The legacy of WEST SIDE STORY is undeniable. With six TONY Awards and an Academy Award win for Best Picture, following-up on its celebrated 1961 predecessor some 60 years later is a tall ask.
Steven Spielberg takes the reins in the upcoming 2021 retelling of the Film, with a Script by Tony Kushner. This latest rendition takes us back to 1957 New York City as we are placed in the middle of a war between feuding teenage street gangs, and also a compelling story of young love.
Our Justin Waldman had the pleasure of sitting-in on the global press conference for WEST SIDE STORY. In attendance were:
Steven Spielberg – Director
Rita Moreno – “Valentina” and Producer
Tony Kushner – Screenwriter
Rachel Zegler – Maria
Ansel Elgort – Tony
Ariana DeBose – Anita
David Alvarez – Bernardo
Mike Faist – Riff
Brian d’Arcy James – Officer Krupke
Josh Andres Rivera – Chino
Corey Stoll – Lieutenant Schrank
Steven Spielberg talks about getting the legendary late Stephen Sondheim onboard after bumping into each other at the White House receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.The iconic Composer/Lyricist had passed away late November.
Spielberg : “Steve (Sondheim) was very involved in commenting about Tony‘s Script. Tony had a very open dialogue with Steve on the Script going from one draft to the next. Where Steve got really involved, which was the best place for his involvement, was when we did the pre-records with all the Vocal Artists. Steve was there for three weeks, five days a week sitting right beside me in the recording studio. It was an honour.”.
Spielberg admits to having known all the lyrics as kid to West Side Story. He comments what it was like working on the Film from rehearsals to filming.
Spielberg: “You know something? I did jump out of my chair and did dance with the Cast, singing off-key and dancing like a I had three left feet, during rehearsal. We had four and a half months of intense rehearsals, both in the City and in Brooklyn at this place called Dumbo. And Rita (Moreno) was there too. Rita was dancing with the Cast. We were so compelled to get up on our feet because there was so much life in the air of song and dance and genius Choreography by Justin Peck. When I filmed the Movie, I would just tap my feet as I was too focused on what images we were capturing. This was the most delightful family affair I’ve had since E.T. In E.T., I felt like I was a dad to all those kids and I wasn’t a dad then. It made me want to be a dad and my first child was born three years after I directed E.T. This was the next time I had that kind of a feeling that I was a part of a very diverse family. I was not at the center of the family, but was a part of the family.”.
Rita Moreno who originated the on-screen role of Anita in the 1961 version of this Film for which she won an Academy Award, plays the newly-created role of Valentina, intended as a cameo. She talks about passing the torch, being a part of the new Film.
Moreno: “It wasn’t easy. I mean I’m not gonna say I wasn’t envious. That would be just a bloody lie. I wished I could be that young again and do it again. Then I got this beautifully-written card from this man, and you don’t say things that easily. I don’t care what they say, I love every scene I’m in. Therefore, I love what I’m doing. And it was difficult, it was absolutely creepy to do that one scene I did with Anita (Ariana DeBose) in the Film and it was strange for her and even more difficult for me. I kept looking at her and had the toughest time getting into the scene because what I was really doing was saving Anita‘s life, because these boys were about to possibly rape her. I had to put a stop to it. It was very strange.”.
Tony Kushner is asked whether or not he considered setting this Film in modern day.
Kushner: “We never discussed transposing it because there’s nothing dated about the Score. It’s lively and great and it feels of any moment and I’m convinced for all time. Whenever you hear that Music, you’re going to feel as though it’s happening just right now. There’s nothing quaint or old-fashioned about it. Sondheim who is one of the greatest Lyricists and Composers, is a master at a kind of specificity that is certainly timeless in the sense his insights into the way people think and feel are never gonna get dated.”.
Brian d’Arcy James and Corey Stoll playing the authority in West Side Story. Both comment on their characters, which still are a very much a part of the discussion today on race relations in America.
Stoll: “Tony Kushner‘s Script is such an incredible addition to telling this story. The understanding of race and of ethnicity and of language that he brings to it, it’s more about these systemic forces and how power instills itself on a community, as opposed to ‘That person is a racist! That’s the bad person and we’re good in relation to that.”. It’s about power and how those in power hold onto it. I represent the authority trying to hold that line, and taking away someone’s language is something you do when trying to instill that power. I had the fewest days on-set and some had been working months before I showed up. I am the closest thing to an audience coming in. I’ve never been on a set like this. Maybe it’s because I come from Downtown Theatre where everyone’s very sullen and I’ve never been in a Musical. Everyone was having so much fun and I’ve never seen this!”.
James: “I felt the same way literally on the outside standing and watching this incredible array of ability and talent and enthusiasm and joy and spirit. After every take, a throng of like 40 dancers would run over to the monitor and watch the scene and go ‘Hurray! That was great!’. To me, that is the lifeblood of this Film. The spirit of this Film is captured by the fact that everybody is so in love with the fact they got to do it.”.
Rachel Zegler makes her big screen debut as Maria and talks about New York being a character in the Film, plus also her preparation process for this role of a lifetime.
Zegler: “It’s a character. New York became a character. The morning after the balcony scene, it’s just shot after shot of New York in the morning. And even if you’re not familiar with 1957 New York, even if you’re just familiar with New York right now, it embraces that so well. And I think the Film became a love letter to New York, not only because of how stunning it is visually, but because of the context Tony Kushner gave it in the Script, understanding the political climate as well. It was really cool stepping onto Adam Stockhausen‘s 1957 set and feeling transported, and I think we were all really able to incorporate it into our performances as well because it’s so immersive”.
The Cast are asked about using the Film’s source material, and balancing staying true to it, with making it their own.DeBose who plays Anita, and is getting a lot of early Awards Season buzz, comments on this, as do Zegler, Elgort and Alvarez.
Zegler: “I made the choice not to. The comparisons are eminent so when I got the part, I was like whether they like it or not, they’re gonna compare, so I’m just gonna distance myself as much as I can.”.
“The Music you have to listen to, to study and understand, but it was retaught to us in a brand new way by Jeanine Tesori, conducted by David Newman of the New York Philharmonic, so I think we were all able to look at it with a fresh perspective inherently through our leadership. I don’t think it was necessarily encouraged to watch or not watch the Film, but Tony Kushner did recommend we look at Romeo & Juliet and its text.”.
Elgort: “No I haven’t seen the Movie since I was a kid but I used to love it, especially the Prologue. I’ve always been told as an Actor not to look at someone else’s performance because you’re supposed to pull it out. But I will say Steven Spielberg obviously loves the source material and it very much is based off of that source material and then reimagined the way that Art is supposed to be.”.
Ariana: “I am well-versed in the Movie, but I did not revisit it. I saw it when I was seven or eight and it was ingrained in my mind. I just let the knowledge of it live with me even though I did not seek it out.
Alvarez: “I definitely didn’t see it. I mean I saw it when I was young, but I didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want my idea of Bernardo to change because of the Movie. But I did look at Romeo & Juliet.”.
20th Century Studios Canada release WEST SIDE STORYDecember 10, 2021.