A Look Into West Side Story


Olivia Sullivan, Staff Writer

Being one of the most influential and famous musicals of all time, West Side Story has been given a modern rendition. The new movie, released on December 10, 2021, was immediately met with critical acclaim. The world-renowned director, Steven Spielberg, filmed the 2021 movie, a move that could have been considered “risky”. However, his take on the classic story only amplified the film and story. The cast was also filled with former and current Broadway actors like Rita Moreno, Ansel Elgort, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and Ariana DeBose. The movie also introduced Rachel Zegler, who played Maria, and was only 17 years old when casted. The original film, which was released in 1961 and adapted from the former Broadway musical, was an instant hit and has continued to influence and impact millions for generations. Even though the two movie musicals were both based on the same source, the Shakespearean play Romeo and Juliet and follow the same basic plot, many differences in between give each film its own unique identity.

Perhaps the most drastic and positive change between the two films is the casting of Latinx actors to play the roles of the Sharks. In the 1961 film, many of the actors cast to play the Sharks were played by Caucasian actors. Rita Moreno, who originally played the role of Anita in the 1961 film, told 20/20 in an exclusive interview that the makeup artists used to color the actor’s skin to a darker skin tone in attempts to make them look “more Puerto Rican”. Moreno, who is Puerto Rican, explained in the interview, “We are many colors.” Steven Spielberg decided that with this new film, he would allow for more representation to be shown through the cast. 

Even though the 1961 film has been adored for generations, it has its obvious flaws, specifically surrounding its casting of Caucasian actors to play Latinx roles, and also how many of the cast members weren’t singing for their roles. Natalie Wood, who originally played Maria in the 1961 film, lip-synced every song for her role. Marni Nixon was the singer behind the voice of Maria, but also of many other famous roles and actors, such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Now, every actor cast in the 2021 film has sung their parts. This change also allowed for the music in the movie to “branch out”, with Spielberg rearranging the order of the music, allowing for him to continue to give the iconic movie his own spin.

Finally, when Steven Spielberg was assigned the hefty task of recreating West Side Story, he knew that Rita Moreno had to be involved as well. Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 film, was unsure of Spielberg’s original offer. She believed that he wanted her to do a cameo, something that she had never done, and did not want to do. However, to her surprise, he instead offered her a completely new role of Valentina, the widow of the former character Doc, and the owner of his drugstore. In the original film, Doc runs the local drugstore, where Tony works, and where both of the gangs hang out. In the new film, Doc has passed away, and the store now belongs to his widow, Valentina. Throughout the film, Valentina helps Tony win over Maria, eases conflict between the two gangs, and also helps save Anita from a terrible situation. Valentina also gets to sing her own song near the end of the movie, called “Somewhere”.

Spielberg’s adaptation of the original film in my eyes was an automatic success. I have seen the original film multiple times, however, I felt that this new film only added depth to the characters and the story line. The story felt more personal, and there was more emotion in every scene. And the success of West Side Story has only begun. The film was nominated for a total of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Ariana DeBose’s role as Anita. The film entered Disney+ on March 2nd!