The setting is the Upper West Side of Manhattan, 1957, something that Spielberg lets us know with an opening panoramic shot of the city.
The opening is nothing more than a small nod to Robert Wise’s 1961 original which featured a similar panoramic sweep.
Spielberg and Kushner give a subtle wink to the Oscar-winning director offering viewers a sense of nostalgia but don’t be fooled, this is not a remake but rather a bold reimagining of the 1950s New York Romeo and Juliet love story.
This is not the first time Kushner and Spielberg have worked together, both having previously collaborated on Munich and Lincoln. Spielberg was a fan of the screenwriter and playwright’s work so much so that he personally assigned Kushner with the task of re-envisioning the classic musical. Kushner brings contemporary sensibilities to the 1961 source material.
Those familiar with the work of Tony Kushner will know that whatever he touches certainly turns to gold with his previous winning many accolades – most notably his broadway hit “Angels in America” which starred Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter – and also won him a Pulitzer. Steven Sondheim, who sadly passed away on November 26, is clapping from the skies above as his masterpiece of a musical is certainly in the right hands. The musical theatre torch has been passed.
Following the recent success of Lin-Manual Miranda’s In The Heights (2021) and its controversial casting, Kushner and Spielberg wanted to give the 1961 original a twist of its own, queue Rachel Zegler.
It was January 2018 when director Spielberg announced an open casting call via Twitter in which Zegler (at the time only 17) responded with videos of herself singing renditions of “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty”. Out of over 30,000 applicants, Zegler landed the role. Speaking to Town and Country magazine, casting director Cindy Tolan said that the actress had a natural “technical skill, her emotional presence, grace and charm were just so unusual for someone who was 17 years old”.
The complete obscurity surrounding Zegler and her acting is only something that adds more magic to her performance. Spielberg and Kushner bring us a new interpretation of the much loved Maria in which Zegler brings her own charm and personality to the role crafting a truly unique character and performance: one that is touted to be a massive fan favourite and top contender at the Oscars. And the cherry on top? Kushner was personally involved in the casting process – Zegler is the real deal.
In the original, Maria was portrayed as an angelic figure, innocent and placid, however, in the 2021 remake, the young actress brings new life to the role with her bold charisma, tenacity and fire. Rachel Zegler can only describe the modern Maria as a female who is coming of age, rather than being a Juliet and Virginal teen. Zegler’s Maria is one that is turning 18, becoming increasingly familiar with the world around her and the endless possibilities that lie before her – a beacon of female empowerment.
With the inclusion of contemporary sensibility, Kushner turns the original melodramatic romance into a tour-de-force energy-filled ride that will captivate audiences. The romance between Tony and Maria no longer has that jaded Romeo and Juliet feel, instead, it is replaced with a sense of hope and achievement
. Brace for the nostalgic feeling brought to you by Kushner’s writing and heart-tugging cinematography typical for Spielberg. It comes as no surprise that Spielberg and Kushner’s retelling will be a favourite at the Oscars – with the break-out star Rachel Zegler expected to steal the hearts of the Academy and fans alike. With the obscurity and hype surrounding Zegler, I think I’m not alone when I say this is one of the most anticipated breakthrough performances of the year and I’m ready for it.