How Paloma Garcia-Lee Manifested Her Dream Role, in Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story"
On a rainy day in November 2018, Paloma Garcia-Lee got a call from her agent that brought her to her knees outside her New York City apartment: She was going to play Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.
The call came after a lengthy audition process with Spielberg in the room, and the role, originated by Wilma Curley on Broadway in 1957 and later portrayed by Gina Trikonis in the 1961 film, was her biggest dream. In fact, it’s something Garcia-Lee says she manifested from the day plans for the movie were announced in January 2018. “I wrote in my journal: ‘I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.‘”
Garcia-Lee grew up training at her mother’s dance studio in Bucks County, PA, The Pennsylvania School of Performing Arts (her mother sold the school earlier this year). On top of her regular training, she would travel multiple hours each day to New York City and New Jersey for classes with Steps on Broadway and the Princeton Ballet School, respectively. Her bedroom walls were lined with cutouts from the pages of Dance Spirit, which served as inspiration for her goals. Her mother, Terri Garcia, was a professional dancer in the 1980s (she even danced Francisca in the West Side Story tour in 1985), and Garcia-Lee was eager to follow in her footsteps. “I would lay in bed until 3 in the morning staring at the ceiling, thinking, ‘OK, I’m ready to do it,'” she says.
Garcia-Lee went to high school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she studied first ballet and then drama. As a sophomore, she was cast as Graziella in her school’s production of West Side Story. The magic of performing Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography never left her. “The last time I stepped into Graziella’s shoes, it changed my life,” she says. “She gets those big features in ‘Dance at the Gym’ and in ‘Cool.’ [She] is so powerful, strong and such a baddie.”
She’s been banging on West Side Story‘s door ever since. After graduating high school, Garcia-Lee set off for New York City, where she made her Broadway debut at 17 years old in The Phantom of the Opera. She would go on to perform in five more Broadway shows: Nice Work If You Can Get It, On the Town, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, most recently, Moulin Rouge! All the while, she held out hope that West Side Story would someday come her way.
In 2009, Garcia-Lee was considered for Graziella in the Broadway revival but didn’t get the role after countless callbacks. “I was a wreck sobbing to my mother on the phone,” she says. “For whatever reason, it was not the right fit for me.”
After that, two more productions didn’t cast her as Graziella. When West Side Story was being mounted at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, in 2016, Garcia-Lee was offered the role of Mugsy. For the 2020 Broadway revival, she was only offered the opportunity to audition for the role of Anybodys. She turned down both opportunities in favor of other projects—she would wait for Graziella.
Despite the rejection, she was undeterred. So when Deadline published an article announcing the film remake, Garcia-Lee felt that playing Graziella was meant to be.
Auditions for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story were held in the fall of 2018—the same time Garcia-Lee was filming for the award-winning FX series “Fosse/Verdon.” She had to negotiate with the production team to let her take time off to go. At the audition, the casting room was filled with many of her friends and fellow Broadway darlings, like Eloise Kropp (Cats) and Jonalyn Saxer (Mean Girls). “Paloma has a way of taking all the tension out of an audition room,” Saxer, who plays a Jet in the film, says. “You can feel her love of dance emanating off of her, which spreads to everyone else.”
According to the film’s choreographer, Justin Peck, Garcia-Lee quickly caught the eye of the creative team. “She is one of those artists who is a true triple threat in her talent and ability,” he says. “She’s really committed to the specificity of movement, and she’s determined to get it right. I could sense that from the first audition.” He recalls Garcia-Lee took any free minute throughout the rehearsal process to ask for feedback on his style. “That really shows in the final results of the film.”
Garcia-Lee found out she booked West Side Story in November 2018. At the same time, she was committed to the Broadway run of Moulin Rouge!, and discovered the two productions were both slated to begin rehearsals around the same time. She spent much of the winter and early spring of 2019 trying to figure out how to do it all. Fortunately, both were based in NYC and Garcia-Lee was already familiar with Moulin Rouge!‘s choreography and staging, because she’d been part of the show since its 2017 lab. She asked if she could miss some rehearsals and most preview performances (including the all-important first preview performance) so she could film her scenes in the movie. “That was not a simple negotiation,” Garcia-Lee explains. “I am the biggest advocate for ‘If you don’t ask, it is a no.’ You will be surprised how people will rally around you to help your dreams come true, but it takes that risk,” Garcia-Lee says.
Working on the West Side Story film was much different from any experience Garcia-Lee had ever had on Broadway. “It wasn’t just learning steps,” she says. “It’s not front presenting—it was really this 360 experience. I’ll never forget Steven up on a ladder, then Steven halfway down the ladder, and then Steven on a rolling chair, Steven lying on the floor looking up at [the choreography] this way, Justin tweaking and tweaking.”
Rehearsals for the iconic “Dance at the Gym” scene lasted two weeks. Every day started with a ballet class led by Peck, his wife, former Miami City Ballet dancer Patricia Delgado, or former American Ballet Theatre dancer Craig Salstein. Before the work began, Garcia-Lee says, she familiarized herself with Peck’s work as much as she could to get a sense of his style. “It’s grounded in and sprinkled with Jerome Robbins, but it’s also Justin-driven,” Garcia-Lee says. “His movement isn’t innate for me. However, I loved the challenge of it.”
Once rehearsals wrapped, filming for “Dance at the Gym” lasted six days, and according to Garcia-Lee, her feet never hurt so badly in her entire life. But that didn’t stop her from soaking up the magic. Especially on the day she and her co-star Mike Faist (Riff) shot their duet. “We were so tired and we were giving each other our all,” she says. “All I remember was that we did the impossible. We lost ourselves in the art. We finally got to the end of [the take and] Mike and I fell to the floor. Steven ran over to us, dove on the floor with us and smothered us with love. It was magic.”
After West Side Story wrapped in September 2019, Garcia-Lee continued on her journey with Moulin Rouge! But all those celebratory can-can kicks came to a crashing halt in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, just as she felt she was “stepping into the height of her career.” Garcia-Lee was one of many in the company who got sick with COVID-19. Though she thankfully recovered, she was left wondering what the future would hold. Several months later, it was announced that West Side Story‘s release was going to be pushed back a year.
Garcia-Lee spent her days volunteering at a horse stable in Brooklyn. It was the first time in decades she found the time to get back into the saddle like she did as a kid growing up close to the Bucks County farms. “There was a lot of work to do identifying myself outside of who I am as a performer,” she says. She found solace and comfort around the horses. “I believe horseback riding to deeply be like dancing with a partner,” she says. “It really offered me a place to be, and something to feel I was growing in and accomplishing.”
Then, with the help of her dad, she drove across the country to L.A. for a fresh start. She wanted to focus on acting and find something new to give her purpose. But that doesn’t mean she let go of dance. As studios resumed in-person classes, Garcia-Lee returned to the dance floor. “There’s just a lot of anxiety coming back into the room—a lot of us are really out of shape,” she says. “Coming back has been a journey. The learning curve right now is having a lot of grace with myself.”
In L.A., she’s been stepping outside her comfort zone of musical theater and into jazz classes with teachers like Will B. Bell. “She’s probably one of the most focused dancers that I got to know over the past year during the pandemic,” Bell says of Garcia-Lee. “When she comes to class, she comes there with a mission and a goal.”
When it comes to professional work, Garcia-Lee’s been auditioning for film and TV projects while cultivating the next phase of her career. “This pause has been a blessing in disguise,” she admits. “It really took some time to calibrate myself differently.” She would love to originate new roles, as well as inhabit classics, like those found in the upcoming Guys & Dolls movie musical directed by Bill Condon. She also dreams of playing Roxie in Chicago on Broadway.
For now, though, Garcia-Lee is eagerly anticipating the West Side Story film release in December. After a yearlong delay, she is physically and mentally ready to celebrate playing Graziella. “I’m actually more ready now,” she says. “I think a lot of us feel this way. The timing is exactly right.”
Photo by Jayme Thornton