This is such a strange melding of two of my worlds! There’s my love of movies and Steven Spielberg, and there’s my love of musicals and my experience as an actor in multiple productions of West Side Story. It feels somewhat surreal to know that Spielberg, a filmmaker I’ve admired my entire life, is about to give this beloved show a new lease on life.
Spielberg has been talking up the project for nearly four years now, and it looks like- with his work on Ready Player One coming to an end– he’s finally ready to turn his sights on it. One major indication that the film is one step closer to becoming a reality? A casting call has gone out! What makes this news extra notable is that it looks like Spielberg seems open to casting unknown actors in the lead roles of this new West Side Story.
According to Broadway World, Spielberg’s casting director Cindy Tolan is looking for people to play the iconic musical theater characters Maria, Tony, Anita, and Bernardo. That’s not exactly a common practice for Hollywood musicals, as they often look to fill leading roles with bankable actors. The Greatest Showman, which is having a commendable run at the box office right now, rests on the shoulders of Hugh Jackman and a supporting cast that includes Zac Efron, Zendaya, and Academy Award-winner Michelle Williams. That’s typically how it’s done.
It’ll be interesting to see who eventually nabs these roles. The last time West Side Story was adapted into a feature film, Maria and Bernardo- who are Puerto Rican immigrants- were played by Natalie Wood (Russian/Ukrainian) and George Chakiris (Greek). And the rest of Bernardo’s gang, The Sharks, who were also supposed to be from Puerto Rico, were similarly caucasian actors who were “darkened up” to play the roles.
In this day and age when the concept of whitewashing is the cause of great controversy and criticism, I’m sure Spielberg and Tolan will be very mindful to cast hispanic actors. At a time when folks are lamenting the lack of latino representation at the Academy Awards and elsewhere, it wouldn’t be a good look to hire Armie Hammer and ask him to hit the tanning bed to play Bernardo.
Even in the two West Side Story stage productions I’ve been a part of, where I played Bernardo in one and Chino in another, I found that I was one of maybe two hispanics in the entire cast. Kind of foolish when you consider the premise and message of the show, which shows a community at war as a huge influx of Puerto Ricans enter a traditionally white neighborhood and the two sides clash, leading to tragic circumstances for the love between Puerto Rican Maria and white Tony.
Spielberg has tapped frequent collaborator Tony Kushner to write the new film. The original play was based loosely on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and it should be interesting to see what Kushner does with the story.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was brought in for the last Broadway run of the show, to give it a more authentic hispanic feel. I wonder if he’ll get the call to help with this adaptation, too?
SOURCE: Broadway World