Take a trip with ODEON to New York’s Upper West Side, home to the lovers, fighters, cops and robbers from Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story 2021.
Here’s your guide to the Sharks and Jets, so you’re ready to pick a side on 10th December.
She might be a Bambi-eyed innocent twirling in a pretty white dress, but Maria also sets off the events of West Side Story 2021 like a match dropped in a tinderbox. Before her arrival in New York City, the rivalry between the Upper West Side’s two gangs – the Jets and Sharks – is a nice, simple, simmering standoff. But Maria is about to make the move that will spark open warfare.
As the kid sister of Sharks leader Bernardo, Maria knows blood is thicker than water. But as a hopeless romantic, it’s all over the moment she locks eyes with Jets-affiliated Tony at a neighbourhood dance. Next thing you know, the pair are crooning one of the defining West Side Story songs – Tonight – and the greatest doomed romance in musical theatre is go.
We know what you’re thinking: Maria is a modern spin on Shakespeare’s Juliet. Originally, yes, but first-timer Rachel Zegler leads the West Side Story cast with an inner steel absent from Maria’s presentation in the 1957 Broadway original, while bringing authenticity as a Latina actress playing a Puerto Rican character. “The film is a beautiful display of Latin joy and the way young Latin girls deserve to see themselves,” Zegler told Vogue. “Dancing around in pretty dresses and singing about loving themselves.”
Sweet-natured Tony was always too soft for gang life, and when West Side Story 2021 begins, we find this upstanding young man has handed in his Jets membership, distanced himself from the turf war and made a new life. But to steal a phrase from Al Pacino’s Scarface, just when Tony thought he was out, they pull him back in.
When Jets leader Riff lures him to the fateful dance, Tony gets Cupid’s arrow right in the forehead (‘I’ve just met a girl named Maria’, he trills in one of the most famous West Side Story songs, ‘and suddenly that name will never be the same to me’).
It’s no spoiler to say that you shouldn’t buy a wedding hat. And when it comes to capturing the joy and tragedy of Tony, nobody could top Ansel Elgort. Funnily enough, despite already being acclaimed for Baby Driver and The Fault In Our Stars, the 27-year-old New Yorker wasn’t expecting the call-up to the West Side Story cast. “I get this unknown number,” he remembered on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “For some reason I answer it, and then they say, ‘Hi Ansel, Steven Spielberg wants to talk to you…’”
The Sharks leader is no pantomime villain. Proud, handsome and honour-bound, Bernardo is true to his family and fiercely loyal to his tribe, ready to fight to the death to defend their good name. Stay on this gang boss’s good side and there won’t be a problem. But as he warns Maria before they arrive at the fateful dance: “The first gringo boy who smiles at you – bam!”
It’s quite a transformation for David Alvarez. First catching our eye in 2008, when he danced the lead role in Billy Elliot The Musical on Broadway, we knew all about the 27-year-old Canadian’s megawatt charisma – but never realised he could summon such menace. Don’t be surprised if he follows George Chakiris (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Bernardo in the 1961 West Side Story film). As Alvarez says: “We’ll see how it goes…”
As you’ll see from her feisty street-dance routines in West Side Story 2021, Bernardo’s girlfriend knows how to kick up her heels. But Anita also lives by the Sharks code of honour, understands the terrible cost of betrayal and warns Maria against crossing the battlelines. “If you go with Tony,” says Anita in the West Side Story trailer, “no one will ever forgive you.”
It shouldn’t surprise us that Ariana DeBose is one of the best dancers in the West Side Story cast. The 30-year-old actress made her Broadway debut in 2011’s Bring It On: The Musical, and has barely taken off her dance shoes since, with appearances in everything from Hamilton to A Bronx Tale.
Now, as the livewire of the West Side Story cast, DeBose hopes her role as Anita will kick down the door for minority representation in cinema. “I am a Black-identifying biracial queer Afro-Latina,” she told Out magazine. “I am America.”
In the 1961 West Side Story, a small but important role was that of Doc, wise old owner of the local drugstore that represents neutral ground for the warring gangs. Now, for West Side Story 2021, Spielberg has morphed that character into Valentina: Doc’s widow and a counsel to the local kids.
In a touching full-circle moment, the role is played by 89-year-old Rita Moreno – who was unforgettable as Anita in the original. “I couldn't believe this was Steven Spielberg on the phone, whom I so admired," she told USA Today of her casting. “But then I had the courage to say, ‘I don't think I could do a cameo. I think it would be a severe disservice to this movie – it'd be a distraction’. And he said, ‘No, no, no. This is a real part. Tony Kushner [screenwriter] wrote this part for you.’"
The Jets and Sharks don’t quite have the run of the streets in West Side Story 2021. With Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek The Musical) taking the role of the hapless lawman whose beat covers the gangs’ turf, Officer Krupke is all bark no bite – and you can expect the hoodlums to mock him in one of the straight-up funniest West Side Story songs (Gee, Officer Krupke).
As Krupke’s superior officer, Lieutenant Schrank was a darker proposition in the 1961 movie, showing a poisonous prejudice towards the Puerto Rican Sharks gang. It’ll be interesting to see how Spielberg evolves the character for West Side Story 2021, but you rely on House Of Cards alumnus Corey Stoll for a nuanced performance.
Every gang needs its foot soldiers, and in West Side Story 2021, you’ll find a motley crew of slicked-back, flick-knife-toting ganglanders. Led by Riff (Mike Faist), look out for a Jets mob that features Anybodys (Ezra Menas), Mouthpiece (Ben Cook), Action (Sean Harrison Jones) and Baby John (Patrick Higgins).
Over in the Sharks corner, meanwhile, you don’t want to mess with Quique (Julius Anthony Rubio), Chago (Ricardo Zayas), Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Braulio (Sebastian Serra) and Pipo (Carlos Sánchez Falú). Let the dance-fights begin...
The West Side Story release date is 10th December.
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