Maureen Lee Lenker
Something’s coming, something good, and it is gonna be great…
Or at least we hope so. For over a year now speculation has raged about the prospect of a cinematic remake of beloved musical classic West Side Story. As of January 2018, the project was official — a casting call was circulating the internet looking for a new generation of Jets and Sharks.
The 1961 Robert Wise film adaptation remains hallowed ground among film lovers, having won 10 Oscars, including one for living legend Rita Moreno in her indelible turn as Anita. Based on the 1957 Broadway stage production of the same name, West Side Story has become one of the most well-known musicals of all time. The original film starred Richard Beymer as Tony (Larry Kert originated the role in the 1957 Broadway musical) and featured an all-star cast including Moreno, Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn.
It moves Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York City, replacing the Montagues and Capulets with warring street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Trouble ensues when Jets co-founder Tony falls in love with Maria, the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo. Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking choreography remains utterly iconic, alongside the score penned by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics from Stephen Sondheim. Songs like “Maria” and “America” have become a part of the cultural fabric of our nation.
In spite of all of this, another American pop culture legend, director Steven Spielberg, has decided to take on the project, infusing it with new life. Here’s everything we know about his remake so far.
The Production Team
This film is Spielberg’s baby and reportedly a project he’s been yearning to tackle for years. But the list of impressive behind-the-scenes talent doesn’t stop at his name. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner will adapt the screenplay from the original 1957 Broadway script, which was written by Arthur Laurents. Kushner and Spielberg previously partnered on historical biopic Lincoln.
The 1961 film made some notable changes from the 1957 Broadway play, including swapping where songs “Cool” and “Officer Krupke” fall within the story and eliminating a dream ballet. Reports have suggested Kushner will hew closer to the original Broadway script, but no official announcements about these tweaks have been made.
Jerome Robbins’ choreography is one of the most recognizable features of the original musical, but it seems Spielberg’s production may reinvent it to some degree. Justin Peck, resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet and recent Tony winner for a revival of Carousel, is attached to choreograph — his strong ballet roots suggest the choreography will at least pay homage to Robbins’ iconic moves, if not recreate many of them directly.
Kevin McCollum, who has won Tony Awards as the producer of In the Heights, Avenue Q, and Rent, is attached to produce alongside Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger. The project was set up at 21st Century Fox, so the recent Disney-Fox merger may change things — it’s impossible to know at this stage.
Tony and Maria
Ansel Elgort was the first member of the cast to be announced last October. The Baby Driver star will be making his feature film musical theater debut as leading star-crossed lover Tony. At his performing arts high school, he was well-known for his performances as a lead in various musicals, including playing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Elgort will tackle some of the show’s most memorable songs, including the beloved ballad “Maria” and romantic duets, “Somewhere,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Tonight.”
Opposite Elgort is newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, the young Puerto Rican woman who dares to imagine a life where love defeats hate and prejudice. Zegler is only 17, and the New Jersey high schooler nabbed the role after submitting a video audition to the online casting call. She was one of 30,000 Latinx actors who submitted an audition. In her video, she performed “Tonight” and “Me Siento Hermosa.”
“I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast,” said Zegler in a press release. “West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.”
Anita, Bernardo, and Chino
Alongside Zegler’s casting announcement came news of who would be portraying Anita, Bernardo, and Chino. Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical) is taking on the role of Anita, one originated by Chita Rivera onstage and immortalized by Moreno onscreen. David Alvarez (Billy Elliot: The Musical) will portray Sharks leader and Maria’s brother, Bernardo, while Josh Andrés Rivera (Hamilton national tour) is set to play Chino, a Shark and the man Bernardo prefers Maria date.
“When we began this process a year ago, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino, and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors,” Spielberg said in a press release. “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.”
Other prominent Jets and Sharks, most notably, Riff, the leader of the Jets and Tony’s best friend, are still to be announced.
Hey, Officer Krupke…
While the youth make up the majority of the action in West Side Story, the police provide an essential element of conflict — and even comedic relief in the form of Officer Krupke and a musical number which finds the Jets mocking him and the older generations.
Broadway stalwart Brian d’Arcy James (Shrek the Musical, Something Rotten) is taking on the role of Officer Krupke, the racist, veteran cop who patrols the territory of the warring Jets and Sharks. He is a three-time Tony nominee and originated the role of King George in Hamilton during its world premiere at The Public Theater.
“Krup me,” d’Arcy James joked in a Twitter post with a link to the casting news.
Screen veteran Corey Stoll is rounding out the law enforcement as Lieutenant Schrank, a world-weary New York City detective trying desperately to keep the peace in a neighborhood plagued by civil unrest.
Many of the core cast of the original film are still with us, and at a Paley Center event honoring Jerome Robbins last fall, they weighed in on the new adaptation. While Russ Tamblyn (Riff), George Chakiris (Bernardo), and Eliot Feld (Baby John) 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.”
But Moreno was soon singing a different tune (perhaps a new rendition of “America”), when a little over a month later, it was announced that she was joining the remake as an executive producer, as well as onscreen as Valentina, a new character described as “a reconceived and expanded version of the character of Doc, the owner of the corner store in which Tony works.”
“Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself revisiting this seminal work,” Moreno said in a statement. “And to be asked by Steven Spielberg to participate is simply thrilling! Then to work together with the brilliant playwright, Tony Kushner – what a glorious stew! I am tingling!”
“From our earliest discussions, we wanted to include Rita Moreno in our production,” Spielberg added. “Her Anita is one of the greatest musical performances ever filmed, and a personal favorite of mine. We created an original role for her, and we feel beyond fortunate that Rita will bring her extraordinary gifts as an actress, as well as her deep understanding of West Side Story to this production as an executive producer.”
Whether or not other surviving cast members might cameo or be involved in any capacity remains to be seen.
No release date for the project has been set, but filming is due to start summer 2019.