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Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story adaptation will not screen in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman or Kuwait. Sources cited the Gulf Nations’ opposition to the character Anybodys, written as transgender in the new version and played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas.
At Tuesday’s Los Angeles premiere of the film, with the big-budget event shutting down Hollywood Boulevard, the West Side Story team reacted to that news, which came after Disney refused to make the requested cuts.
“I think we have to remember that during [William] Shakespeare’s time, at the height, the Puritans came in and tore all of the theaters down. You couldn’t go to the theater, and yet Shakespeare survived,” producer Kevin McCollum told THR. “So this being a film that exists in the world, it might try to be stopped in certain places, but it will be found. I believe that love will win, and this is a story about love, made with love, and what happens when you try to keep people from loving freely.”
“I think we’ve done our jobs as artists to make this film, and the world will discover it even if certain cultures decide they don’t want it in their borders,” he continued, adding, “This film will overcome any border because it will be seen.”
Co-star David Alvarez (Bernardo) also weighed in, saying, “It’s a little sad that that still exists around the world, and I think that’s why movies like this are so important. This movie has so many different messages and layers that really resonate with people around the world.”
The musical, coming 60 years after the original film, stars Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno and Alvarez in the classic tale of forbidden love and the rivalry between two NYC street gangs.
“It came out of a love affair of honoring the theater and trying to capture a film that reflects today with the same ideas of how difficult it is to love when you are taught to hate,” McCollum said of the update. “That’s why, hopefully, this film has butterfly wings of changing people’s belief systems. We’re all in this together on this planet, and love is what leads, so that’s why we sing.”
The 2021 version is also notable for its authentic Latinx representation, reinforced by Spielberg’s decision to not subtitle the film’s moments where characters speak Spanish.
“I think it’s genius,” Alvarez said of the director’s approach. “It shows a sign of respect to the Spanish language. It’s spoken by a third of the world, and I think it’s really revolutionary what he’s done, and I’m so grateful that he has that kind of respect. And that speaks for the whole process — [he had] so much care and respect in trying to bring authenticity to West Side Story.”
Castmember Mike Faist (Riff) added, “How many people live in this country that struggle with English, and then they go see movies, and they just feel excluded and left out? So the fact that they don’t have to feel like the other, they can feel like they’re part of it is really great. It’s very real to what America is.”
Since premiering in New York on Nov. 30, the movie has also been carried by a wave of enthusiastic reviews and Oscar buzz, which co-star Josh Andres Rivera (Chino) says is very welcome after its release was delayed a year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been now two years since we filmed it, and in our brains, it existed as the most magical thing ever, and then we kind of had to distance ourselves from it for a long time with everything — remember the pandemic?” he joked. “Now, to rediscover it in this way, with the same people we made it with, has been so magical, and to hear the outpouring of support has been incredible.”
West Side Story hits theaters Friday.
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