It shouldn’t come as a surprise when watching the first full-length trailer above that Steven Spielberg directed the new movie version of West Side Story, one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever. A lesser-known fact about the director noted for serious Oscar winners like Schindler’s List or summer blockbusters like the Indiana Jones movies, E.T., and of course, Jaws: He grew up in a very musical household.
Spielberg‘s mother was a classical pianist. He told Vanity Fair that he “grew up surrounded by classical music.” The original soundtrack of West Side Story was key to the director’s personal musical growth.
He described it in the same article as “the first piece of popular music” ever allowed in his home and said that as a director, West Side Story “has been that one haunting temptation” he “finally” gave in to.
West Side Story as written by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was a riff on the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so Spielberg could have gone in any direction with such a universally accessible story. It looks like he stuck with tradition, setting the movie in late 1950s-early 1960s New York City and keeping the conflict between the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks and the gang of Italian and Irish-American teens, the Jets.
Here’s the official synopsis:
Directed by Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, West Side Story tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City. This reimagining of the beloved musical stars Ansel Elgort (Tony); Rachel Zegler (María); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); Ana Isabelle (Rosalía); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); and Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works).
As Tony and Maria, Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are the undeniable stars of the movie, but in casting Rita Moreno—she played Anita and won an Academy Award for her performance in Jerome Robbins’s 1961 movie of the musical—Spielberg makes it clear he respects the movie’s history.
Can a straight-up movie musical not updated to today really put butts in theater seats? Granted, anything will likely be better than the hilariously misbegotten yet A-list actor-heavy production of Cats, especially a Spielberg movie. But we’ll just have to see when West Side Story opens in theaters on December 10, 2021.