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There’s a Place for Them: Meet the Stars of Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’

“Something’s coming, something good…”
West Side Story
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
By  · Published on January 15th, 2019

Steven Spielberg‘s remake of West Side Story is looking better than ever now that the Sharks are in the water. Deadline revealed the news that the Latinx principal cast of the hotly anticipated movie musical remake has been locked in.

We’re going to be seeing some fresh faces on the big screen in Spielberg’s take on the Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents 1957 musical of the same name. This time, this dark tale of turf wars between the white gang Jets and Puerto Rican gang the Sharks of Lincoln Square will be headlined by Rachel Zegler. The 17-year-old New Jersey high schooler has landed the coveted part of West Side Story‘s female lead, Maria, a young girl with family ties to the Sharks who unexpectedly falls in love with Jets co-founder and ex-member, Tony.

Meanwhile, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, and Josh Andrés Rivera — who have all put down roots in theater to varying degrees — will depict other prominent members of the Sharks. DeBose plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, and Maria’s closest confidante. Bernardo himself will be portrayed by Alvarez. Finally, the role of Chino, Bernardo’s best friend, and Maria’s arranged husband-to-be will be taken up by Rivera.

This delightful mix of capable newcomers and stage vets join previously-cast Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver), who is slated to fill the shoes of Tony. Furthermore, EGOT-winner Rita Moreno — who earned that an Academy Award for portraying Anita in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ initial big-screen adaptation of West Side Story — is revisiting 1950s Manhattan as a brand-new character. She will be Valentina, a reconceptualized, expanded version of the drugstore owner that Tony works for.

It was already a pretty big deal when Spielberg honed in on Elgort as the tragically idealistic dreamer of the movie. It’s a role he was practically made for, considering his past oeuvre playing similar characters. But more importantly, he has the vocal chops to carry a lead in West Side Story. His appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden ought to convince you.

Moreover, Moreno’s return to the musical is a sheer delight; a wonderful callback to the classic adaptation. But I’m already far more enthused by the fresher talent found from over 30,000 auditions worldwide. Deadline’s report makes it abundantly clear that there is plenty of love and dedication at the center of Spielberg’s West Side Story. The acclaimed director has been researching Hispanic heritage with playwright Tony Kushner, who is adapting the musical for the screen this time around.

The production team of this passion project continues to collaborate with institutions like the University of Puerto Rico, as well as filmmakers of the archipelago, to ensure an accurate depiction of America’s Latinx community in the film. Also, for these fresh-faced actors themselves, there are fewer things bigger than a Spielberg gig. Let’s meet them all.

This is especially wondrous for Zegler. Online, her claim to fame involves going viral on social media while showing off her belting chops with a cover of “Shallow” from A Star is Born. But one look at Zegler’s YouTube page — sporting upwards of 84,000 subscribers at the time of writing this article — and you’ll see an extensive list of covers spanning musical theater favorites like Rent and pop tunes by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.

Even more awesome is the fact that Zegler uploaded a video of herself performing Maria’s final monologue in a production of West Side Story from the summer of 2017. More recently, she shared the stage with theater icons, too, paving a solid path to success. Just last June, she opened for In the Heights and Wicked alum Mandy Gonzalez.

Rivera is another relative newcomer who has been cutting his teeth as part of the ensemble cast of the first national tour of Hamilton: An American Musical. Although considerably light on credits otherwise, as a standby in the production, he has embodied the noteworthy roles of George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, Hercules Mulligan, and James Madison.

Among the more well-established Broadway actors in the group, Alvarez found fame early when he won a Tony Award in 2009. Specifically, he shared the honor with two other boys for originating the titular role in Billy Elliot: The Musical on Broadway. The trio beat out theater veterans like Brian d’Arcy James for the accolade.

Before Billy Elliot, Alvarez honed his dancing skills in feature roles in the ballets The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. On screen, however, he has only appeared in a smattering of short films in the last five or so years.

Finally, DeBose is arguably the biggest name of the lot. She has only continued to skyrocket on stage since breaking out in 2011. DeBose originated the principal role of Nautica in the stage version of Bring It On, taking the character from the musical’s Atlanta premiere to the Great White Way. DeBose later joined the ensemble of Motown: The Musical and understudied for Diana Ross during her tenure.

Understudy and replacement roles in the musical Pippin followed, as well as a phenomenal stint as part of the original Hamilton ensemble cast. DeBose was then directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks in the Broadway version of the former’s directorial effort A Bronx Tale. But Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which premiered in 2017, has been her biggest break yet. For her leading role in the project, DeBose received Drama League and Tony Award nominations.

Beyond working with one of the most influential directors in cinema, key participation in a seminal musical alongside actors of both the classic and trendy persuasion unequivocally puts Zegler, DeBose, Alvarez, and Rivera on the map. Whether these actors have tasted fame before, West Side Story will be a next-level experience, and we’re cheering them on.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)