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When audiences finally see West Side Story, one of director Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited passion projects, the cast and production team promise to deliver more than everything already beloved about the classic musical romance.
“This doesn’t steer too far away from what we love and hold dear to West Side Story, but it is changing certain things that maybe should have never been done in the first one and updating things that are more true to what it was like to be in the 1950s and be Puerto Rican,” Isabelle Ward, who plays Tere, one of the Shark girls, told The Hollywood Reporter at the movie’s New York premiere on Monday night.
On the Jazz at Lincoln Center carpet, scriptwriter Tony Kushner confirmed that he and Spielberg didn’t want to diverge from the film’s timeless story and “never thought about making [West Side Story] more immediate, like setting it in the 21st century.” Instead, they sought to create a film that honors West Side Story’s Broadway roots, the high points of its cinematic predecessor and the Puerto Rican community through a timeless period piece with a more authentic lens.
To do this, the team engaged in a carefully crafted song and dance, much like those you’ll see in the film, that impacted everything from the dialogue and costuming to the choreography and musical supervision. An expanded script, according to Bernardo actor David Alvarez, gives the film’s characters — particularly Tony and María — more development, and thus a chance to more deeply explore their motivations.
“This one really elaborates on the characters and where they come from and who they are and why they go through what they go through,” he explained.
While that’s certainly true of the Sharks, according to Alvarez, it also applies to the Jets, whom Kushner calls “a bunch of hooligans and racists.”
Kushner says he approached the story of the film’s white male gang as one where “there are not good people on both sides, as our former Nightmare in the White House said.” But the Jets are very young, which ultimately leaves them space to be redeemed at the end. So similar to his decision to offer more focus and nuance on themes of xenophobia and racism, he also opted to explore how poverty and class came into play with this group.
“The Sharks are people trying to make their way in the United States, trying to find a home here. The Jets are a bunch of little racists and [composer Leonard] Bernstein, [lyricist Stephen] Sondheim, [libbretist Arthur] Laurents and [director and choreographer Jerome] Robbins knew that,” Kushner told THR. “But because it’s also a story about poverty, one of the things — that doesn’t excuse what’s happened with the Jets, but partially explains their behavior — is that they’re street rats. They live in the gutter, they’re disastrous. If you listen to the lyrics of Officer Krupke, they’re kids without homes and families and parents and then, ‘Surprise! Surprise!’ they’ve turned into a pack of little nightmares.”
While the film won’t shy away from the bigoted notions of its white gang, efforts were made across the production to avoid the script perpetuating them about the film’s Puerto Rican characters. On top of his own research, Kushner relied on translators, dialect coaches, a committee of the film’s actors and more, to ensure that West Side Story‘s Puerto Rican representation could “look true” and feel authentic to the core of the community as possible.
It began, according to the writer, with Julio Monge — a Puerto Rican theater and Broadway dancer, choreographer and director who is also a friend of the writer’s. Wanting to feature as much “good Puerto Rican, North American Spanish” as possible, the West Side Story screenwriter said he passed it to Monge who “did the first pass of translating everything into at least real Spanish as opposed to my Google translations,” before he took the story to a much broader audience of Puerto Ricans. That ultimately yielded so many varied responses — “everyone had a different opinion about every single line,” he said — that he, along with the film’s dialect coach, Victor Cruz, went a little more focused, forming what Kushner dubbed the “Puerto Rican Talmudic study group.”
Kushner says the group — consisting of several members of the cast, either from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent — met every week and “would have long discussions about every single line. We were on the phone calling their grandmothers and saying, ‘Would you say this? What does this mean?’ And we kept going until we had lines that really felt legitimate and good. That group continued to weigh in on accents and other things that somebody like me would never pick up on.”
Ana Isabelle, who plays female Shark Rosalia and was born and raised in Puerto Rico, was among that group of performers. She says both Spielberg and Kushner made her experience on the film a “collaborative process” in which Spielberg, in particular, was “taking care of every single detail in the movie.”
“Tony got our opinions, and we were really raw with him. He was like, ‘OK, noted,’ and he actually fixed stuff,” Isabelle said.
Alvarez confirmed the actors were “very much involved,” but so were historians, “whether it was Puerto Rican historians or just historians of the New York area in the 1950s, who could really elaborate on what was going on between these two different cultures.”
The result of these efforts might end up being the most obvious changes from the original, but there were other small modernization efforts to Spielberg’s take. Paul Tazewell, the movie’s costume designer — and a Tony Award winner for his work on hit Broadway musical Hamilton — told THR that the costume department “worked very closely with the hair designer, Kay [Georgiou], just in developing looks that would feel 1950s but could also be seen on a contemporary street and on a contemporary person.”
The choreography also offers its own signature approach to remaining true to the heart of the classic with small modernized tweaks. “Justin Peck did a beautiful job breaking down what Jerome Robbins did and then working from the essence of that. The movement I think is going to be a little different for people who have seen the Broadway show or original film, but this is so much more intimate,” Kevin Csolak, who plays Shark Diesel, said of the choreography and how Spielberg filmed it. “You really get what I think the musical did and what the original film did. We just zoomed in a bit.”
Beyond shifts in what is said and worn, West Side Story’s music supervisor Matt Sullivan notes that there are a few slight modifications to what you’ll hear as well, but nothing major, and only in service of the original orchestration — at the behest of Spielberg and the Bernstein Estate.
“Of all the elements of West Side Story, the music is really the most timeless of it. So we tried to be as close to the Broadway show concept of the musical as we could,” Sullivan said. “There are nuanced things in there that are slightly different, but it’s not a different arrangement. It’s Bernstein’s orchestration.”
Music was ultimately a major topic of the night, with many on the carpet paying tribute to the musical’s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, who died on Nov. 26 at 91. But it was ahead of the movie’s premiere, just a day after a Times Square remembrance, that the biggest tribute was delivered by Spielberg himself. In a lengthy statement, the director spoke about Sondheim’s involvement in nearly every aspect of the production and the bond he ultimately formed with the late icon.
“It cannot be the night we’ve long anticipated, because of the absence of Stephen Sondheim,” Spielberg told the crowd. “His amazing work for West Side Story first put him on the map, and launched a career that would completely redraw that map, reinvent the musical and theater, and create a body of work that beyond any doubt is as immortal as anything made by a mortal can be. To borrow what Ben Jonson wrote about Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim was not of an age but for all time.”
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