West Side Story is considered a timeless classic, so of course, there are some reservations about the 2021 update of the iconic Broadway play that was brought to the big screen by legendary director Stephen Spielberg for a new generation.
The original 1957 Broadway production and 1961 theatrical release of West Side Story tells the story of a forbidden love finding a way to blossom in the middle of racial tension between two rival teenage gangs, The Jets, a white gang, and The Sharks, comprised of immigrants from Puerto Rico. The film takes place in a 1950s New York City neighborhood undergoing change forcing its locals, mainly poor immigrants, to relocate as expensive high rises and other buildings can be built.
The 2021 film tells the same story that mainly focuses around Tony (Ansel Egort), a member of The Jets who’s tired of being degenerate after a jail stint, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of the leader of The Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez). Tony and Maria instantly fall in love, but racial tensions between the rival gangs quickly test their interracial bond.
Before the film’s release, Cassius Life had the opportunity to speak with the film’s stars David Alvarez (American Rust) and newcomer Ariana DeBose who brilliantly plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. We spoke on duo singing play’s iconic songs written by the late Stephen Sondheim during our Zoom conversation. We also touched on one of the songs, “America,” which is a favorite among West Side Story fans, and how it might resonate differently with this new generation. Spielberg’s version of the film corrected the 1961 movie’s biggest mistake regarding casting.
Step into the interview below.
Cassius Life: The arrival of this film is bittersweet because it comes on the passing of Stephen Sondheim. So what did it mean for you guys to actually sing the lyrics that he wrote?
David Alvarez: I think it’s just an honor. It really is an honor to be able to breathe life into his words, especially now that he’s not with us. And the fact that we can bring this to life for the next generation is just incredible. And he’s not only an incredible legendary artist. He’s an incredible legendary person with a beautiful heart and a soul, and he cared so much about everything he was pouring himself into. So we’re just so fortunate and lucky.
He’s quite Shakespearean. Not since the times of Shakespeare have we seen an artist leave a mark like Stephen Sondheim. And I think this film coming out now on the heels of his passing is a beautiful celebration of all that he will leave behind and everything he will continue to teach us.
Ariana DeBose: Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of a legacy as vast as his. He’s quite Shakespearean. Not since the times of Shakespeare have we seen an artist leave a mark like Stephen Sondheim. And I think this film coming out now on the heels of his passing is a beautiful celebration of all that he will leave behind and everything he will continue to teach us.
CL: Great answer. Sticking with the music, America is one of the most beloved tracks in the play, but I couldn’t help but think while watching it at the same time, this song kind of hit a little differently with new audiences. Did you guys have the same thought process while performing it?
AD: Oh, yeah.
DA: I definitely did.
AD: I mean, by virtue of our America taking place in the streets of New York, it becomes a love letter to New York City, Nueva York, but it also allows you to get to know the community, the Latino community, which is something that the 61 film didn’t do. It took place on a rooftop, which was actually something that was more in line with the Broadway production. So this opportunity to show audiences who the Latino community is, who we are, what we look like, our rhythm, and also giving real social context. This film at large, I think, is incredibly socially aware of what was going on politically and why things were happening to these groups of people. So it makes the intent or the motives for the fighting, the violence, you understand why the violence is happening.
And ultimately, it’s a product of the systems that are oppressing both of these groups, the Sharks and the Jets, and they just happen to be taking it out on each other as opposed to the powers that be. But, I do think America does hit differently. And also, given the time we’re living in begs us to ask some questions.
CL: Yeah, exactly. We loved that scene, by the way. It was beautiful.
But, I do think America does hit differently. And also, given the time we’re living in begs us to ask some questions.
DA: Thank you.
CL: The 1961 film is a classic in its own right. But it did have some issues regarding casting, specifically, representation. So what would you say to someone who, based on their reactions from the first film, might not be inclined to see this one? How would you convince them to come to see this movie?
DA: Yeah, well, I think this production really took time, and they had so much love, and they were very careful with how they wanted to bring this to life. We had groups of historians coming in to talk to Tony Kushner, talk to us about the problems that the Sharks, the Puerto Rican community was having, and the Jets, and really understand what these people were facing and the cultural differences. And we had a team of dialect coaches with us who were there every day, not only to teach us what the Puerto Rican accent is, but also what the slangs for 1957 were because the Puerto Rican from 1957 is different than the Puerto Rican today.
They were so careful, and they had so much attention to detail to everything surrounding everything about this film. I think Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and just everyone involved really wanted to bring authenticity to this movie. And no doubt they had so much love and passion for what they were doing. And they wanted to give us a voice.
AD: They care.
DA: Yeah. They care. Exactly. I mean, it’s as simple as that. They truly care, and that’s rare in this business sometimes.
If the greatest director of our time, Steven Spielberg, can do it, so can everybody else. He’s leading by example. And I think this film is an invitation for the rest of the industry to join us in the conversation.
AD: And you know what I will say, it’s like the fact that we are Latinos portraying Latino. This film celebrates the fullness of the diaspora. It gives voice to an Afro Latina in a leading character. She’s not an afterthought. Bernardo’s perspective, it is more intensified. These portrayals are dynamic. You get to feel and understand who we are on a visceral level. And you know what? If the greatest director of our time, Steven Spielberg, can do it, so can everybody else. He’s leading by example. And I think this film is an invitation for the rest of the industry to join us in the conversation.
Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story arrives exclusively in theaters on December 10.
Photos: Niko Tavernise / © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation