Steven Spielberg directs his first musical with the remake of the 1962 Best Picture winner, “West Side Story.”
The film tells the story of a Romeo and Juliet-like couple – Maria played by newcomer Rachel Zegler and Tony (Ansel Elgort) – whose instant attraction is happening right as racial and turf wars are heating up between two gangs in New York during the 1950s. Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) is the leader of the Sharks, and the Jets are run by Tony’s best friend Riff (Mike Faist.)
The film also features Rita Moreno. The 89-year-old actress won an Oscar for her performance as Anita in the original movie. In this version, she plays Valentina, the drug store owner, reimagining the original part. Ariana DeBose takes on the role of Anita in the update.
Other nuances include the casting – unlike the original, Latinx performers portray every single member of the Sharks. Other changes include making some of the dialogue in Spanish and not including subtitles.
Spielberg shared with EUR correspondent Jill Munroe that leaving out subtitles was out of respect for the language and because Spanish is America’s second language.
“My first decision was that I wanted a complete LatinX cast for everyone playing a “shark,” boy or girl. That decision was made even before Tony Kushner wrote the first script; this would celebrate the diversity of “West Side Story.” And it needed to be the authentic “West Side Story,” meaning everybody had to be authentic. They all had to be descendants from the Latin American world,” said Spielberg.
Spielberg continued, “the next decision was how much Spanish should be in the film. Tony felt very liberal and wanted to include a lot of Spanish in the movie. Our decision was that we would not subtitle it out of respect for the language. It’s our second language in this nation, and why should our language provide a crutch for the second language, which is Spanish.” I wanted to let the people who see the movie laugh in places no one else will get. But none of the language is so foreign in terms of how the performers are enacting the words. You know what they are saying. You can feel what they are saying; you don’t have to understand the words to understand the intentions and the drama or comedy that’s talked about in Spanish. So we felt it was an absolute necessity not to subtitle.”
For his Maria, Spielberg selected Zegler after a rigorous audition process that began when she submitted a homemade audition while in high school from a pool of 30,000 hopefuls. Zegler shared what advice she would have gaven herself right before she pressed send – on that fateful submission.
“I would say that it’s going to be a long year, but it’s going to be worth it. I went in and auditioned eight or nine times, but it was truly the greatest journey I could have gone on. When you’re filming something so huge and marvelous, it fills your heart with joy every day. It reminded me every single morning, every single night shoot, why I love to do what I do,” she said.
“West Side Story” opens exclusively in theatres on December 10th.