Rachel Zegler was seven years old when she saw West Side Story (the 1961 film) for the very first time, and recalls being enthralled by the woman in the purple dress. “I was in love with her fire,” the 20-year-old singer tells Billboard.
The captivating woman in the purple dress was none other than Rita Moreno as Anita, a role she won an Oscar for back in 1962, becoming the first Latina to ever win an Academy award. “I remember just turning to my mom and asking, ‘Mommy, who is that?’ And she explained that she was a huge trailblazer for people like us. And I thought, ‘I want to be like her so badly.'”
The beloved classic musical film returns to the big screen 60 years after the original film, inspired by the 1957 Broadway production, with its iconic music by Leonard Bernstein, its timeless and sublime lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim, and, this time around, with Steven Spielberg as its director and a screenplay by Tony Kushner.
As for the cast, it’s Latinos playing Latinos in the Romeo and Juliet-esque story of romance and crime, and of pride and prejudice — unlike Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ Oscar-winning movie adaptation, which cast almost all white actors in makeup to play Puerto Rican characters. Zegler takes on the role of Maria — one half of the star-crossed couple who finds love amid racial tensions in the 50s between two rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in New York — becoming the first Latina to ever play the part on screen.
“It’s never been done before, so being able to bring that authenticity every day was a very real thing and a huge honor,” she says. “We were able to incorporate all of these different experiences we’ve had into our characters, but also expand upon the characters that people think they know really well.”
Meanwhile, triple-threat actress, dancer and singer Ariana DeBose plays Anita, who wavers between desperately wanting to assimilate in America and suspecting that the American dream isn’t as attainable as she once thought it was.
“My Anita is not your grandmother’s Anita,” the 30-year-old artist says. “Now, she has volcanic emotions — in a way that the character wasn’t allowed to exist in previous portrayals. She believes in the American dream and her right to fight for it. But it’s so ironic that by the end of the film, you see someone who’s made the case for assimilation, and that we have a place here, get stripped of her American dreams in a very short amount of time. And that is the lived experience of so many people in this country. It’s what makes this film so special and authentic.”
While staying true to the spirit of the first film, both Zegler and DeBose intentionally gave more depth to their characters who, in the original film, are portrayed as ingenues. “Maria is not this black-and-white girl who makes rash decisions — now she’s this complex and strong-willed character,” Zegler explains. “She has actual developed relationships with characters around her, like Bernardo, Anita and Tony. And it’s really wonderful to see her really fleshed out.”
The cast also includes Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony, a former Jet and Maria’s love interest, David Alvarez as the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (Maria’s brother and Anita’s boyfriend), Mike Faist as the prideful Riff (who co-founded the Jets alongside Tony) and Moreno, who this time returns as Valentina, widow to Doc, who was an original character in the 1961 film. Moreno also serves as executive producer on the film.
Having Moreno in the new film made both Zegler and DeBose’s experience even more special. DeBose, who plays the role Moreno played in the original, received critical advice from the Puerto Rican actress. “We spoke very briefly. We had lunch and she was like ‘I’ll tell you anything you want to know.’ And I told her, ‘I want to know anything you want to tell me.’ She was like, ‘lean into anything that makes you unique.’ Essentially she said, ‘You don’t need me, you’ve got this.’ So, I just ran wild with imagination. Not for nothing, because this role is wild.”
Zegler recalls her pinch-me-moment with Moreno when she first met the EGOT winner. “I told her how much I admired her, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Your voice is so beautiful, I s–t a brick.’ And that set a precedent for the rest of our relationship, we still have that camaraderie. It’s just an honor to call her friend — as well as somebody who ghost-mentored me my entire life even if she didn’t know. She was the blueprint for what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
“What was so important about Rita’s existence in my world as a young girl is that she showed me possibility,” DeBose adds. “And the fact that she succeeded in the way that she did, she’s opened so many doors for myself and for Rachel, for many young Latinas and it’s an honor to be a part of her legacy even in our small way because we carry on the possibility. If we can do it, the young people coming after us can do it.”
Part of what makes this movie so memorable is its score, which includes iconic songs such as “I Feel Pretty,” now beautifully sung by Zegler and, of course, the riveting “America,” sung by DeBose — who is just fascinating to watch perform the film’s new breathtaking choreography (courtesy of Tony Award-winning choreographer Justin Peck).
“The score literally tells you how to move and as a dancer. Choreography is such a beautiful storytelling tool, and when you really are listening and channeling the score, the moves come so naturally,” says DeBose. “And Justin Peck allowed the lyrics, in addition to the score, to open up an emotional window to who these characters were and he did it through movement. He made the movement accessible because it does take a lot of technique to be able to execute this choreography but when you’re watching it looks so human it just looks like an extension of the moment that these characters are in.”
Breathing in new life to Sondheim’s lyrics were an honor, says Zegler. The master of musical theater died at 91 on Nov. 26, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy. “These lyrics have stood the test of time in such a real way. We miss him terribly but are so glad we got the opportunity to work with him. I for sure will hold onto it until the day that I die. It is the greatest honor to say that we knew him and that we sang his words for him.”
Sidelined by the pandemic, which pushed back its 2020 release date, Spielberg’s West Side Story is finally out in theaters Friday (December 10).