What We Know About Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’

What we know about Steven Spielberg’s attempt to do a remake of the iconic musical West Side Story is that it is still in its infancy. The director has put out a casting call online for wannabe stars ages 15 — 25 for the roles of Tony, Maria, Anita, and Bernardo. What some websites are failing to report is Spielberg is looking only for Latino actors. Other minorities need not apply. And you need to speak Spanish, so language-challenged Latinos can take a seat.

Since the movie is more than 50 years old, a short review is in order.

The movie won 10 out of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, but failed in the Big 5 categories, losing in the Best Actress, and Best Screenplay slots. George Chakiris walked away with the hardware for Best Actor. Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita, and picked up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the 4 major roles in the movie, Moreno was the only Latino. Maria was played by Natalie Wood and Tony was played by Richard Beymer, both white.

A case is not being made that seeking Latino actors and actresses in the initial casting call is a step in the wrong direction. Quite the opposite. But Moreno, one of Hollywood’s most successful actresses was cast because she was extremely talented, not because she was Latino. If you are the curious type, do a search and find the last Latino musical in film. For Spielberg to look exclusively for Latino and Spanish speaking actors seems to be an appeal for political correctness over talent. But this is the 21st century American culture.

Another unsettling fact about the planned remake is this will be Spielberg’s first attempt at filming a musical adaptation. I mean, how wrong can things go? None of the other directors in the past 50 years have dared to take on the project but obviously he is willing to give it a shot. At 71, what does he have to lose? My guess it will turn out to be more like Jurassic Park than La Bamba.

Then there is the screenwriter Spielberg has selected — Tony Kushner. They have collaborated on Munich and Lincoln in the past, which is also cause for concern. Munich is about an Israeli team selected to hunt down the murderers of the Israeli Olympic Team in 1972. Lincoln is primarily a historical piece, set towards the end of the Civil War. Both heartwarming movies with danceable tunes.

The entire project seems to be misguided. Personally, I prefer to think of The Sound of Music as the best musical film of all time despite what some people are claiming about West Side Story. It’s not that an attempt shouldn’t be made to remake the movie with an all-Latino leading cast. It makes perfect sense though it will be one of the more challenging projects any director can attempt — if they have any respect for the history of Hollywood. But the Spielberg-Kushner team ain’t the answer. It’s that simple.

The lust to cast West Side Story with “appropriate” up and coming actors and actresses (remember, 15 — 25 years old) has a huge downside — doing the movie and having it end up as a colossal train wreck. That result will do no justice to the actors, actresses, or the image of Latinos in Hollywood. But Spielberg is 71. What does he have to lose?

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