The director talks about reimagining the musical that riveted him as a child.
By Anthony Breznican
Steven Spielberg has been making West Side Story in his head for a very long time. As a boy in Phoenix in the late 1950s, he had only the soundtrack, and he tried to picture the action and dancing that might accompany it. “My mom was a classical pianist,” says the filmmaker. “Our entire home was festooned with classical musical albums, and I grew up surrounded by classical music. West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home. I absconded with it—this was the cast album from the 1957 Broadway musical—and just fell completely in love with it as a kid. West Side Story has been that one haunting temptation that I have finally given in to.”
The film, out December 18, is both a romance and a crime story. It’s about dreams crashing into reality, young people singing about the promise of their lives ahead—then cutting each other down in bursts of violence. It’s about hope and desperation, pride and actual prejudice, and a star-crossed couple who find love amid it all on the streets of New York.
West Side Story became a global sensation when it hit Broadway in 1957, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that made generations swoon, snap, and gasp. The show was both dazzling and gritty, layering a Romeo and Juliet romance between Tony and Maria over a contemporary story of street gangs, racism, and violence in the shadows of rising skyscrapers. When director Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins adapted it into a film in 1961, West Side Story broke the box office record for musicals and dominated the Oscars, winning 10 awards, including best picture. Six decades later, the stage show has toured the world and been revived repeatedly. (A new production, directed by Ivo van Hove, opened on Broadway in February.) Of course, it’s also so commonly performed at high schools and community theaters that if you haven’t seen it, it’s probably because you were in it.
Threaded throughout the story is the question of who has the right to call a place home and why people who are struggling look for reasons to turn on each other. “This story is not only a product of its time, but that time has returned, and it’s returned with a kind of social fury,” Spielberg says. “I really wanted to tell that Puerto Rican, Nuyorican experience of basically the migration to this country and the struggle to make a living, and to have children, and to battle against the obstacles of xenophobia and racial prejudice.”
Like Fiddler on the Roof or The Sound of Music, West Side Story locates the joys that endure in hard times. For the new film’s dance sequences, Spielberg recruited Justin Peck, resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet. For the new script, he turned to Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, who previously worked with him on Munich and Lincoln, to craft an updated story that retains the familiar songs but embeds them in a more realistic cityscape. That realism also applied to casting. Many of the “Puerto Ricans” in the original movie were white actors in brown makeup.
Spielberg only wanted performers with Hispanic backgrounds to play Hispanic characters, and he estimates that 20 of the 33 Puerto Rican characters are specifically Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent. “They brought an authenticity,” he says. “They brought themselves, and everything they believe and everything about them—they brought that to the work. And there was so much interaction between the cast wanting to be able to commit to the Puerto Rican experience. They all represent, I think, a diversity, both within the Puerto Rican, Nuyorican community as well as the broader Latinx community. And they took that seriously.”
“The cast brought an authenticity,” says the director. “They brought themselves—and everything they believe—to the work.”
The film stars newcomer Rachel Zegler in the role originated onscreen by Natalie Wood—purehearted Maria, part of the wave of Puerto Rican migrants who traded one island for another when they came to New York seeking a new life in the post–World War II economic boom. Her streetwise Casanova is Tony (Baby Driver actor Ansel Elgort, taking over the part played by Richard Beymer), who once led a gang of local toughs known as the Jets, but has since outgrown them. Tony’s old friends are engaged in an escalating battle for control of the neighborhood against Puerto Rican rivals who call themselves the Sharks, led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez, one of the original leads of Billy Elliot the Musical, playing the role that earned George Chakiris a best supporting actor Oscar).
When a neighborhood dance devolves into hostility, Maria’s best friend, Anita, tries to be a voice of reason. Now played by Ariana DeBose, Anita has one of West Side Story’s most vivacious numbers, extolling the wonders of living Stateside in the song “America.”
Anita: “Life can be bright in America.”
Bernardo and the Sharks: “If you can fight in America.”
Anita and the girls: “Life is all right in America.”
Bernardo and the Sharks: “If you’re all white in America.”
Rita Moreno won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing Anita in the original film, and, at 88, has returned to play a different role in Spielberg’s project. Remember Doc, the old-timer who ran the corner store that served as neutral ground for the gangs? Moreno plays a new character, Valentina, Doc’s widow, who’s also a peacemaker—although perhaps a little tougher. The actor says Spielberg and Kushner “really wanted to right some…should I say wrongs? I don’t know if that’s…yes, that’s fair, because the  film had a lot of things that were wrong with it, aside from the fact that it had a lot of things that were very right.” One of the wrongs, she says, was that she was one of the few Puerto Ricans in the cast. “That’s what they were trying to fix and ameliorate, and I think they have done an incredible job.”
Spielberg made Moreno an executive producer on the film and urged her to share her perspectives on that time and place with the younger actors. For one scene, in which the cops arrive to break up a rumble, Moreno thought that the dancers playing the Sharks didn’t quite appreciate how much worse the situation would be for the Puerto Rican boys. “I was using bad language and all that, and I said, ‘You are fucked! You are fucked if they catch you! You don’t have a chance,’” she says. “And they’re all looking at me with big beautiful brown eyes. I said, ‘Talk to each other before you do the scene again! Scare each other!’”
One person she tried to put at ease was DeBose. Moreno gushed about the actor who inherited her signature role of Anita. “She is a ferocious dancer—way, way better than I was,” she says.
DeBose was nominated for a Tony Award for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and was one of the original cast members of Hamilton, renowned for dancing as “The Bullet” that kills the founding father. Like Spielberg, she’s been obsessed with West Side Story since childhood: “I just absolutely loved the music. Every time a number started, I couldn’t help but get up and dance with them. I would say that the music of West Side Story has always lived inside of me.”
“West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home,” says Spielberg.
In the new film, DeBose swishes through “America” in a golden handmade dress with scarlet ruffles beneath, but the actor says she was haunted—and daunted—by the violet swirls of the woman who originated the part on screen. “I grew up watching the film and I just fell in love with the woman in the purple dress,” she says. “Even before I really understood what the story was about, I knew that I loved what she was doing. As I grew up, I discovered who she was and her name was Rita Moreno, and she looked like me. She was one of the first women onscreen that actually had skin color that was close to mine—especially in a film made at that time, where there weren’t many women of color on the screen. That was very influential on me during my childhood.”
DeBose says that, as with Moreno, Spielberg often asked for her views on the way her character was depicted. The actor recalls one pivotal conversation during auditions. “I’m Afro-Latina and I said to him, ‘As a woman of color, if you’re going to consider me for this role, I would potentially be the darkest woman to play her onscreen,’” says DeBose. “There’s also the reality that it’s a period piece and there’s racial tension.” Having a biracial Anita intensifies that for the new film. “In one way, you’re not really sure if Anita’s African American or if she’s Latina,” she says. “I was like, ‘I think there’s really something to lean into, if that’s of value,’ and he was intrigued by that observation. It was fun from the jump to feel like I was contributing to his new vision in a way.”
DeBose’s presence adds a new dimension to her character’s unshakable faith in a country that has so often failed people like her. “The way that I see Anita, she is the consummate optimist,” she says. “She believes in the American dream. And she believes in her right as a woman to pursue it. There’s something really amazing about not only Anita, but women in general who constantly find a way to see the world—not with rose-colored glasses—but with hope.”