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Steven Spielberg, Rita Moreno on making a more socially aware 'West Side Story' with Latinx cast

·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·3 min read
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Fans revere the classic 1961 musical West Side Story — an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway stage play — for its ill-fated romance, Jets vs. Sharks showdowns and show tunes like “America,” “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty.”

However, the film has a complicated legacy as one of many hits of yesteryear tainted by the cultural inappropriateness of its time, namely the use of brownface and the casting of white and non-Latin actors like Natalie Wood and George Chakiris to play Puerto Rican characters.

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.

“In those days they were having white actors playing Latino roles all the time, that was happening throughout the history of Hollywood,” Spielberg told us during a recent series of virtual interviews (watch above) for the film, which has drawn high praise and Oscar buzz from early screenings.

“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.”

Steven Spielberg and the stars of 'West Side Story' (Disney/Fox)
Steven Spielberg and the stars of West Side Story. (Photo: Disney/Fox)

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.”)

Rita Moreno in 'West Side Story' (20th Century Studios)
Rita Moreno in West Side Story. (Photo: 20th Century Studios)

Speaking of Moreno, the 89-year-old screen great admits she was hesitant to join the film before ultimately signing on to play the new character of Valentina, widow of candy shop owner Doc, and also serving as an executive producucer.

“I did have reservations, but mostly because Tony Kushner was involved and I thought, ‘Well, you know, he's pretty heavy,'” she said, judging from the playwright and screenwriter’s work on the devastating AIDS drama Angels in America. “I was a little concerned. And then I spoke to Steven Spielberg, who said, ‘We would like very much to have you in the movie.’ … And I said, ‘But you know, I don't do cameos.’ And I said, ‘I don't mean to tell you how to make a movie, but I think it would be a real distraction.’ And he stopped me, then he said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. It's a real part.’ And Tony Kushner wrote it for you.

“This is a different, in a very important sense, West Side Story,” continues Moreno, who almost quit the 1961 film over its disparaging lyrics about Puerto Rico and resented that her own skin was darkened for the project. “Because it is more socially aware than the original.”

Watch our full interview with Spielberg, Moreno, Zegler, Elgort and co-stars Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist and Brian d’Arcy James above.

West Side Story opens Friday.

— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo

Watch the trailer: