Maureen Lee Lenker
For the original cast of West Side Story, their association and affection for the 1961 Academy Award winning film is womb to tomb.
Over 50 years since the original West Side Story screen adaptation, much of the original cast is still celebrating the film’s legacy — and weighing in on the forthcoming new version coming from Steven Spielberg. On Thursday night, Rita Moreno (Anita), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), George Chakiris (Bernardo), and Eliot Feld (Baby John) gathered at Beverly Hills’ Paley Center in honor of choreographer Jerome Robbins’ centennial. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Mary Poppins Returns) was on-hand to moderate the evening, which was part of the Paley Center’s ongoing Words on Dance programming.
While making the rounds on the red carpet, the original cast told EW their thoughts about making a potential cameo in the new film, as well as their general attitude to the project. While Tamblyn, Chakiris, and Feld (Feld joked he should play “Doc,” jumping from youngest character in the cast as “Baby John” to oldest) said they probably would do a cameo if asked, Moreno felt differently. “That would be strange,” she told EW. “I think it would be distracting. No, no, no I don’t belong in there in any capacity.”
They all expressed a general enthusiasm and curiosity in the Spielberg film, as well as an optimistic hope that the property is in good hands with Spielberg directing and Tony Kushner writing the new screenplay. “A lot of people have asked me and say ‘What do you think? Don’t you think that’s a lot of nerve?,'” Tamblyn explained to EW. “I said, ‘No, he just might have something.’ He doesn’t need West Side Story, so he’s probably got something in his head that’s great.” Tamblyn also added that he hopes some of the choreography will get an update, incorporating new styles of street dance, specifically that of the B-Boys.
Moreno echoed this need for updating, at least in terms of slang in the dialogue. “I anxious to see what he’s going to do with it,” she said. “Obviously some of the language has to be updated. But it had to be updated when the movie came out. We were saying things like ‘I’m hep’ and it pained all of us because even then that was kind of out of date. But an old guy wrote it.”
Later, at the panel, Rob Marshall asked the cast their thoughts on the remake, pointing out that bringing West Side Story back to the big screen in a new way has been a “passion project” of Spielberg’s for many years.
hakiris was enthusiastic about the prospect of the film, telling Marshall, “Steven Spielberg is a talented, wonderful filmmaker. Tony Kushner is writing it. He’s working with incredible people. He has an extraordinary background and reputation himself, so…I think we can expect to see something really exceptional from them.”
Moreno told Marshall Spielberg is one of her favorite directors, but she’s less convinced by Tony Kushner’s involvement. “Tony Kushner, I get nervous,” she said. “I get nervous because you can only get just so gritty and then is it the West Side Story we know? Should it be the West Side Story we know? I don’t know. I’m kind of torn about the Kushner aspect of it.”
Though, she added, “I just want it to be successful.”
Feld, who revealed that night he had only just watched the original film two nights ago for the first time due to his own dislike of watching himself onscreen, closed by putting things in perspective. He was the only member of the original film cast on-hand Thursday that was also part of the Broadway production. “They were charged with taking what had been on Broadway and moving it to the screen,” he said. “For me, the movie is a hybrid. Some of the things are true to the stage, and some of the things are true to screen. It exists in this in-between world for me…I’m more excited to understand what it will be. Because the production as it exists or the movie as it exists, they are. They are what they are. They will not be diminished by whatever happens.”
In the eyes of the original cast of West Side Story, there’s a time for all the versions of the beloved musical (somewhere).