Steven Spielberg has been making West Side Story in his head for a very long time. As a boy in Phoenix in the late 1950s, he had only the soundtrack, and he tried to picture the action and dancing that might accompany it. “My mom was a classical pianist,” says the filmmaker. “Our entire home was festooned with classical musical albums, and I grew up surrounded by classical music. West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home. I absconded with it—this was the cast album from the 1957 Broadway musical—and just fell completely in love with it as a kid. West Side Story has been that one haunting temptation that I have finally given in to.”
The film, out December 18, is both a romance and a crime story. It’s about dreams crashing into reality, young people singing about the promise of their lives ahead—then cutting each other down in bursts of violence. It’s about hope and desperation, pride and actual prejudice, and a star-crossed couple who find love amid it all on the streets of New York.
The film stars newcomer Rachel Zegler in the role originated onscreen by Natalie Wood—purehearted Maria, part of the wave of Puerto Rican migrants who traded one island for another when they came to New York seeking a new life in the post–World War II economic boom. Her streetwise Casanova is Tony (Baby Driver actor Ansel Elgort, taking over the part played by Richard Beymer), who once led a gang of local toughs known as the Jets, but has since outgrown them. Tony’s old friends are engaged in an escalating battle for control of the neighborhood against Puerto Rican rivals who call themselves the Sharks, led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez, one of the original leads of Billy Elliot the Musical, playing the role that earned George Chakiris a best supporting actor Oscar).