Spielberg's West Side Story
Spielberg's West Side Story

Everything You Need to Know for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story

Remakes of classic and beloved films are extremely common these days and despite constant public cries to end this trend, Hollywood seemingly refuses to listen. Upon first glance, one could easily categorize the 2021 West Side Story film the same way, coming after the iconic 1961 film, but Steven Spielberg has a case for why this one is different.

“We never attempted to remake the ‘61 film,” the three-time Academy Award-winning director told ABC News. “We took all of our inspiration based on the original source material which was a 1957 Broadway musical.”

Here’s everything you need to know before watching West Side Story.

David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose, Steven Spielberg, Rachel Zegler, and Ansel Elgort of West Side Story (2021). Photo Credit: Amblin Entertainment.

What is West Side Story?

West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre. The musical was conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

A retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the musical takes us to the streets of Manhattan in the 1950s, displaying the growing tensions between the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and the Jets, a gang made up of “American” boys. Two teens from the opposing sides meet and fall in love at a fateful gym dance.

“I was 25 years old, and it was a thrill,” shared Stephen Sondheim in the ABC News 20/20 special, West Side Story marking his Broadway debut. “I’m proud of the show. I learned so much from those three guys. It was a crash course in how to write for musical theater.”

The Broadway cast included Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, Michael Callan, Ken Leroy, and perhaps most notably, Tony Award-winning icon Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Anita. “Every single night I went in there I was totally complete,” said Rivera in the special.

The original 1957 production went on to be nominated for six Tony Awards, only walking out with two, one for Best Choreography and one for Best Scenic Design. However, accolades and awards awaited for the nearing film adaptation.

Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961). Photo Credit: Everett Collection.
Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961). Photo Credit: Everett Collection.

West Side Story received its first Hollywood treatment in the form of the 1961 film adaptation. Robbins was brought on to direct alongside Robert Wise, with Ernest Lehman penning the screenplay. The cast included Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and Rita Moreno. Similar to Chita Rivera’s lasting legacy as Broadway’s original Anita, Moreno’s groundbreaking performance as Anita in the 1961 film stands the test of time.

Moreno went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first Latina to win an Academy Award for acting. Moreno’s win contributed to the 10 Academy Award wins of West Side Story, including Best Picture, the most for any musical film to this day.

If it was so beautifully done the first time, many could question why the need to bring it to the screen again.

Why Another West Side Story Movie?

While still adored by many to this day, the original film didn’t get everything right, especially its treatment of the Puerto Rican characters. Among issues of thinly written characters and inauthentic representation, many of the actors playing the Sharks were white and the actors, even Rita Moreno who is Puerto Rican herself, had their skin darkened by the makeup department. “I used to hate that very dark makeup that they used on all the Sharks,” Moreno said expressing her frustration with the first West Side Story film. “We were really all mostly one shade and I said ‘God, I hate this makeup, why does it have to be so dark?’ I said I’m Puerto Rican, why can’t I be my color?'”

What the original film got wrong, the new filmmakers aim to make right in the 2021 film. Steven Spielberg and prolific playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the film’s screenplay, took many steps while developing the film to ensure it was executed properly, including holding a town hall at the University of Puerto Rico to address and hear concerns about the film, bringing in historical consultants to guide the cast to help tell truthful stories of Puerto Ricans in that time era, and actually casting actors of Latinx heritage which the original film failed to do in many instances. “It’s important that representation be authentic,” Spielberg said, “to return the piece to the integrity that I think it deserves.”

And why is now the right time for West Side Story to be taking the screen again? “Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself, and the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today,” Spielberg explains. “It turned out in the middle of the development of the script…things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides, not just territorial divides, more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

How to Watch

What is seemingly a rarity these days, West Side Story will premiere exclusively in movie theaters on December 10, 2021. The film will most likely not hit streaming platforms until early 2022 so if you’re itching to see it upon its initial release, you’ll have to venture to your local movie theater. How often do you get the opportunity to see a grand musical film in IMAX? Now is your chance!

Rita Moreno and Steven Spielberg on the Set of West Side Story. Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios.
Rita Moreno and Steven Spielberg on the Set of West Side Story (2021). Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios.

Who’s Behind the Film

If you missed this tiny detail, Steven Spielberg is at the helm of 2021’s West Side Story. “I have been challenged by what would be the right musical to take on. And I could never forget my childhood,” Spielberg detailing why he wanted to put his spin on the musical. “I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away. I’ve been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself: You must make West Side Story.”

Behind the screenplay of the film is one of the most acclaimed modern playwrights, Tony Kushner. The mind behind Angels in America has his own history with the esteemed director, writing the screenplays for Spielberg’s films Munich and Lincoln.

Spielberg first brought up the idea of writing West Side Story to Kushner back in 2016, and was at first apprehensive about it. As soon as the playwright was on board, he told The Hollywood Reporter the first thing he said to Spielberg was “[West Side Story is] not only one of the greatest musicals ever written, it’s arguably the greatest dance musical ever. If we’re really going to do this, we have to immediately start to think of who the choreographer would be, because it has to be somebody, not only somebody who’s wonderful, but somebody that you can really work closely with. Because it’s got to be kind of a collaboration between you and the choreographer.”

They found that wonderful collaborator in New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck, a Tony Award winner for his choreography of the 2018 revival of Carousel. The final product couldn’t be possible without the numerous creative talents behind the screen. Special mentions go to the stunning cinematography by frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński and beautiful costumes by Paul Tazewell, the Tony Award-winning costume designer behind Hamilton.

Who’s in the Film

With some recognizable film talent like Ansel Elgort as Tony, Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank, and, of course, Rita Moreno in a newly created role as Valentina, the cast is mostly made up of new-to-the-screen actors, many plucked from the stage.

Rachel Zegler in West Side Story
Rachel Zegler in West Side Story (2021). Photo by Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios

Tony Award nominee Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical) takes on the iconic role of Anita alongside Tony Award winner David Alvarez (Billy Elliot) and Tony Award nominee Mike Faist (Dear Evan Hansen) who star as Bernardo and Riff, respectively. The film also brings to the screen rising star Rachel Zegler, in her film debut, who plays Maria. Zegler was selected for the role after being one of 30,000 who auditioned for the character.

As mentioned, Moreno returns to West Side Story now playing Valentina instead of Anita. Valentina is the widow of Doc, the character we know from the original musical and film. Taking his place in the story, Valentina now runs Doc’s candy store where the Jets and Sharks mingle and where Tony works. Upon being asked to be part of the film, Moreno assumed she was being asked to have a cameo role, which she wasn’t a fan of. When it was revealed to her that she was being asked to play a role Kushner wrote just for her, she ecstatically agreed to be part of the film, also serving as an executive producer.

What to Look For

Keep an eye out, as many Broadway chorus members shine on the screen, including Iris Menas. Menas, a nonbinary actor, plays Anybodys, a character that is usually portrayed as a tomboy. For the 2021 film, however, Anybodys is a transgender character with a deeper story than before. “We meet Anybodys when he’s kind of been disowned from his family and is looking for a home, essentially,” said Menas. “And so, we see this kind of lost soul hoping to join this gang of brothers, not only to be accepted into a family and seen as a unit, but be accepted for who they are as a person and accepted in their own skin.”

Unlike in the original film, where Spanish was rarely uttered, it is often spoken in the film and without subtitles. In a virtual press conference, attended by Insider, Spielberg said this decision was intentional and “it was out of respect that we didn’t subtitle any of the Spanish. That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help” — another difference from the original film that makes the 2021 film feel even more authentic.

After you’ve experienced the film, that gorgeous score will need a place in your music library, many calling this album one of the most definitive in a long line of West Side Story recordings. Go here to make sure you add the film’s soundtrack to wherever you stream music.

West Side Story is brought to the screen once again in this tremendous Steven Spielberg film that is not to be missed. Now in theaters, find a showtime near you.