Speilberg's 'West Side Story' starring Clifton’s Rachel Zegler Opens Friday, December 10th


Zegler in West Side Story Photo: 20th Century Studios

Steven Spielberg’s film “West Side Story” an adaptation of the 1957 musical based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, premiered on Monday in NYC. It will be released in theaters on December 10th, after being delayed a year during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reactions to the film’s premiere praised the actor’s performances and Spielberg’s direction, calling Spielberg’s first feature length musical “phenomenal,” “bold,” “a visual spectacle,” and a “must see”. Rachel Zegler of Clifton and Ansel Elgort portray Maria and Tony, whose controversial romance becomes entangled in local street gang rivalries.

The adaptation also features Rita Moreno, who starred in the original and won an Oscar for the role. Moreno, now 89, plays a new role of Valentina, the widow of the drug store owner where Tony works. Spielberg included Moreno as an Executive Producer on the film.

This is Rachel’s film debut, after being chosen from 30,000 auditioning actresses.  Zegler is of Colombian and Polish decent; Spielberg and the film’s producers stressed the importance of casting only Hispanic actors and actresses for the lead roles, in an attempt to tell an “authentic story of the battle against racial prejudice”. This was in contrast to the 1961 original that featured white actors in makeup, which it was later criticized for.

West Side Story dance sequence. 20th Century Studios

Rachel first played the role at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in NJ while in high school. She starred in schools musicals all four years while attending Immaculate Conception High School, as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast”, Ariel in “The Little Mermaid”, Dorothy Brock in “42nd Street”, and Princess Fiona in “Shrek the Musical” and received Metro Award nominations for all four performances.

Her first theater production at just 14 was “Fiddler on the Roof” with Clifton based theater company, The Theater League of Clifton (TLC) in 2014.  She returned to TLC at 16 to audition for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 2017 and won the lead role. 

Rachel Zegler, fourth from R, in the TLC's "Fiddler On The Roof" Photo: TLC

Mark Peterson, TLC’s President said “We all knew she was something special and was going somewhere. Her performance of “Gimme, Gimme” in Millie brought down the house each night.” Peterson added that in “Fiddler on the Roof” Rachel told him that “when she first stepped on stage she knew it was her calling. She seemed very grounded at the time, and was just a talented and lovely person.” 

Zegler as TLC's Millie in 2017. Photo: TLC

Zegler now has nearly 300K followers on Instagram, and was just recently cast as Snow White in Disney’s live-action adaptation of the film with production set to begin in 2022.

The film was shot in downtown Paterson, NJ over the summer of 2019.  New Jersey State awarded 20th Century Fox $6.85 million from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to shoot the film in NJ. Paterson presented Spielberg with a key to the city at the close of filming.

“West Side Story” premieres in US theaters on Friday, December 10th. For show times in Clifton, click here.

A special edition of 20/20 will air on ABC News Sunday, December 5 with behind the scenes details and interviews with the film's actors including Rachel.  

To view the official trailer, click here.   To view a clip with scenes from the Paterson set, click here

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