'West Side Story': Steven Spielberg pulls off the impossible remaking movie, correcting mistakes from the past

Few movies have been able to achieve the success of 1961's West Side Story, which won 10 Oscars and starred Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn. But Steven Spielberg has pulled off the impossible, remaking, and improving, a classically spectacular film (in theatres Dec. 10).

“I don't think there was a scene in this film that Tony [Kushner] and I didn't feel we had to get absolutely perfect,” Spielberg explained to reporters ahead of the film’s release, teasing that there was one scene in particular that saw 32 rewrites.

This new version of West Side Story is specifically based on the 1957 Broadway show, a classic Romeo and Juliet tale set in 1950s New York. The white gang called the Jets, under leader Riff (Mike Faist), are in a turf war with the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, under leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). But when Jets member Tony (Ansel Elgort) meets Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) the star-crossed lovers try to curb the hostility between the gangs to be together, much to the dismay of Bernardo, Riff and Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose).

In the weeks leading up to the premiere of Spielberg’s West Side Story, EGOT star Moreno, who played the character of Anita in the 1961 version (for which she won an Oscar) and is back this time around as a new character, Valentina, has been vocal about the 2021 version of the story fixing the “mistakes” of past. This includes the makeup department on the 1961 film darkening the skin of the actors playing Puerto Rican characters, in addition to having a lack of actors of Latino descent in those roles.

“Both the ‘57 musical and a ‘61 film represent enormous strides forward in terms of representation, they're not perfect in any way, but…there's no way on Earth that anyone can convince me that seeing [Rita Moreno’s] Anita on screen didn't make people, who were willing to, think about their own prejudices and examine themselves,” writer Tony Kushner said.

West Side Story now also includes portions of dialogue in Spanish, without any subtitles, to add that authenticity to the characters who, in real life, would be moving back-and-forth between speaking both English and Spanish in their personal lives.

“We thought it was out of respect that we didn't subtitle any of the Spanish,” Spielberg explained. “That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English.”

Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios WEST SIDE STORY. (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)
Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios WEST SIDE STORY. (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

The evolution of Anita

For Anita DeBose, who is stepping into Moreno’s shoes as Anita, with this character shifting from the 1961 film and 1957 Broadway versions to an Afro-Latina character, DeBose never thought this was a job she would ever book because Anitas of the past looked like Moreno, but they “don’t look like [her].”

“I was…really amazed that Steven and Tony were open to having the conversation around it,” DeBose said.

“It was something I said in the room, I was like, ‘if we don't want to touch on that by virtue of my being a Black woman, that, that can inform this character’s path, then maybe this isn't the choice for you, maybe I'm not the choice for you.’”

For Montreal-born David Alvarez, who plays Bernardo, he highlighted that there’s no better person than Spielberg to set an example for the authentic, representative storytelling the whole entertainment industry should commit to.

“I think this is an incredible step forward and who better to do that than Steven Spielberg to kind of set the tone and lead by example, and kind of tell the rest of the industry ‘hey, if I can do this, I think anyone else can,” Alvarez told Yahoo Canada.

“So I think what he's given us is just a gift of voice, to be able to share our story, our struggles, our perspective on what we've gone through, and he's done it with so much love and care.”

Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios WEST SIDE STORY (Photo by Niko Tavernise)
Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios WEST SIDE STORY (Photo by Niko Tavernise)

Moreno did admit that “passing the torch” onto DeBose as Anita “wasn’t easy.”

“I'm not going to say I wasn't envious, it would be just a bloody lie,” Moreno said. “I wished I could be that young again and do it again, obviously, but that wasn't going to be and I got this beautifully written part.”

“It was absolutely creepy to do the one scene I did with Anita… I just kept looking at her and I had the toughest time getting inside the scene because what I was really doing, in a way, was saving a Anita’s life because these boys were about to possibly rape her and I had to put a stop to that, I did that scene [in the 1961 film].”

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. (Photo by Niko Tavernise)
Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. (Photo by Niko Tavernise)

‘It's not just about the Sharks, it's about the Puerto Rican community’

While Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony, may be the most notable name amongst the teen characters in the movie, it’s Ariana DeBose, Rachel Zegler as Maria and David Alvarez as Bernardo that really captivate the audience through the screen.

Moments like the musical number “America,” moved from a dark rooftop in the 1961 version to outside on the streets of New York, with life and vibrancy, exemplify why this version of the movie succeeds.

“It's not just about the Sharks, it's about the Puerto Rican community, it's about everyone who is struggling together and then trying to make a better life for themselves and their families."David Alvarez, actor in West Side Story

“It was just amazing and a beautiful experience to shoot that, and to share that, it was incredibly prideful, as well, to be able to represent the Latin community, and they took so much care to bring as much authenticity as they could.”

But it’s that pressure of comparison that actor Corey Stoll, who plays Lieutenant Schrank in West Side Story, understands as he worked on projects like The Many Saints of Newark that was, similarly, released with an existing fanbase.

“On this set, there was a very fast pace, there was no time to sit and brood about, how is this going to be received," Stoll explained to Yahoo Canada.

"You're working too hard, you're bringing too much of yourself to try to tell the story, scene by scene, moment by moment, and then it comes out and you do press, or you look online, and then you can realize that millions of people around the world have their opinions.”

(Left to Right:) Anybodys (Ezra Menas), Mouthpiece (Ben Cook), Action (Sean Harrison Jones); Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist); Baby John (Patrick Higgins); Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler); Maria's brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez); and Sharks members Quique (Julius Anthony Rubio), Chago (Ricardo Zayas), Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Braulio (Sebastian Serra) and Pipo (Carlos Sánchez Falú). (Photo by Ramona Rosales)
(Left to Right:) Anybodys (Ezra Menas), Mouthpiece (Ben Cook), Action (Sean Harrison Jones); Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist); Baby John (Patrick Higgins); Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler); Maria's brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez); and Sharks members Quique (Julius Anthony Rubio), Chago (Ricardo Zayas), Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Braulio (Sebastian Serra) and Pipo (Carlos Sánchez Falú). (Photo by Ramona Rosales)

Advice from Rita Moreno to her younger cast members

David Alvarez said the best advice he got from Moreno, which she also gave to DeBose, was to “lean into what makes you unique.”

“Don't try to be like anyone else, don't try and replicate anything, just be you and bring your unique abilities to the table, and that's going to shine through, and that was the best advice she could have given anyone,” he said. “So I take that into my heart for the rest of my career.”

Alvarez, who won a Tony Award at the age of fifteen for his role in Billy Elliott, had actually been backpacking in Mexico for three years before a direct message came through from the movie’s casting director asking him to send in a self-tape to audition for the role of Bernardo.

“It was very intimidating because I had Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, Rita Moreno, just all these incredible legendary artists and I didn't know exactly what I could bring to the table," he told Yahoo Canada.

“It was definitely a battle of self-doubt and then trusting myself...but they made the set such a comfortable place to explore and to not be scared to fail, and to try new things and to play around.”

Director Steven Spielberg and Rita Moreno as Valentina on the set of 20th Century Studios WEST SIDE STORY (Photo by Niko Tavernise)
Director Steven Spielberg and Rita Moreno as Valentina on the set of 20th Century Studios WEST SIDE STORY (Photo by Niko Tavernise)

One thing that’s very clear is Spielberg’s enthusiasm about West Side Story. As a child, he listened to the original Broadway cast recording at the age of 10 and sang the songs at the family dinner table, and his excitement to tell this story comes through in the movie.

“I've never been on a set like that before,” Stoll said. “You had this very young ensemble who…just brought this incredible passion and excitement and support.”

“Actors can be a very competitive group of people and to see that was just really a great reminder of what a privilege it is, and you really got a sense that Steven felt the same way. Here's somebody who doesn't have to prove anything… He could stop now and be one of the greatest directors of all time and yet he shows up to set with, it seemed like that same level of enthusiasm as these kids who [were in] their first movie.”

There is a timeless universality to the message of West Side Story, one about tolerance, respect and this “us vs. them” mentality, that is still incredibly poignant and relevant today.

“The big message of the movie is, love is really what matters and that's a message that transcends time transcends generations, it's always going to be a message that needs to be retold to humanity, because it's a struggle humanity has gone through since the beginning of human history,” Alvarez explained.

“We're always struggling with trying to understand the people around us, trying not to fear what we don't understand, and letting ourselves be able to love the people around you and respect the cultures and respect their differences.”