Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake has found its Maria

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Moya Crockett
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The hotly anticipated musical is a remake of the 1961 classic.

When West Side Story was released in 1961, it was an instant hit. The film was adapted from a Broadway show of the same name by musical legends Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, which was in turn a modern reworking of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Set in the late Fifties, the film sees rival gangs – the white American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks – battling it out for control of a neighbourhood on Manhattan’s West Side. And against this backdrop, a former Jet and a Shark girl fall in love.

West Side Story won 10 Oscars at the 1962 Academy Awards, making it the musical with the most Oscars to its name, and is considered so culturally significant that a copy is kept in the United States Library of Congress. In other words, remaking it is a bold move – but that hasn’t stopped Steven Spielberg.

Best films of 2021: the original West Side Story

The acclaimed director is currently working on a new version of West Side Story, which is currently in the pre-production stage. Divergent and Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort has been cast as Tony, the ex-Jet who leaves the gang in pursuit of a calmer life, while Rita Moreno – the iconic actress who played Anita in the original West Side Story film – will also appear in Spielberg’s version. 

And now, it has been revealed who will play Maria, the film’s leading female role modelled on Shakespeare’s Juliet. Rachel Zegler, a 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey, was cast after an open casting call that saw more than 30,000 women audition for the role around the world.

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“I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast,” said Zegler. 

West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.”

Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony in the original West Side Story 

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who is adapting the new film, have spoken of their commitment to casting members of the Latinx community as the Sharks. In the original West Side Story film, Maria was played by Natalie Wood, whose parents were Russian.

“When we began this process a year ago, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors,” said Spielberg, as quoted by Deadline. “I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community.

“I am in awe of the sheer force of the talent of these young performers, and I believe they’ll bring a new and electrifying energy to a magnificent musical that’s more relevant than ever.”

Original West Side Story actress Rita Moreno will also appear in Spielberg’s version 

In addition to the casting of Zegler as Maria, it has also been announced that theatre stars David Alvarez and Josh Andres Rivera will play Maria’s older brother Bernardo and Chino, her arranged fiancé. Broadway veteran Ariana DeBose will star as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend, the character originally played by Rita Moreno.

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For her part, Moreno will take on the role of Valentina, a reworked version of the character of Doc, who owned the shop where Tony worked in the original film.

“I simply cannot wait to get on set to work with this group of young actors,” said Moreno. “What an ensemble, and I look forward to passing the baton to this next generation of Sharks!”

No release date is yet known for Spielberg’s West Side Story, but filming is expected to start later this year. We already can’t wait.

Images: Getty Images