West Side Story: A guide to Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake of Bernstein's iconic musical
Could it be? Yes it could! We reveal the release date, cast and soundtrack details of the upcoming 2021 remake of the much-loved musical West Side Story, 50 years after the release of the first film adaptation
In an upcoming adaptation by 20th Century Fox, West Side Story will represent Steven Spielberg’s first musical project. 'This film is probably the most daunting of my career,' he says. ‘West Side Story is arguably the greatest score ever written in the theatre, and that’s not lost on any of us.'
The plot was originally inspired by William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in which lovers Maria and Tony find themselves entangled in a bitter battle between their gangster families.
Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim's original musical was first adapted for the big screen in 1961, just four years after it first hit Broadway. It's now receiving its long-anticipated second outing.
After endless date changes, the official release date of the new West Side Story film was announced at the 2021 Oscars, along with a new teaser trailer.
Who is writing the score to the new West Side Story adaptation?
Leonard Bernstein wrote the score for the original 1957 Broadway production, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
The original West Side Story score will be adapted for the new film by David Newman, who also wrote the scores to Ice Age, Matilda and Anastasia, the latter of which won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.
David Newman comes from a composing family: he is the son of legendary film composer Alfred Newman, who won nine Academy Awards and was nominated 45 times. He is also the brother of film composer Thomas Newman, who has written the scores to 1917, Finding Nemo and The Shawshank Redemption, as well as several James Bond films.
David is also the cousin of Randy Newman, who has scored many Disney-Pixar films including Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story. He was up against Thomas in the 2019 Academy Awards, for which Thomas was nominated for 1917 and Randy for Marriage Story.
Who has been cast in West Side Story so far?
The casting of West Side Story involved the biggest casting search Steven Spielberg has ever undertaken, with the exception of Schindler's List. It marks the film debuts of over 50 young performers.
Spielberg has cast 18-year-old singer-songwriter Rachel Zegler as Maria, who will be making her film debut. The high school student responded to the production's open casting call – which called solely for Latinx actors – with a video of herself singing 'Tonight' and 'Me Siento Hermosa' ('I Feel Pretty'). ‘I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast,’ exclaimed Zegler. ‘As a Colombian-American woman growing up in this day and age, strong roles like Maria are so important. To be able to bring that role to life — a role that means so much to the Hispanic community — is so humbling.’
'I felt my mandate was pretty clear, that all of the Sharks, María, Anita, Bernardo and Chino – everyone needed to be Latinx,' says casting director Cindy Tolan. 'And they also had to be triple threats, meaning they needed to be able to sing, dance and act. A quadruple threat, really, because there was a fourth dimension: the camera had to love them.'
Ansel Elgort, previously seen in Edgar Wright's 2017 film Baby Driver, will play Tony. Although Baby Driver was a film packed full of music – with music forming a central part of the plot, this will be Elgort's first time singing in a film. He was first heard singing on a global stage when he entered a riff-off on The Late Late Show with James Corden and performed a rendition of 'Easy' by the Commodores.
'We looked for a year for Tony, then Ansel came in,' says Spielberg. 'Sometimes on camera he looks even younger than he is, then in the next second he looks like Marlon Brando. He has great power, and also vulnerability. He is boy and man and so facile at how often these qualities are interchangeable.'
Plus, Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance playing Anita in the original film, will play a new character not included in the original – Valentina.
Update: Ariana DeBose, who plays the role of Anita in the new West Side Story adaptation of West Side Story, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, just as Rita Moreno was 50 years ago.
'Valentina’s backstory is 25 pages long,' says screenwriter Tony Kushner. 'It’s like a little novel, starting with her early life in Puerto Rico, and it includes how Tony came to live in the basement of her drugstore. It spans the first half of the 20th century.'
Maddie Ziegler, famous for dancing in popular-music artist Sia’s music videos, will also be cast as a Jet.
How the new adaptation came to be
Steven Spielberg had been hoping to produce an adaptation, but the opportunity arose after he completed filming on The Post, which was released at the end of 2017.
There had to be a reason to recreate it though. 'We didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken, but we did want to justify why we were telling the story again,' says Spielberg. 'Part of that is the cast. On stage the actors have largely not been Hispanic, and in the 1961 movie they’re in their 30s, and many who were portraying the Puerto Ricans are white. I wanted to cast it authentically, to ensure that the actors playing the Shark boys and girls were one hundred percent Latinx, and young.'
It was a tricky task though – and a very slow casting process. 'We have a completely, one hundred percent Latinx cast of Sharks, men and women,' says Spielberg. 'There’s no one who’s not Latinx. This was non-negotiable for us, and it’s one of the reasons it took us a year to cast.'
After the screenplay had been written, they assembled a production team with a choreographer and initiated a worldwide casting search.
Who has written the screenplay for the 2021 adaptation of West Side Story?
Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner (who is best known for his play Angels in America, which examines the AIDS crisis in America in the 1980s) will adapt the screenplay from the original 1957 Broadway script, which was written by Arthur Laurents. He will be leaving the musical numbers intact, and the story will be in fact more similar to the original musical than to the 1961 film.
'West Side Story redefined the form as much as Rogers and Hammerstein had redefined it a generation before,' says Kushner. 'I was moved by how many of our current struggles Steven felt could be explored in this 60- year-old masterpiece – I guess moved and troubled, in a good way, because the racism, xenophobia, the legacies of colonialism, the effects of poverty, the evils that catalysed the creation of the musical, are still very much with us.'
Who is the choreographer for the 2021 adaptation?
Tony Award-winning choreographer Justin Peck was brought on board to design the visuals for West Side Story. He is New York City Ballet's resident choreographer and artistic advisor.
'New York City Ballet was one of the homes of Jerome Robbins [the 1961 film's choreographer], and in performing his choreography for the piece, I know it inside out,' says Peck. The role of Bernardo in West Side Story was the first lead he danced as a young performer at the School of American Ballet.
Who will be performing on the soundtrack to the new West Side Story adaptation?
Composer David Newman will arrange and adapt Leonard Bernstein’s original score, and Gustavo Dudamel, musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Paris Opera, will conduct the orchestra during the film’s recording sessions.
'West Side Story, for me, as for all of us in the music world, is part of my DNA,' says Dudamel. 'Every single melody in it is so natural and easy for anyone to process. Naturally, it felt right to work with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein’s own orchestra and have the musicians be part of the new chapter of this masterpiece.'
When is the soundtrack for West Side Story being released?
The soundtrack for the 2021 adaptation of West Side Story will be available on streaming platforms from Friday 3 December, a week before the film is launched in cinemas.
The West Side Story original motion picture soundtrack will feature 21 songs from the film and will be available on CD and vinyl, as well as receiving a digital release in Dolby Atmos Music.
The digital versions will be available on Friday 3 December, but the CD will be available on 10 December, the same day the film lands in cinemas. Vinyl copies will be available from early 2022.
Physical versions of the soundtrack will include liner notes by West Side Story music consultant and Hollywood soundtracking legend John Williams.
When is the new West Side Story being released and where can you watch it?
West Side Story will be released on 10 December 2021 and is hoping to receive a release in cinemas.
The film has been forced to be rescheduled numerous times due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but the official release date was announced at the Oscars ceremony in 2021.
Watch the trailer for Spielberg's West Side Story adaptation
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.