Steven Spielberg birthday: everything we know about West Side Story

Director Steven Spielberg has brought us some of the most indelible images in cinema history. From E.T. and Elliot cycling across the moon to Indiana Jones running away from the boulder, the girl in the red dress in Schindler's List to the rampaging T-Rex in Jurassic Park, Spielberg's brand of entertainment is unmistakeable.

He's also the most commercially successful director in the history of motion pictures, his movies having accumulated more than $10 billion worldwide. Spielberg has turned 74 today, so we're saluting this giant of cinema by looking ahead to his West Side Story remake.

Originally set for a December 2020 release, it's now been pushed back to December 2021. From the characters to the story and more, here's your rundown of this eagerly anticipated musical epic.


When did West Side Story originate on Broadway?

The stage musical West Side Story brought together two pillars of 20th-century music: composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (who wrote the score for Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront), and composer-arranger Stephen Sondheim (responsible for Sweeney Todd and countless other hits).

The tragedy of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet informed the story, the antagonism between the Montagues and the Capulets updated to 1950s New York. There, we're thrown into a conflict between two rival gangs: the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Despite the animosity between the two factions, Jet leader Tony finds himself falling for Maria, sister of Shark leader Bernardo. Of course, the romance eventually leads to betrayal and tragedy.

Choreographer Jerome Robbins conceived the idea in 1947, initially proposing a conflict between Irish-Catholics and Jews. He drafted Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents to help on the project, which later became known as East Side Story. Over time, the emphasis of the story shifted to a focus on Puerto Rican community on New York's west side, something with which Laurents was familiar. He and Bernstein had also conversed on the subject of juvenile delinquency, which was starting to occupy the national media.

Robbins was amenable to the idea and the name of the project eventually changed to West Side Story. When Bernstein decided to focus solely on the music, Laurents asked Stephen Sondheim if he'd be willing to write the lyrics. Initially resistant, Sondheim was convinced by the revered Oscar Hammerstein. The rest, as they say, is history. West Side Story made its Broadway debut in 1957, conceived and choreographed by Robbins, with a score from Bernstein and accompanying lyrics from Sondheim.

The play was an instant smash, running for 732 domestic performances before later going on tour. In 1958, the production was awarded a Tony (the musical equivalent of the Oscars) for its choreography, and there were six additional Tony nominations, including Best Musical.

When was the original West Side Story movie released?

Robbins was involved in the eventual 1961 movie adaptation, co-directed by Robert Wise. (He would later go on to direct The Haunting and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) However, Robbins was eventually let go by the producers after the movie ran over schedule. Nevertheless, he and Wise kept in contact as to the nature of the production. 

Natalie Wood played Maria, Richard Beymer played Tony, and both Sondheim and Bernstein returned to arrange the music. The screenplay, meanwhile, was by the noted Ernest Lehmann, who had scored a huge hit two years earlier with his script for Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

The movie was a box office success grossing more than $44 million against its $6 million budget. It also established a record for the most Oscar wins for a musical: 10 awards out of 11 nominations, including Best Picture. The film's legacy has only grown over time: it was selected for the National Film Registry in 1997, and the choreography and editing of the dance sequences is still regarded as a high watermark for the genre.

Critic Louis Giannetti said of the dance sequences: "The editing of West Side Story is very abstract... The shots are juxtaposed primarily for their lyrical and kinetic beauty, somewhat like a music video."

Clearly, the movie was very ahead of its time, and it continues to enthrall contemporary filmmakers. Steven Spielberg told Vanity Fair: "West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home. I... fell completely in love with it as a kid."

West Side Story is intensely personal to Spielberg. He's always been a director who favours the power of music (hence his extraordinary collaborations with John Williams), and this time the inspiration was especially close to home.

"My mom was a classical pianist," he told Vanity Fair. "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."

Who stars in the West Side Story remake?

Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort plays Tony in the remake, and YouTuber-turned-actor Rachel Zegler plays Maria. The latter responded to an open casting call from Spielberg in 2018, sharing videos of herself singing West Side Story numbers 'I Feel Pretty' and 'Tonight'. Then 16 years old, Zegler beat out 30,000 applicants to win the role of Maria.


Elgort, meanwhile, is already an established dancer and singer, having contributed to several music videos, including the following for American rapper JID. He, Zegler and the rest of the cast have worked with New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck to breathe new life into West Side Story.


The supporting cast includes a host of upcoming dancers and performers, including Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez and Dear Evan Hansen's Mike Faist. Ant-Man's Corey Stoll also appears, as does original West Side Story star Rita Moreno. The latter played Anita in the 1961 movie and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.


Who is providing the music for the West Side Story remake?

Noted film composer David Newman (Matilda) is adapting and arranging Leonard Bernstein's original score. The music is conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He's also the man who had the honour of conducting John Williams' opening fanfare during the recording of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

When is West Side Story released?

West Side Story is released on 10th December 2021.

Excited about Steven Spielberg's take on West Side Story? Let us know @Cineworld.