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Musicals have been singing decidedly off-key at the box office, but Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story hopes to reverse that curse. Disney and 20th Century open the big-budget revival in theaters Dec. 10 — 60 years after the first movie adaptation of the Broadway sensation became a box office hit, then scored 10 Oscars, including one for best picture.
Disney has thrown its full marketing might behind selling Spielberg’s West Side Story, but despite an iconic property, an A-list helmer and early rave reviews, there are major challenges. In response, the overall campaign has positioned the film as an event pic and love story, instead of a musical, in hopes of attracting younger consumers who are so far fueling the box office recovery. Adults over age 35 in the U.S., and specifically females, the go-to demo for musicals, remain the most nervous about returning to the multiplex (the emerging omicron variant may not help).
“A big part of our job was to invest and bring in the broadest possible audience to this movie,” says Disney marketing chief Asad Ayaz. “It’s not a niche film for us.”
When musicals hit the right note, they can be notable profit generators for Hollywood studios. These include such Broadway adaptations as Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables and original titles like The Greatest Showman and the Elton John untraditional biopic Rocketman.
When they miss, they miss big. Tom Hooper’s Cats was a disaster for Universal in 2019, and the movie adaptation of Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen bombed this fall with a domestic total of $15 million. Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit stage musical, fared somewhat better this summer with $29.9 million but was still considered a dud (even though it also debuted on HBO Max at the same time). And Miranda found himself apologizing on social media after the Warner Bros. movie was criticized for failing to adequately represent Afro Latinos in its depiction of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
Similarly, the 1961 West Side Story film has been a sore point for many Puerto Ricans and the larger Latino community for its incredible lack of representation (most of the cast, including star Natalie Wood, was white) and for dismissing Puerto Rican culture. So, Spielberg’s team began reaching out to Latino influencers more than two years ago — such as Hispanic Heritage Foundation president-CEO José Antonio Tijerino, whom Disney approached to take part in a community advisory board that could provide guidance in casting and story decisions. “Disney wouldn’t let us talk about the committee publicly, which comforted me,” says Tijerino. “They weren’t doing it for show.”
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner also traveled to Puerto Rico in December 2019. Mario Alegre, a prominent film critic on the island, was among those raising concerns at a small forum. “I cringed the whole time when I watched the 1961 version,” Alegre tells THR, adding that he was surprised when he saw the new West Side Story on Nov. 30. “The Puerto Rican characters actually feel like characters.”
This time, Latino and Afro Latino actors are prominently featured, including Rachel Zegler, who stars as Maria, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez — as is the Puerto Rico-born Rita Moreno, who became the first Latina to win an Academy Award for her supporting turn as Anita in the 1961 film. In addition to taking on a new part, Moreno also contributed to the advisory board meetings, according to Tijerino.
Spielberg’s West Side Story was originally set to open in 2020 but was pushed back because of the pandemic. The delay may have been a blessing. In mid-2020, star Ansel Elgort — who plays Tony, the young white man who falls in love with Maria — denied allegations that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl when he was 20 and said he handled the end of their brief, consensual relationship badly. “I don’t think it will stop general audiences from going to see the movie. And Disney certainly isn’t hiding Elgort,” says a rival studio marketing executive, noting the actor is highlighted in promotional materials and was front and center at the New York premiere.
Despite the challenges, Disney is optimistic that Spielberg’s West Side Story will garner a better reception with audiences. Already critics are hailing it as a best picture contender, among other potential nods.
“Remaking a classic musical is not an easy task,” says Ayaz. “But we had a really, really good film to work with, and Steven’s just done an incredible job.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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