There's a Place for Ansel Elgort in Steven Spielberg's 'West Side Story'

Musicals may be a new arena for both director and actor, but Elgort in particular has never had a bigger opportunity to prove himself.

Ansel Elgort Baby Driver
TriStar Pictures

Ansel Elgort continues rising through the Hollywood ranks, embarking on a spectacular career trajectory most actors his age would honestly dream of. With each new casting announcement comes the promise of more respected works in his oeuvre (I mean, he’s starred in an Edgar Wright movie!), as well as the potential onslaught of better opportunities in the long run.

For the moment, though, there are probably very few things that would sound better than starring in a Steven Spielberg film.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Elgort is the first actor to be locked in as one of the young leads in Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. The musical will be penned by Tony Kushner, who is re-teaming with Spielberg after their collaboration on Lincoln.

The Baby Driver star will portray Tony, an ex-gang member attempting to turn over a new leaf who eventually falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of a rival gang. Tony was first played by Larry Kert on Broadway in 1957. Richard Beymer then filled the character’s shoes when the musical was adapted for the big screen in 1961 by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (the director and choreographer of the original stage production).

At its core, West Side Story centers on a tale of star-crossed lovers. It is, in fact, directly influenced by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” although the musical takes several contextual liberties when translating the Capulet-Montague feud in order to tell a story about youth in New York in the 1950s.

The turf wars between the white gang that Tony co-founded and once belonged to (the Jets) and the Puerto Rican gang that Maria is involved in through her family ties (the Sharks) reach a fever pitch in West Side Story. Assumptions about loyalty and family collide with identity politics regarding race and class. Despite the constant threat of gang violence as well as external antagonisms from members of law enforcement, the love shared between Tony and Maria guides both characters through the throes of adolescence.

The stakes are high for the rivaling factions of the Upper West Side, and these conflicts underscore the ultimate tragedy of Tony and Maria’s relationship. Arthur Laurents’ book, Leonard Bernstein’s music, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics ultimately mesh together to form a dark but impactful coming-of-age narrative wrapped up in innovative song and dance.

It’s worth noting that West Side Story isn’t a perfect depiction of race relations, especially when considering prior efforts to bring the musical to the big screen. Wise and Robbins’ adaptation impeccably translates the dazzling, iconic set pieces and enthusiastic dance numbers that made the stage musical so revered. The film cleans up the stage play for maximum dramatic effect.

However, it also ran into problems with whitewashing and the use of brownface on those who were cast to play the Puerto Rican characters in the movie. Specifically, legendary actress Rita Moreno, who is herself Puerto Rican and actually won an Academy Award for her role in West Side Story, has expressed disapproval at the careless treatment of diversity on the film set.

Despite this, Spielberg seems intent on getting his passion project — he has been wanting to make West Side Story since at least 2014 — off the ground in the best way possible. Throughout his decades-long directorial slate, he has never tackled a musical, but he clearly has a commitment to making it as authentic as possible. Initial casting calls for West Side Story in early 2018 adamantly displayed a mandate to cast diversely. THR’s report on Elgort’s casting later confirmed that the extensive search for the film’s leads had covered New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Puerto Rico, lasting over the course of the year.

Elgort being unveiled as the first piece of the casting puzzle in West Side Story is surely a good thing, as he actually seems like a good fit for Tony. This remake marks a huge next step for the actor, who has never done a musical before and does have some big shoes to fill, given the blatant legacy of this production, to begin with. The extensive dancing that the production is best-known for would be a challenge for any actor, let alone one who is relatively green in the world of movie musicals.

Yet, Elgort’s onscreen presence definitely fits Tony’s tragically idealistic journey. The character is driven by pure emotion and a core sense of goodness despite his unintentionally flawed actions. Playing Tony allows Elgort to take on a persona that appears to be cut from the same cloth as other characters he has depicted in the past. He often plays dreamers, from his breakout role as Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars to the eponymous protagonist in Baby Driver.

Furthermore, the deeper nuances of Tony’s arc seem attuned to the darker content that Elgort has been seeking out of late. The West Side Story remake just also happens to be extra exciting due to the involvement of a blockbuster maestro like Spielberg.

Elgort’s casting keeps West Side Story on track to start production in the summer of 2019. I can’t wait to see who else Spielberg and co. will bring on board. Honestly, this redo provides the perfect chance to seek out some unknown Latinx actors. A newbie could have been up for Tony, too, but having Elgort around — whose resume more than speaks for itself — makes for a very assuring prospect.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.