In today’s unique edition of Legend Has It, we’ll look at the highly anticipated 2021 remake of the 1961 iconic musical film West Side Story. Sure to be a legend-in-the-making when it hits theaters this December 10th, West Side Story 2021 promises to be cinematic glitter, but will it be gold?
Back in October 1961, a powerhouse “picture” (as they were called back then) hit theaters. Grossing a whopping $44 million off only a $6 million budget (adjust to modern inflation to get the “wow” factor), West Side Story was a movie that lived up to its bright marquee lights.
Nominated for 11 Oscars, and winning 10 including Best Picture, it was a film that defined its actors’ careers (for instance, Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno), and it further established musical theater phenoms Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim as bona fide household names. This movie, based on the 1957 Broadway musical, which is based loosely on the classic Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet story, couldn’t get any higher (unless it won that 11th Oscar?).
No surprise, modern audiences are clamoring to get their tix for this 2021 remake, especially with A-list Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg directing. This racially-charged love story, set on the well-worn, greasy streets of 1950s New York City, and involving two rival street gangs, the Jets (Whites) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans), is rich subject material for the talented Spielberg to weave his magic. So, what do we know so far about this cinematic legend-in-the-making?
7 Facts About 2021’s West Side Story
1. Rita Moreno Is Back
Yes, top billing, headliner news goes to Rita Moreno. The 89-year-old actress was in the original 1961 film, and her brilliant performance earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first Latina woman to win an Oscar. Huge accolade. Today, just days away from her 90th birthday on December 11, she’ll grace us with her screen presence in the 2021 remake. Stupendous. Now she played Anita in 1961, the best friend to Maria (Natalie Wood’s character). This time, she’s Valentina, a newly created character who is the widow of Doc, the candy store owner. She’ll provide words of wisdom to the two warring street gangs.
2. Stephen Sondheim Will Not Get To See This Movie
Sad news indeed, famed lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics to the original 1957 musical, and was involved in this new film adaptation, passed away November 26, just mere days before West Side Story He was 91. Notably, his final major interview included details about the new West Side Story. His esteemed opinion? According to The New York Times, Sondheim said, “The great thing about it is people who think they know the musical are going to have surprises.” Intriguing. Sondheim has “set the stage” (pun intended) for an exciting movie adventure this December 10th.
3. The New Maria Is New To Hollywood
Discovered by a casting call Tweet from none other than Steven Spielberg himself, Rachel Zegler will make her film debut as leading lady Maria in West Side Story. She’s 20 years old, a native of Hackensack, New Jersey (right across the bridge from New York City, the story’s setting), and hails from a Latina background. Her personal story is the stuff of legend, and the world can’t wait to see Zegler light up the screen.
4. The Film Was Shot In All The Right ‘Hoods
Think Harlem, Brooklyn, and northern New Jersey. Though the story’s setting is Upper West Side Manhattan, finding appropriate modern spaces to adequately pass for 1957 was likely difficult, so shooting in nearby neighborhoods and boroughs was otherwise optimal. Still awesomely gritty. Realistic.
5. The Movie Will Be More Like The 1957 Musical and Less Like the 1961 Film
Dedicated theater lovers and cinephiles take note, because here’s where your attention to detail will shine. Think song order, minor plot shifts, character nuance. While still maintaining the magnificent core story that is West Side Story, Spielberg’s remake won’t be a copy of the 1961 movie. Instead, it will be more like the 1957 musical, plus surprises. How delectable!
6. It’s A Delayed Release
No surprise, Hollywood has been affected by the COVID pandemic. The movie completed filming in 2019, and had an original release date of December 2020. However, Disney rescheduled for December 2021. This new 2021 date proves pixie-dust perfect though, as it coincides with the 60th anniversary of the original 1961 film. Happy Anniversary indeed.
7. Steven Spielberg Has Given His Good Luck Toast
Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg, of Jaws (1975), The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), and Lincoln (2012) fame, reputedly loves to christen each of his movies with a toast. (We’re guessing champagne?) Yes, the first and last scene get celebrated. Luckily for us, West Side Story 2021 received this star treatment, too. And with good reason. Legend has it that Spielberg has loved West Side Story since he first listened to the album in 1957, as a 10-year-old boy. He, like the world, fell head-over-heels for West Side Story’s wondrous song, dance, and beautiful romance, even someday vowing to make his own West Side Story.
December 10th is upon us soon, and Spielberg’s dream is amazingly coming true.
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.