Steven Spielberg brings the classic musical back to the screen with the new West Side Story.

West Side Story, inspired by the classic Shakespeare play Romeo And Juliet, first made the transition from stage to screen with the iconic 1961 film which starred Natalie Wood as Maria. The new West Side Story film stars Rachel Zegler, in her feature film debut, as Maria.

RACHEL ZEGLER TALKS ABOUT PREPARING TO PLAY MARIA IN WEST SIDE STORY

The Illuminerdi had the opportunity to attend the West Side Story Virtual Press Conference. During the press conference, West Side Story star Rachel Zegler talked about her choice not to revisit the 1961 film, the inevitable comparison between her performance and Natalie Wood’s, and looking at the music as well as the story through a fresh perspective.

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Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

“I made the choice not to. I think comparison was imminent, so when I got the part I was like, whether they like it or they don’t like it, they’re gonna compare, so I’m just gonna distance myself as much as I can. Well, the music, you have to listen to, to study and understand, but we were also just, it was re-taught to us in a brand-new way.

By Jeanine Tesori, and conducted by David Newman and Gustavo Dudamel with the New York Phil, and so I think we were all able to kind of look at it with a fresh perspective inherently, like through our leadership, but I don’t think it was necessarily encouraged not to watch the film, do watch the film. Definitely Romeo and Juliet was encouraged to look at, by Tony Kushner. He was very much like, go to the text.”

During the press conference many of the other cast members revealed that they also chose not to revisit the 1961 film when preparing for their roles. It’s interesting that Romeo And Juliet is what writer Tony Kushner encouraged them to use for research given the play’s influence, but with clear differences from the musical it makes sense. Rachel Zegler also talked about the importance of West Side Story to her personally and how the story influenced her.

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Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“Obviously, I think any film is a challenge. If it’s easy, you don’t care. And I care a lot about this story. This story informed me as a kid of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And, like I said, I knew comparison was inevitable. When it came to myself and the late great Natalie Wood. I think that original film stands on its own as this iconic piece of film history. That everybody is going to refer to for the rest of time. And, that was very present in my mind. But, I didn’t revisit that material because I didn’t want to compare in my own mind.

I think that adds unnecessary pressure, and I knew that Ansel and I, like the day before we started filming, we’re just looking at each other going, “I just want it to be good. I just want to do a good job. I just want to do a good job.” And that’s really all we wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t like, “Am I going to overshadow a legacy of a late, great actress?” That was never the intention, it was just, what can I bring from my own life experience that wasn’t there before?

The first Latina to play Maria on screen. That’s a huge thing. It’s a part of a legacy of a very important musical to so many people, that’s not lost on me. And, I can only hope that wherever in the universe Natalie Wood is, she’s proud of what I did. And proud of the way that we were able to interpret what she originated very well.”

West Side Story is a classic musical and has had a significant impact on countless audiences and artists, Rachel Zegler being one of them. Rachel Zegler’s passion and understanding of the importance of the story, the music, and her role of Maria is clear. The thought she put into her performance clearly shines through making her debut feature film performance quite memorable.

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Are you a West Side Story fan? Are you excited to see Rachel Zegler’s performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on our social media and check back with The Illuminerdi for more West Side Story.

KEEP READING: STEVEN SPIELBERG AND RACHEL ZEGLER REVEAL BROADWAY LEGEND STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S PROFOUND INFLUENCE ON WEST SIDE STORY