Rewriting Film History as Latinx Shark Dancers in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story

December 9, 2021

West Side Story
, widely regarded as one of the greatest movie musicals of all time (10 Oscar wins, including Best Picture!) is returning to the silver screen. Director Steven Spielberg has reimagined the film, which was adapted from the original 1957 stage musical. It hits theaters December 10, and we simply can’t play it cool, boy!

The story is about fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City pitting the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks against each other. When the 1961 film was made, there was only one Puerto Rican in the entire cast. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, has been vocal about her disdain for having to wear makeup that darkened her skin tone.

This time, in Spielberg’s West Side Story, the Sharks are represented by dozens of Latinx actors, including many of Puerto Rican heritage. “It would have been impossible, as well as unthinkable, for us to make a film of West Side Story without doing our best to gather a truly diverse cast and crew, and in countless ways, the diversity of the people who made this production gave it its form and substance,” Spielberg says in Laurent Bouzereau’s book West Side Story: The Making of the Steven Spielberg Film. Rita Moreno serves not only as executive producer on the film, but also plays Valentina, the Puerto Rican drugstore proprietor and the widow of Doc, who owns the store in the original film.

Dance Spirit
spoke with Sharks Yesenia Ayala (Clary), Carlos Gonzalez (Chucho), Jacob Guzman (Junior), Melody Martí (Pili), Ilda Mason (Luz) and Tanairi Vazquez (Charita) about being a part of this extraordinary company, meeting Rita Moreno and being properly represented on the silver screen.

Most of these actors have Broadway shows on their resumés, including the most recent West Side Story revival.

“All those people are some of the most incredible artists and human beings I know,” Justin Peck, the film’s choreographer told Dance Spirit. “So I can’t wait for what this will mean for them and their futures.”

Three men jump in the air, dancing on the streets of NYCDavid Alvarez (center) in West Side StoryPhoto by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy 20th Century Studios

On discovering West Side Story

Tanairi Vazquez:
Seeing Rita Moreno in West Side Story as a little girl is what made me want to dance and perform. I saw her on the screen and thought she looked like me.

Ilda Mason:
I didn’t know West Side Story before moving to New York City from Panama eight years ago. I learned about it while studying Musical Theatre and Acting for Film. It wasn’t until I got my first job in the U.S. that I fully experienced the beauty of this show. I feel so fortunate that West Side Story was my first professional musical here and that I’ve had the fortune of having done four productions of it. Three of them were completely different, including the most recent Broadway revival and Spielberg’s remake.

Melody Martí:
I sat and watched the film for the first time with my mom and my two older sisters. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was no more than 10 years old. I felt thrilled to see so much dancing in the film.

Yesenia Ayala:
I would always go to the video store. I feel like I was the only one who would go to the musical section and get [movie musicals including West Side Story].

On auditioning for the film

I found out through my friends sending me a casting-call notice. It was an open audition. I didn’t have an agent or anything. I recorded my audition in Panama.

Carlos Gonzalez:
I actually missed the audition for the movie because I was in Cuba working on my house. I was crying that it wasn’t meant to be. A couple months later, my agent called and said there’s actually an audition in Miami and Puerto Rico. My husband [musical director Kurt Crowley] was the one that pushed me to go. And I did. My agent calls me and says, ‘Hey, I know you’re going back to Cuba, but Steven Spielberg wants to see you himself for the final audition.

I kept getting callbacks. I even went in for Anita. I made it towards the end. We danced with some of the boys. We did some partnering. Then they had us read. After Christmas 2018, I got the official word that they wanted me to be a Shark girl.

During Carousel [on Broadway], Justin and I became really good friends. Justin needed some dancers to work with him for a workshop and asked me to be a part of it. I didn’t realize Steven Spielberg was going to be there. He came for a few days with his handheld camcorder. We shot a whole day in the rehearsal room so he could get used to filming dance because he has never done that before. It was really cool to be a part of that process, because it was like creating and seeing what Justin was envisioning. But then also seeing Steven trying to figure out what angles to shoot things from. By the end of the week, they’re like, “We like you.”

Jacob Guzman:
I couldn’t go to the invited call because I was on tour, so I went to the open call on my day off. I luckily got a spot and into the room.

On booking the movie

I had booked the lab [of the West Side Story Broadway revival] when I booked the movie with my identical twin brother, David. It’s kind of crazy growing up Puerto Rican never having done West Side Story—and then I’m doing it twice in one year.

It was one of the happiest days of my life. It’s a true dream come true. It sounds cliché, but that’s exactly what it is. I moved from Panama to this country to be on Broadway and to work on films. So the fact that my first movie is with Steven Spielberg? Dying! I found out a full six months after the final audition, which was just one week before my first day of rehearsals: April 8th, 2019. My soul needed the opportunity to be a part of this so badly, and I still can’t believe I was able to tell this story.

I did the revival in 2009, which was my Broadway debut. So, it’s full circle.

On the new choreography by Justin Peck

I have done West Side Story with Jerome Robbins’ choreography at Montclair State University. Experiencing new choreography for the first time was challenging in a good way. There was a lot of partner work and lifts as well as technicality behind the movement. It was heavily ballet-based, with layers of Latin flavor sprinkled on top of it. It felt so good to bring that movement to life through the film.

Justin Peck’s choreography is wonderfully challenging, and it’s exactly how it could have been done when the movie was done originally, it is that same ballet-based style. It was so wonderful to dance to it, and it felt so natural. It was stunning. I remember being on set and watching the monitors thinking, “This is so wonderful.”

On working with Rita Moreno

To be in this new version with [Rita Moreno] in it was too much for me to handle. I’m in the same movie with Rita Moreno. And not just any movie, but West Side Story. Which is my story. It’s an important story for Latinos, and Puerto Ricans, who left to make a better life for themselves. Since I was a little girl, my parents always said, “Be proud of where you come from. You’re Puerto Rican. [Rita Moreno’s] Puerto Rican. Look at the way she moves, dances and expresses herself.” I would be in my room and just try to be like her because I was so inspired.

In the original West Side Story, she was funny, she was courageous, she was loving. She was the ultimate person. I saw myself in that as a kid, especially as a Latina.

My first day of rehearsal was also the day I met Rita Moreno. She was an explosion of awesomeness. She walked in with such energy, power and charisma. We all jammed to Latin beats and it was incredibly surreal. It is a huge honor to be in this movie with her. She is an icon and to me, she represents all the things that are possible for me as an immigrant Latina.

On rewriting film history

When I first watched the film, I didn’t realize the lack of Latino representation it had. I assumed that the Sharks were truly Puerto Rican. Many were Italian and passed as Puerto Ricans. Little did I know that Rita Moreno was the only Puerto Rican in the film.

I think they’re doing a very smart thing and deepening the characters and giving everything a more realistic approach.

I think for Latinos, conversations are happening. But we are one of the lowest groups represented in Hollywood right now.

Doing West Side Story is the biggest gift for any Latino. We’re going to tell the story of how the Puerto Ricans truly live. How does being Latino feel in this country? How the world really was back then. Steven Spielberg really put a lot of effort and love into it.