West Side Story Remake

Thanks to the spread of coronavirus, most of the major theatrical releases over the next couple weeks (and probably at least the next month) are being pushed to unknown dates sometime down the road. But when it comes to Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming remake of the classic musical West Side Story, slated for release in December, we probably don’t have to worry that movie getting delayed. That’s why 20th Century Studios has released new West Side Story remake photos, giving us our best look yet at the musical.

Vanity Fair has a big feature on Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, something the filmmaker has been dreaming of since he was a kid. Spielberg told the magazine:

“My mom was a classical pianist. 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.”

This isn’t the kind of remake that brings the story into our contemporary world. It’s still set in 1950s New York and follows a Puerto Rican immigrant named Maria (Rachel Zegler) as she falls in love with a white boy named Tony (Ansel Elgort), once a leader of a gang called The Jets, but now distancing himself from them as they have engage in a battle with the Puerto Reican gang The Sharks. Making that love all the more complicated is Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez) is the leader of The Sharks.

Even though this is a remake, the fact that the themes still resonate today is key. Spielberg noted:

“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. 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.”

Because of that, unlike the original 1961 adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical, this production made sure to bring in Hispanic performers to play the ensemble of Hispanic characters, which includes a number of performers who actually hail from Puerto Rico. Spielberg said:

“They brought an authenticity. 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.”

West Side Story Remake

There’s also a genuine Puerto Rican perspective behind the scenes since Rita Moreno (above), who played Maria’s best friend Anita in the original film version, was brought in as an executive producer. Moreno said:

“[Director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner] really wanted to right some…should I say wrongs? I don’t know if that’s…yes, that’s fair, because the [1961] 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.”

Moreno is also playing a new character in the West Side Story remake. The corner store owner Doc who provided neutral ground for The Jets and The Sharks isn’t being brought back for this new adaptation. Instead, he’s passed away, and Moreno is playing his widow Valentina, who serves a similar role, but apparently she’s “a little tougher” on the gangs.

It’ll be interesting to see what other changes are made to the narrative to update the story for today’s audiences. In looking at these photos, it looks like Spielberg is trying to illustrate how not much has changed since 1961 by emulating the style of a classic Hollywood musical by making it appear as if it was shot on a studio backlot. We’re not sure if that’s just the style of these photos or if Spielberg has intentionally made things look a little stage-bound as an aesthetic choice. Perhaps that’s for the best since the upcoming adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical In the Heights seems to share some themes with the original West Side Story but looks like it was really shot on the streets of Washington Heights. Either way, we’re very excited to see Spielberg tackle something he’s been dreaming about for over 60 years.

Find out more about the West Side Story remake in Vanity Fair’s full article.

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