The 1961 film West Side Story, an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway play that was itself inspired by Romeo and Juliet, was such a sensation, winning 10 Academy Awards and going on to become a cherished classic, that it may have seemed that no one could possibly top it.
Enter one Steven Spielberg.
Next summer shooting begins on a new film version of West Side Story, directed by Spielberg, with a screenplay written by Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Lincoln).
The bar it needs to top is very high. The 1961 version is the biggest Oscar-winning musical of all time.
The leads of the original film were Natalie Wood, at the height of her ingenue fame, as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony, star-crossed lovers.
This film will use the Arthur Laurents songs but obviously won’t have choreography by Jerome Robbins, who creating dance numbers for cast members playing the Sharks and the Jets, as well as superb individual dances by Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn.
But there were some aspects to the film that some found unfortunate, even then and definitely today.
One was obvious dubbing of songs and the other was casting actors who were not Hispanic to play Puerto Ricans.
Natalie Wood was dubbed by Marni Nixon in her singing and wore makeup to appear Latina–her accent was considered a bit shaky.
There have been casting calls all over America this year to fill the roles, including in Orlando.
In the casting call issued recently in New York City, Spielberg’s production company made it clear that people won’t be pretending their ethnicity this time around. The call stipulates auditionees should be between 15 and 25 years old with a strong dance background and ability to sing, and also specifies: “the Sharks are Latinx, the Jets are Caucasian.”
Furthermore, it specified: “Maria and Anita are Latina. Bernardo is Latino. Tony & Riff are Caucasian.”
On October 1, 2018, it was announced that Ansel Elgort will play Tony, the American ex-gang member who falls in love with Maria, the sheltered younger sister of Bernardo, a Puerto Rican gang leader. Elgort starred in The Fault in Our Stars and Baby Driver.
Elgort is not known for his singing or dancing. However, as Deadline pointed out, Elgort “attended Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, where he performed in various musicals. The performing arts-focused school, made famous in Fame, is located around Lincoln Square — the arts district built on the demolished tenement neighborhood that was, indeed, the West Side in West Side Story.”
No other lead roles have been made public. But also announced: Justin Peck, who choreographed this year’s Broadway revival of Carousel and won a Tony Award, will choreograph the film.
Media reports say West Side Story has been a passion project of Spielberg’s for years.
In a 2014 interview on Good Morning America, the director said, “Well, you know something, West Side Story is one of my favorite Broadway musicals and one of the greatest pieces of musical literature, my goodness, one of the greatest scores and [it has] some of the greatest lyrics ever written for a musical, so just let me put it this way: it’s on my mind.”
Twentieth Century Fox owned the rights to the film.
In 2014, Screen Rant reported: “Although West Side Story is considered one of film’s sacred cows – a classic with little chance of remake approval – Fox would apparently be willing to acquiesce to such a proposal if Spielberg directs.”
The 1961 film was made at a time when many actors had their singing dubbed, but even so, West Side Story goes quite far. Nixon dubbed not only Wood but some of Rita Moreno’s songs. George Chakiris was the only one out of the main characters to not be dubbed and this was probably because he had no hard solo songs to sing.