“There’s a time and a place for us”, and definitely for a West Side Story film adaptation done the right way
Don’t get me wrong. The 1961 musical film adaptation of the Broadway hit, West Side Story is one of the finest musical films ever made. With its 10 Academy Awards, it is definitely an iconic masterpiece in Hollywood cinema.
But despite the success of that film, directed by its original Broadway production choreographer and director Jerome Robbins together with Robert Wise, it received glaring criticisms for its white-casting. Almost sixty years later, the Broadway hit musical is getting another film adaptation, helmed by Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg. And this time, “something’s comin’, something good.”
For about two to three years now, Spielberg has been preparing for his version of West Side Story. Originally scheduled for wide theatre release last December, it was pushed a year later by Twentieth Century Fox. At the 93rd Oscars ceremony, the first official trailer was premiered and well received by attending artists and audiences worldwide.
Ever since the production’s casting call for actors and performers of Latin descent made headlines among theatre communities, Spielberg has been already receiving praises for the creative decision to make the classic piece true to its very nature.
In a recorded speech of Spielberg at the set of the film, which started production in 2019, he said: “I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community. 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.”
Rising young actor Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler, of Colombian-American descent, have been cast to play the iconic Romeo-and-Juliet-inspired couple of Manhattan, Tony and Maria. Elgort and Zegler both had theatrical experiences, especially with West Side Story when they were in their younger years. In fact, Zegler played the lead role of Maria in a recent production of the said musical at her alma mater, The Performing Arts School at the Bergen Performing Arts Center.
Meanwhile, stepping into the role of Bernardo, Maria’s older brother and leader of the Sharks, will be played by Tony winner David Alvarez (Billy Elliot: The Musical). Anita, the fierce friend of Maria and Bernardo’s girlfriend, is on the other hand be played by Tony nominee Ariana Debose (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical).
But what will surely attract fans of the 1961 classic is Rita Moreno, the original Anita, as she returns to the big screen with this film as Valentina, a new character that serves as a gender-flipped version of Doc, the owner of the soda shop where Tony works. In an interview, Moreno shared “Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself revisiting this seminal work. And to be asked by Steven Spielberg to participate is simply thrilling! I am tingling!”
Watching the trailer, I only have high expectations for the film. Some scenes may appear similar in some way but Spielberg definitely gave a fresh take on it, cinematography- and production-wise. With Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (Angels In America) as the writer of the screenplay and Tony winner Justin Peck from the New York City Ballet as its choreographer, Spielberg’s directorial debut on the musical film genre should not go wrong. A notable part of the post-production is the Venezuelan conductor, Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, who handles the re-recording of the iconic musical scoring by Leonard Bernstein with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
So with West Side Story and In The Heights film adaptations anticipated to be seen this year, will the two much-awaited musicals vie for Best Picture at the Oscars next year? “Could be, who knows?”