Home Op-ed Remedying the Casting Decisions of ‘West Side Story’

Remedying the Casting Decisions of ‘West Side Story’

by Beatrine Shahzad

West Side Story is an iconic piece of American history. The stage musical premiered on Broadway in 1957, the story based on Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare except it takes place in 1950s New York between two young rival street gangs, the Sharks who are Puerto Rican and the Jets who are white. With music written by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the famed musical was adapted to film in 1961 and went on to win 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Its heartfelt story and beautiful soundtrack cemented West Side Story as a work of cultural significance. While over the years it was given Broadway revivals, it wasn’t until Steven Spielberg was granted a West Side Story remake slated for a 2020 release that audiences were going to see something new on the silver screen for the first time in decades.

While Steven Spielberg is a well-respected director who has proven his capability in multiple genres, there was fan trepidation surrounding the project, especially in regard to casting decisions. “Maria” isn’t an easy song to sing, “I Feel Pretty” isn’t an easy sequence to believably embody. Finding someone in pop culture who is not only classically trained for a role like this but also the right age would be a challenge. Spielberg and 20th Century Studios’ adaptation would have benefited from Broadway actors in the two leading roles, but with such a high profile production, there was an expectation that one or both would be played by a film actor or popular singer.

Ansel Elgort was cast first in the leading male role of Tony in October 2018. Although he is known for starring in films such as Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars, he also releases music as a singer. Reactions were mixed. He was around the right age at the time, 24, and he seemed like he had the skill set based on his background. The leading female role of Maria, on the other hand, would be a harder casting decision. There was a national casting call underway to find the right girl, and in January 2019, the West Side Story remake found its Maria. Her name was Rachel Zegler and she was a 17-year-old still in high school. She seemed technically capable and looked the part. Even though the age gap between the two leads was near seven years, there was little dissent at the announcement of a young unknown actress getting her big break.

As the first cast pictures emerged, the age gap became more evident. Ansel is much taller and looks older than Rachel, but while people commented on how odd it was, they accepted the casting for what it was. It has been common in Hollywood for decades to have a significantly older male lead. The sexualization of young women is rampant as their beauty and age are scrutinized. Not only has this had disastrous effects in the filmmaking industry as the #MeToo movement uncovered filmmakers leveraging their power to take advantage of women, especially young women at the beginning of their careers, but it’s important to re-evaluate how the normalization of age gaps and sexualization of young women affect culture as a whole.

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in ‘West Side Story’ courtesy of 20th Century Studios

In June 2020, Twitter user @ltsgabby came forward with her story with Ansel Elgort. In a tweet, she recounts how he courted her as a freshly 17-year-old fan of his while he was 20. She describes how she was young and impressionable and he took advantage of this naivety. He took advantage of her age and inexperience. After describing how he regularly made comments about her young age and continued with the relationship anyway, other twitter users came forward with their stories. They, too, share stories of being approached by Ansel as minors, given his private Snapchat, and being asked to either meet up or for nude photos. It’s difficult to find all the accusations since many of the victims received backlash for coming out with their stories, either putting their tweets on protected or deleting their accounts.

In the case of @ltsgabby, it’s obvious to see why. As the original victim to come out with her story, it was shared the most. Screenshots of her post still live on @PopCrave’s account where the replies vary between support and backlash towards the victim. Some comments carry the sentiment that she “knew what she was doing” and wasn’t innocent. Or that she’s a clout chaser, despite no survivor ever reaching notoriety from sharing their experience. When Ansel responded to the accusation, he reiterated that it was a legal relationship as if that minimized the accusations of him taking advantage of the age gap and other allegations of grooming.

Framing the issue as one of legality rather than morality is a symptom of the same culture that casts a 17-year-old as the love interest for a 24-year-old. Yes, 17 is above the age of consent. Though, there is still a power imbalance between a teenager and someone in their twenties. The human brain stops developing in its mid-twenties, and until that time, the gaps in maturity and experience that come with age are exaggerated. Not every 17-year-old is ready for a sexual relationship, especially with someone older, even though legally they have the right to choose one if they wish. In the case of @ltsgabby and Ansel Elgort, she was not ready. The expectation that 17-year-old women are full adults capable of adult relationships is not accurate and every poor casting of an underage actress in Hollywood only strengthens the notion and should be stopped.

Ariana Debose in ‘West Side Story’ courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The #MeToo movement was built around holding men accountable for sexually assaulting women. Now that Ansel allegedly fits in that category, what can Hollywood do to seek justice for the victims? There are three main reasons why sexual abusers should not be in media; to stand with the victim, to not have sexual abusers be financially supported by members of the general audience, and to protect future victims. As fate would have it, the current controversial revival of West Side Story on Broadway was also under fire for casting a dancer in a principal role, Amar Ramasar, with a history of sharing women’s nude photos without consent. He was fired from his previous employment, NYC Ballet, after the situation came to light, but was soon rehired under union conditions. The production team at West Side Story does not claim any responsibility for they are not affiliated, and Ramasar is still protected by them to this day.

In their statement, the Broadway production reasons that he paid for his crime already and his victims found justice when he was fired from his previous employment. Many argue that they not only do not want to financially support someone like that when they purchase a ticket to see the show, but it’s letting down the women in the cast who have to intimately interact with him as a dancer. Ironically, the revival is a modern retelling and chose to reflect its time period by having the sexual assault that takes place within the story be recorded and shown on a large screen for the entire audience to see. While the production has no problem with using the sexual violation of a woman and the distribution of that moment without consent for shock value, it still allows the perpetrator of a similar crime to benefit from their production.

As for Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, there are calls to recast Ansel Elgort similar to how Kevin Spacey was recast in All The Money in the World after allegations of his predatory behavior came to light. While 20th Century Studios has already wrapped shooting with the musical slated for a December 2020 release, a recast is not completely out of the question. The biggest obstacle, besides money and reorganizing production, would be a Covid-19 contamination risk during ensemble scenes especially since they mostly require close contact. Tony is only present in a few key ensemble scenes, but they are all integral to the plot. It’s currently difficult to tell how seriously the studio and Spielberg are taking these allegations, but it would be a disservice to the production of the film to let it be inseparable from the reputation of the lead and it’s not too late nor completely impossible to change that.

While West Side Story is regarded as one of the best love stories of all time, star crossed lovers unable to find happiness, its inspiration, Romeo and Juliet, is not quite the same. Maria too loses her innocence in West Side Story, but it’s the senseless hatred and racism of the gangs that end in tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy is that Romeo sprung himself on a much younger Juliet and the immaturity, passion, and blind nature of their love ended it for both of them. Popular culture has forgotten that Juliet was only 13, that Romeo was in love with another girl at the onset, and if Juliet gave it another week – he would have found another girl after her. Their tragedy not only lays in their youth, but as the byproduct of youth. As a culture, we need to be more critical of what we consume, more critical of what we normalize, more critical of what we expect from young women, and more critical of the standards we hold for those with fame, power, and money.

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is currently set to release December 18, 2020!

Follow writer Beatrine Shahzad on Twitter: @beyabean

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