What to expect with the 2021 film remake of “West Side Story”

By Nia Anthony 

Elm Staff Writer 

In 1957, playwright Arthur Laurents, along with composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, brought on the first production of “West Side Story.” The storyline was inspired by William Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet with a more modern social commentary. Instead of the feuding families of the Montagues and Capulets, it was the rival street gangs of the Sharks and the Jets. 

In 1961, Robert Wise’s musical film adaptation made its big screen debut, prompting more and more popularity with the musical that is still a household staple to this day. In 2021, nearly 60 years later, director Steven Spielberg will present audiences with the latest, revised version of “West Side Story,” with some notable changes. 

Set to be released on Disney+ December 10, 2021 — marking the 60thanniversary of the release of the original in 1961 — this new film still follows the basic plot, a tale of two lovers that meet an awful fate, similar to that of Shakespeare’s famed tragedy.  

Instead of the conflict being rooted in polarized politics and socioeconomic class divisions, what drives the enemy gangs is the rampant racism in modern America. This 60th anniversary version of the story would also prove itself to be a musical phenomenon, with choreography and costume silhouettes that Broadway legends still cite today. 

The first big change audiences can expect is the choreography. Instead of using the combination of South American and classical musical theatre styles from the original film, the new adaptation will feature Puerto Rican culture and dance across all mediums. 

The choreography of the musical produced on stage varies from production team to production team, but the 1961 movie choreography we’ve known to love was done by the legendary Jerome Robbins. For the 2021 version, the choreography will be done by Justin Peck. 

Peck is the resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet. He won a Tony Award in 2018 for his choreography in the Broadway revival of “Carousel” and is constantly involved in musical theatre works even while working for NYCB. 

In addition to the change of director, the film also brought on screenwriter Tony Kushner, whose experience behind mind behind Broadway productions including “Angels in America” (1993) and “Caroline, or Change” (2002) will be welcome in the new film adaption, since its musical origins come from the stage. 

We can also expect to see a change in casting. While the original cast produced big names including Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and Rita Moreno, director Steven Spielberg has noted that the 2021 film will welcome a more diverse, more inclusive cast. 

“They brought themselves, and everything they believe and everything about them — they brought that to the work,” Spielberg said in an interview with Vanity Fair on Mar. 16.

“There was so much interaction between the cast wanting to be able to commit to the Puerto Rican experience. They all represent, I think, a diversity, both within the Puerto Rican, Nuyorican community as well as the broader Latinx community…[a]nd they took that seriously,” he said. 

With Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ansel Elgort as Tony, Ariana Debose as Anita and original cast member Rita Moreno as Valentina, the new movie will be full of talent and diversity. 

Both Zegler and Debose identify as young Latinx women, which makes for an authentic viewing experience for audience members in 2021. 

There are also the obvious creative team changes. Steven Spielberg, best known for popular movies like “Jaws,” (1975) “E.T,” (1982), and “Schindler’s List” (1993) will be directing. 

“I really wanted to tell that Puerto Rican, Nuyorican experience of basically the migration to this country and the struggle to make a living, and to have children, and to battle against the obstacles of xenophobia and racial prejudice,” Spielberg said. 

This upcoming adaptation will encourage a new generation of movie-goers and musical lovers; it intends to keep the integrity of the original while providing some fresh perspective. 

With the addition of an incredible, diverse, and talented cast, audience members can look forward to seeing characters that look like themselves in the new film.

Featured Photo caption: Under director Steven Spielberg, choreographer Justin Peck, and a diverse on-screen cast, the 2021 film remake of “West Side Story” strives to bring an inclusive take on a classic musical. Photo Courtesy of Alex Simpson.

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