blocks of the ruins of the west side. He built those.” He continued, ”In the far background, we added all that to the Hudson River. The only other thing we did in this movie digitally, was we took out air conditioning units. We took out satellite dishes. And we took out safety bars on windows, because today, New York has safety bars. Everything else is authentic to the period.”
With the amazing set, the energetic cast, and the classic Sondheim songs, it is no wonder Spielberg had trouble staying in his seat. “I did jump out of my chair, and I did sing and dance with the cast, singing off key, and dancing like I had three left feet during rehearsal. We did four and a half months of intensive rehearsals, both in the city at Lincoln Center, and in Brooklyn in a place called Dumbo there.”
“That’s when I was really able to jump out of my chair and, Rita was there, too. And Rita was dancing with the cast. We-we were so influenced, or-or compelled to get up on our feet… because there was so much life in the air, with the song and dance and this genius choreographer, Justin Peck, getting a muscular dance style with all the male and female dancers. But when I made the movie, no. I was a director and I didn’t even tap my foot. I was just too focused on the monitor and on what we were getting and what images we were capturing.”
Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film (played this time by Ariana DeBose) and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, talked about passing the torch to the new generation. “Passing the torch is a great way to put it. It wasn’t easy. I’m not gonna say I wasn’t envious – that would be a bloody lie,” Moreno said with a smile. “I wish I could be that young again and do it again, but that wasn’t going to be. And I got this beautifully written part. I love me, in this movie, and I don’t say things like that easily. I love every scene I’m in, therefore I love what I’m doing.”
The significance of this new version of West Side Story was never lost on the cast, especially Zegler. “To be the first person, the first Latina, to play Maria on screen. That’s a huge thing. It’s a part of a legacy of a very important musical to so many people, that’s not lost on me. I can only hope that wherever in the universe Natalie Wood is, she’s proud of what I did.”
West Side Story is now playing exclusively in theaters.