With the highly-anticipated musical adaptation opening in theaters on December 10, Vital Thrills got a chance to talk to the West Side Story cast and crew.
Directed by Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, West Side Story tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.
Also starring are Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank, Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino), and Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works). Moreno — one of only three artists to be honored with Academy, Emmy, GRAMMY, Tony and Peabody Awards — also serves as one of the executive producers.
Kushner told us that when Spielberg asked him to do this musical, he said, “I went home and told my husband, ‘Steven just asked me to do something completely insane… how do I get out of it?'” He said he thought it was impossible because of the iconic nature of the 1961 film.
Kushner added that his husband was the one who changed the character of Doc to Doc’s widow Valentina, who is played by Rita Moreno. Spielberg agreed and they called Rita Moreno to assure her this wasn’t just a cameo.
One thing that viewers will notice is that a lot of the dialogue is in Spanish, but there are no subtitles. The moderator for the press junket mentioned her Spanish-speaking husband and that they noticed a line from Anita (in Spanish) where she says, “Oh, I’m not family because I’m dark.”
Kushner explained that the white characters are constantly telling everyone to speak English. Some of the Puerto Rican characters do as well. He said, “That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help.”
Moreno added, “It leaves it in the laps of the audience, or in the minds of the audience to decide that they’re going to be more attentive, because you can tell pretty much what they’re saying.”
“And I also want the audiences, you know, Spanish-speaking audiences, English-speaking audiences, to sit in the theater together…”
Spielberg added, “…so the English-speaking audiences will suddenly hear laughter coming from pockets of the theater from the Spanish-speaking audience.” Spielberg also said he did sing with the cast, “off-key, and dancing like I had three left feet.”
The filmmaker mentioned he used a bit of digital technology for the “America” scene. He said the actors were sweating through their costumes during the number, and “We took out the sweat… you never see sweat under anyone’s arms, but we took out a lot of sweat in post-production.”
Morena said that it was hard watching someone else play Anita. She said, “Passing the torch… it wasn’t easy. I mean, I’m not going to say I wasn’t envious. That would be just a bloody lie.
RELATED: West Side Story Review
“I wished I could be that young again and do it again, obviously, but that wasn’t going to be. And I get this beautifully written part by this man… I love me in this movie.”
Rachel Zegler plays Maria and said that a lot of the West Side Story cast wouldn’t be where they are without Stephen Sondheim. “We were so lucky to not only be able to sing his lyrics but be able to talk to him about them, and also hear.
“We consider them silly anecdotes because of how iconic they are, but he was always wanting to change them and always wanting to evolve them, and it was really inspiring as an artist to watch someone who had created this insane piece of work and he has things he still wants to change 64 years later.”
Ariana DeBose plays Anita and said she had to be pushed into the room to audition for the role. “I inherently did not think that this was ever a job I would book, because Anitas don’t look like us. You know, they look like Rita Moreno.
“I was not shocked but just really amazed that Steven and Tony were open to having the conversation around it, because it was something I said in the room.”
Ansel Elgort plays Tony. He spoke about his scene with Riff (Mike Faist) and how the friendship breaks. “Mike and I, Riff and I, we were sort of like Riff and Tony for a long time through the rehearsal process. We spent a lot of time together and we built that kind of friendship and we imagined about what it was like being kids, playing as the Jets, before things even probably got too violent.
“‘Cool’ is kind of like us revisiting the friendship and almost having too much fun and playing with fire again, and then it gets to the point where he crosses a line and hits me in the face and that’s like, woah, what just happened?”
Bernardo is played by David Alvarez, who spoke about the iconic role. “I didn’t know if I was doing it right half the time,” he laughed. “I just felt like I was in this great environment where Steven and Tony and just everyone involved in it, they just wanted to see you do what you want to do.
“Instead of telling you how to do this or what to do, they just want you to trust yourself, to believe in yourself, to have the confidence and to search within yourself what you think you should bring to this character.”
Mike Faist plays Riff, who talked about where his character and the rest of the Jets find themselves as kids without families. “These people are attempting to create in a new city. They don’t have that. All they have is this toxicity, kind of a tribe and familial relationship that they’ve built and culminated together, and it’s totally unhealthy and co-dependent, but it’s what they got.
“So when Tony comes back and he’s actually trying to change and be different – I keep joking and saying it’s kind of like going back home to Thanksgiving. You know, it’s like, no, this is who I want to be. And the inability to recognize that, the entirety of the city is changing before everyone’s eyes, and the inability or reluctance to let go of what was and trying to hold onto whatever, the inability to accept change, that’s where that’s coming from.”