Steven Spielberg on representation in West Side Story: ‘We needed to get it right’

Carol Lawrence, Rachel Zegler and Rita Moreno
2021 has been the year of reboots and remakes. I guess Hollywood wanted to rinse and repeat and do things kinda sorta right this time? At least that is what Steven Spielberg aimed to do with his adaptation of the West Side Story musical, out now in theaters. The original 1961 adaptation was rife with f*ckery. The original cast were mostly white actors playing Puerto Ricans in brown face. They even browned up Rita Morena, one of the only Latinx cast members, because she was too pale. This time around, Steven said he hoped to get the casting right by making sure that all of the Sharks (Puerto Rican gang) were cast with Latinx actors. Steven and screenwriter Tony Kushner agreed early in the process that Latinx actors would be cast. With that in mind, Rachel Zegler, a Latina of Colombian and Polish descent, was chosen to play Maria. Steven and some of the cast did a series of virtual interviews with Yahoo, which has clips on their site. Here is some of what they told Yahoo!

While crafting his new highly anticipated adaptation of the Broadway musical, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg realized how crucial the casting would be for contemporary audiences in a time when representation matters.

“We needed to get it right. And the first thing [screenwriter Tony Kushner] and I agreed to when we first met to discuss adapting the original Broadway show was [that] we had to have a complete Latino/Latinx cast for the Sharks.”

That includes Maria, the idealistic Puerto Rican whom doomed Polish-American Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls for. She is played by red-hot 20-year-old newcomer Rachel Zegler (the upcoming Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Disney’s Snow White).

“West Side Story was so integral to my upbringing. I grew up in a Latino musical theatre-oriented home,” Zegler says, who first saw a casting call on Twitter and is of Colombian- and Polish-American descent. “I see it as a real gift and I don’t take it lightly. It’s a huge moment for me, but also a huge moment for young Latinas everywhere to see Maria played by a Latina onscreen for the first time.”

“And who actually has a singing voice,” weighs in Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her dazzling role as Anita in the 1961 version, taking a not-so-subtle shot at her late co-star Wood. (Wood’s musical numbers were famously dubbed by Marni Nixon; Moreno’s voice was also dubbed, by Betty Wand, on “A Boy Like That,” but sang her own vocals in “America.”)

[From Yahoo!]

I love what Steven is trying to do here. It seems as if he not only wanted to remake West Side Story because he loved the story but because he wanted to right the wrong of the first adaptation. I believe Steven is sincere. Looking at the cast, I am glad that dark-skinned and indigenous Latinx actors were represented (unlike in the recent In The Heights adaptation). The casting director was Cindy Tolan, who was also did casting for Straight Outta Compton, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and If Beale Street Could Talk.

I also love that Rita Morena has taken on a new role (she plays Valentina) in the film. I laughed at Rita throwing shade at Natalie Wood not being able to sing. I also like that they found actors who can both dance and sing so I am sure whoever goes to see his West Side Story adaptation, will be highly entertained..

I am conflicted about this movie. West Side Story is one of my favorite musicals. Despite the problematic casting of the original film, I still watch it every year. Although I feel that the remake of West Side Story is needed, I am really tired of remakes and reboots. The depiction of the Sharks and the Jets is more accurate this time around, but I am not sure if it is enough to get me in a seat at a theatre. I hope that Latinx people are able to see themselves in this story. May this trend for more accurate casting in Hollywood continue. And may Black and brown people continue to tell their stories accurately on the big screen.

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Photos credit: Instar, Getty and via Instagram

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14 Responses to “Steven Spielberg on representation in West Side Story: ‘We needed to get it right’”

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  1. CE says:

    Latinx representation is so much less than you’d expect in Hollywood. I appreciate this film AND in the heights. As much as people want to complain about the colorism (which is certainly valid), it was an entire cast AND crew of latinx representation in a major motion picture. This film is mostly headed up by white establishment-types. What goes on behind the scenes is important too

    • BlinkB says:

      Colourism is SUCH an issue in this industry, but I really did not like the general tone of discussion around ITH. The representation on screen, and off, was ground breaking, and it was sad to see certain discourse dump all over that, because it wasn’t all things to everyone.

      Saying that, I saw Westside Story through work last week, and it is stunning. Having an Afro-Latina actress play Anita (and outshine everyone) made me smile. It was really good to see a darker skinned actress in a major role, and she is phenomenal. It’s a lovely film for those that have concerns. I really liked it!!

      • tanesha86 says:

        So y’all are really gonna sit up here and minimize the issue huh? It’s funny you’re making the same horrible argument Rita herself made. Who cares if ITH casting was inaccurate by having majority mestizo instead of Black Latine people in Lincoln Heights right? I guess Black people should be quiet and settle for crumbs right? Unbelievable

    • Steph says:

      Coming from someone who lives in The Heights, kindly stfu. LMM and I share a polling station, he still lives here. He knows good and damn well he didn’t represent this community at all. If he wanted to make this story, bc it could literally represent Latinx all over the country, then he shouldn’t have named it In The Heights. The title made it about a very specific community that he misrepresented.

  2. Becks1 says:

    I LOVE the original West Side Story – it really is a masterpiece, the opening shot just gets me every time….but its a problematic masterpiece. Natalie Wood was gorgeous so it was easy to believe that someone could be dazzled by her in a crowded dance hall….but she wasn’t Puerto Rican and she couldn’t sing. Her fake accent! And it wasn’t like Marni Nixon was Puerto Rican either. (although I guess the not-singing thing wasn’t as big a deal at the time, since she also dubbed Deborah Kerr and audrey hepburn in King and I and My Fair Lady respectively, but it was still an issue that was talked about at the time.)

    I read a really good article about the movie this week and I can’t remember where it was now, but it laid out all the problems really well and then mentioned how Spielberg was fixing those issues and trying to give more of a voice to the Sharks community in this version. One big change is that Rita Moreno now sings “Somewhere” to represent the immigrant community. But it mentioned how the movie had issues looking back but it had those same issues back when it was being made – Rita Moreno asked for a lyric in America to be changed because it referenced Puerto Rico being disease-ridden or something, and Sondheim changed it.

    Anyway a key quote from this article was “you wonder why spielberg hasn’t been directing movie musicals all along” which gives me high hopes for this. But you knew the industry was going to love this regardless….West Side Story AND Spielberg?!?!

    I’ve been listening to the soundtrack this week and its really good. i’m excited to see this now, not sure if I’ll go this weekend or wait until christmas break and take the boys.

    • Merricat says:

      I love the choice to have Rita Moreno sing “Somewhere.”
      Hard to believe Sondheim was just a kid when he wrote these lyrics. What a talent.

  3. NCDancer says:

    I want to see West Side Story told from the POV of Anita. While I appreciate the efforts behind this one (it was still headed/created by a lot of white dudes), I would love to see the next reboot of this chestnut done by Puerto Ricans or Nuyoricans.

  4. Beff says:

    Also, there are no subtitles when the actors are speaking Spanish. Spielberg didn’t even want to whitewash the story by providing subtitles. Very very good move.

  5. kari says:

    Honestly I’m good to skip this one. The Broadway production (unfortunately cut short by the panoramic) gave us an Afro-latina lead in Shereen Pimentel so I’m just going to hold onto that memory.

  6. Courtney B says:

    It’s interesting to read this the day after the Aniston article on influencers rising in Hollywood. That’s where Rachel Zegler got her start. But she actually has the talent. YouTube just gave her the platform. My daughter has followed her for years and wants to see the movie just for her.

    • Nedsdag says:

      Rachel was a former student of mine. I taught a college writing class full of jocks and apathetic students and she was the lone high school student in my class (her high school, Immaculate Conception, was right next door to the university). She stuck out because she wore her school uniform, but she happened to be one of the best students in the class. She told me that she would miss a few classes because she was “working on a project with Steven Spielberg”. At first, I thought she was BSing me, but when the semester came to a close, I found out that the “project with Steven Spielberg” was West Side Story and she won the part of Maria.

  7. Ana170 says:

    I’m still struggling with Ansel Elgort’s casting though.