Arthur Laurents’s musical ‘West Side Story’ has had an enduring effect on pop culture.
The play, set in New York City, originally hit the Broadway stage in 1957, and a film followed in 1961. Even though the legacy lived on in many high school and community productions and beyond, there were some kinks in both the story and casting… Enter Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg is a household name, as is ‘West Side Story,’ so marrying the two together may seem like an obvious choice in terms of gusto. However, Spielberg along, with playwright Tony Kushner, not only wanted to re-vamp the classic story, but also fix what they could when it came to casting, dialogue and the overall message of the storyline.
‘West Side Story’ follows Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler), star-crossed lovers who are from two very different backgrounds. In a very Romeo and Juliet fashion, Tony’s crew, the Jets — a street gang of unsupervised young boys who are rough and racist — and Maria’s “alliance” the Sharks — a similar street crew but made up of Puerto Ricans — clash when they learn of said romance.
The plot is widely known, the songs have been sung a countless number of times, but there were some updates that needed to be made. Steven Sondheim, the Broadway giant who just passed away, has even spoken on his time as lyricist on the show with some disdain in terms of cultural insensitivity. But, this film is far from a cover-up of mistakes, it’s more of an embrace of what should have been — just ask the cast.
“I feel like Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner who re-wrote the script, they were better than Batman and Robin. They are an incredible duo. It was a team effort, Tony Kushner worked with him so closely, especially in the first stages of the script. [They] wanted to have the opinion of Puerto Ricans,” says Puerto Rican singer and actress Ana Isabelle, who plays Rosalia in Spielberg’s version.
As Isabelle describes, both the director and Kushner wanted everything to be authentic. That meant gathering a committee of actors on the film and having them be there to guide the dialogue, the outfits, the expressions and everything in between in the right way.
“We were discussing the script over and over again. Discussing the Spanish, discussing historic things about that time period and we also had the commitment and agreement of going back to our abuelas or abuelos — people who lived during that time period in our countries to help. Both of them [Spielberg and Kushner] were both so committed to actually make things right. They acknowledged the fact that they needed the support of Puerto Ricans and Latinas to make this right, and they did it,” Isabelle continues.
As Rosalia, one of Anita’s (Ariana DeBose) best friends, Isabelle is in most scenes with Maria’s sister. Anita, known as a firecracker in the show, dates Bernardo — one of the most prominent figures of the Sharks. But for Isabelle, this role and this film is something out of a fairytale.
“Spielberg is my favorite director, I wanted to work with him so bad since I was in high school. I was having a hard time getting roles in my acting career because of my accent, because I’m Puerto Rican or too Latina — all the labels that sometimes you get that people put to you without you even wanting them. When I saw this, I thought this is perfect for me and I have to go for it no matter what role.”
Isabelle’s audition process wasn’t as cut and dry as her want to be in the film. After numerous self-taping sessions, flying to Puerto Rico and New York and months of no answers, the actress’s efforts paid off.
“My process was really long. [Eventually,] I received something shortly after saying Steven Spielberg loved your audition and he wants to meet you in person in New York,” Isabelle explains. “It was two magical days with a super-reduced group of Sharks and Jets. We got to dance in couples. I will always remember that moment when I first saw Steven: He was there, super casual with his iPhone, just going up to all of us dancing and feeling energy.”
The time and effort put in with Spielberg and the cast pays off on screen.
‘West Side Story’ has always had a feel — the grittiness of post-WWII New York City with the soft romanticism of young love, and this latest adaptation blends it together in a way that brings both nostalgia and excitement. The dance numbers with new choreography by Justin Peck utilize the set as a partner and it all seems bigger than ever. The Jets plié around in the dirt while kicking up dust; the Latina ladies dance around in a vibrant rainbow of dresses during “I Feel Pretty;” and Tony and Maria’s “Tonight” is hauntingly beautiful, mostly thanks to Zegler.
It’s the care and attention to detail and just the effort put in that is one of Isabelle’s fondest memories from filming as well.
“‘I Feel Pretty’ was so special,” she remarks. “The ladies with Steven on set, we had this huge department store that they built for us at Gimbels and it was like a wow, so magical. It was so perfect.” Isabelle laughs, “I have a video of Steven on my phone dancing with the mannequins — I can’t show it to the world, but I have it.”
Is West Side Story perfect? No, it’s not. No musical really is, and there have been some arguments made that even though the representation is better off now than it was back then, Zegler is Colombian and not Puerto Rican. However, you can also argue that actress Rita Moreno who plays Valentina in the film gave her stamp of approval. And coming from an actress who was the only Puerto Rican in the original film in the role of Anita (who was put in brown face in a very racist fashion), there has been major improvements to a beloved story.
The film as it stands on its own is quite striking. It’s bolder, it’s vibrant and it captures a love story and the many effects of what racism and intolerance can do in a way that’s true to what ‘West Side Story’ should have always been.
“I think that’s why the movie is so special, because they put the time, effort, love and consideration in,” adds Isabelle. “I’ve never felt so included, I felt like an important piece. I’m just Ana Isabelle from Puerto Rico and I was there with Tony Kushner… I felt so important. That’s so beautiful because someone as big as Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, they can just do their things with their team… But they care.”
‘West Side Story’ opens in theaters Dec. 10th.