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

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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