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The classic 'West Side Story' is being remade for the screen

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Sixty years after the Oscar-winning musical hit movie theaters, "West Side Story" is back, with its songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

RACHEL ZEGLER: (As Maria, singing) Tonight, tonight, it all began tonight. I saw you, and the world went away.

GONYEA: Maria, Tony, Anita, Bernardo, Riff and Chino, two rival gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks battling it out as two teenagers fall in love. The new movie is directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. And Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, and Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, are both here with us. Welcome to you.

ARIANA DEBOSE: Hi, Don.

ZEGLER: Hi, Don. Thanks for having us.

DEBOSE: Yeah, thank you.

GONYEA: So "West Side Story" is, of course, one of the most famous musicals of all time. I'm wondering if you both grew up with it. We'll start with you, Rachel.

ZEGLER: Yes, absolutely. I grew up in a Colombian-American household. And so when I was 6 or 7, I was introduced to the original 1961 Robert Wise film, enthralled by Rita Moreno twirling around on a rooftop in a purple dress and just being so in love with her and turning to my mom and saying, mommy, who is that? And it planted a seed. And that seed has been growing for 15 years now (laughter).

GONYEA: And, Ariana, your earliest memories of this movie or this musical - do you have them?

DEBOSE: Oh, it's quite similar to Rachel's, actually. I didn't have much experience with the Broadway show. But I fell in love with the film when I was 7 or 8. And I loved the woman in the purple dress just dancing with furious abandon and great passion. And I wanted to be just like her.

GONYEA: Of course, we should point out Rita Moreno is in this film. And she is the executive producer.

DEBOSE: She is, indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

RITA MORENO: (As Valentina, singing) There's a place for us - somewhere, a place for us.

GONYEA: I'm wondering, did you talk to her about your role? I mean, again, she won an Oscar for this, the role of Anita, 60 years ago. Did you want to hear what she had to say? Did you want advice? Was she maybe reluctant to give it because you had to find it on your own? How did that work with you and Rita Moreno?

DEBOSE: She took me out to lunch. And she said, I'll tell you anything you want to know. And I said, I want to know anything you want to tell me. And then she just said, lean into everything that makes you unique. You don't need my help. It felt like she had given me permission to just sort of run wild and really make the role my own. So that's what I did. And, you know, by virtue of my being Afro-Latina and - you know, I'm a Black woman. Like, that's a very different lived experience than perhaps what she had. So I allowed that to inform everything that I chose to do in regards to this character in the world that she's living in.

GONYEA: Both of you are pretty new to acting on camera. Rachel, this is your first movie. How did you have to change your singing, your dancing, whatever?

ZEGLER: Yeah. I mean, it was honestly the transition of playing to the last person in the last seat of the house to realizing that your face is 20 feet wide and 20 feet tall in front of many people in a huge movie theater. And it was realizing that all I needed to do was use my eyes. And that was something that Steven constantly reminded me every day on set, was just - it's in the eyes. They'll tell if you're lying by looking in your eyes. And so we were just as honest as we possibly could be. And now having seen it six times, I think, my eyes are very glittery the whole time. I don't know if that means anything. But (laughter) I was just very glittery.

GONYEA: And, Ariana, how about you? You've had a long affiliation with "Hamilton." You're a Broadway veteran. But how different was this?

DEBOSE: Honestly, for me, it didn't feel that different. Of course, with the transition, there comes the understanding of who your audience is. But once you understand the frame you're working in, you know, the little black box, like, that's who my audience is. That made the transition so much easier for me. I loved working with Steven. He was such a great partner in creating this character and these worlds. But he also just encouraged me to be so alive in the moment. I never felt like I was tailoring a performance for the camera. I was just living.

GONYEA: Mmm hmm. You've each made a reference to Steven. This is, of course, Steven Spielberg, not just any Steven.

DEBOSE: I know. Isn't it so unnatural? Like, we're both very comfortable because it's - I don't know.

ZEGLER: Steve - my buddy, Steve.

GONYEA: (Laughter) So I want to ask about representation, both because this show has fallen short in the past. The original actors portraying Maria on stage and on screen were both white. And because earlier this year there was a controversy about another musical about Latinos in New York, "In The Heights," for not prominently featuring Afro-Latinos. Do you think this "West Side Story" gets it right? Ariana, you go first.

DEBOSE: I do think we get it right. I mean, it is not every day that an Afro-Latina gets to be, you know, part of the main event. And her identity as an Afro-Latina informs the story. So it's not really an afterthought. It's everything about this character. Representation obviously matters. You know, if you can see yourself - as a young person, especially - then you know you have possibility. It's what Rita Moreno gave both of us. And hopefully that's what we are giving to a new generation.

ZEGLER: I think it's also really important to note that the colorism conversation, a lot of people tend to perceive it as in, like, Eurocentric white folks not including Latinos in the conversation. But it's in the Latino community, especially. You see it every single day that Afro-Latinos are not represented and not validated in their identity. Ariana, she's not just a device for representation. She is not just Anita because she represents Afro-Latinos. She's Anita because she is what our community looks like.

GONYEA: And, Ariana, I think we see a lot of what both of you are talking about here in the number "America," which is one of your kind of showcase moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) I like to be in America. OK by me in America. Everything free in America.

DAVID ALVAREZ: (As Bernardo, singing) For a small fee in America.

GONYEA: Can you discuss that particular song maybe in the context of this?

DEBOSE: What I love about America so much is that we do take it to the streets. You do get to see the community, get to know the community.

ZEGLER: And also an explanation of the lived experience of just being othered in this country is explained. You know, life is all right in America if you're a white in America. There's a lot of complexity to that when it's someone who looks like David versus someone who looks like you singing that song.

DEBOSE: I think there are definitely - the reasons for Anita's want to assimilate is probably rooted in her experience as an Afro-Latina. If she can be nice enough, if she can act, you know, more "American," quote, unquote, you know, perhaps there will be a place for her, and she will be able to, you know, make her ambitions manifest and her American dream can come true.

I'm really glad that this film is coming out this time because the idea of being American has to be wrapped up in all of these different presentations and lived experiences, right? There's not one way to be American, either, but you have to embrace all the parts of you that make you, you.

GONYEA: The presence of the late Stephen Sondheim certainly lingers over this movie. It's his lyrics you're singing. I heard that he had some involvement in the production.

ZEGLER: Yeah.

GONYEA: Can either of you talk about that?

ZEGLER: I would call it a heavy involvement in the part that mattered most to him, which was the recording sessions of the music, our soundtrack. You know, these were lyrics that he wrote when he was 24 or 25 years old. It was his first professional gig. And the fact that they've lived so long, 64 years, in the public sphere, there's not a person alive that doesn't really know, like, at least one song.

And he was very present in the fact that he knew what needed to be changed, because there are a couple of little tweaks here and there, but he also was very, very involved with making sure that the intention behind every lyric was as authentic as when he wrote it. And it was such an honor to be able to sing that for him and also to talk about his constant need to be better. It's a testament to what a true artist he was. And we miss him so dearly because artists like that are few and far between.

GONYEA: "I Feel Pretty" is, of course, one of your big moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

ZEGLER: (As Maria, singing) I feel pretty, oh, so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and bright. And I pity any girl who isn't me tonight.

GONYEA: I understand that you yourself - I don't know if wrestled with it is the right term to use, but you found a deeper meaning in it than maybe a lot of people don't see and maybe that Sondheim himself didn't see.

ZEGLER: Yeah. This movie explores something that I don't think a lot of us have been able to see for ourselves on screen before, and that is joy. Latin joy is hard to come by in entertainment. It's not common for us to be smiling and dancing and being in love. And we were so adamant about making it about self-love beyond just this black-and-white idea of I feel good because somebody else has validated me and that is a white boy, you know? Getting to see that moment and getting to perform it was very special to me. And Sondheim was there on set the day we were filming it, and that just means the absolute world.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler, stars of the new film "West Side Story," in theaters now. Thank you both for being with us.

DEBOSE: Thank you.

ZEGLER: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.