How West Side Story’s Cast Feels About Stephen Sondheim’s Death And Legacy

Movie musicals have been consistently releasing throughout 2021, but there’s one more arriving in theaters before the New Year: Steven Spielberg’s take on West Side Story. This new adaptation features the beloved songs we know and love, with lyrics written by the late, great Stephen Sondheim. And the cast of West Side revealed how they feel about the musical theater icon’s recent death, and ongoing legacy.

Stephen Sondheim put his musical genius into a countless beloved stage musicals, but providing the lyrics for West Side Story was one of his first big gigs. As you can see in the video above, I recently had the privilege of speaking with Steven Spielberg and the cast of his movie musical about what it means to be releasing the project so shortly after Sondheim passed away at the age of 91. Maria actress Rachel Zegler seems to think West Side Story serves as a celebration of his genius, as she told me:

Just as Steven just said, it’s a celebration of his work. We all were able to have such a wonderful connection with him, whether he intended to give us that connection or not. Obviously it’s an honor that’s not lost on me that we got to work with him so closely. He was very involved in our process.

The new West Side Story movie filmed back in 2019, and was ultimately pushed back last year as a result of the pandemic. So while Stephen Sondheim has passed on, the cast and crew were able to work intimately with the titan of musical theater in this adaptation. And the privilege of this collaboration is definitely felt by Rachel Zegler and the her Shark and Jet co-stars.

Working directly with Stephen Sondheim was a dream come true for most theater kids out there, including the cast who will be seen shortly in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Riff actor Mike Faist is known to Broadway fans as the original Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, and shared his own feelings about the death of the beloved musical theater icon. As he put it,

He was such a lover of this, what we do. And obviously stayed apart of the theater community up until the day of his passing. He was still showing up and supporting artists, and supporting pieces and theater. It’s a tremendous loss. But then at our premiere Spielberg said it perfectly ‘He will always be with us for everything he has given all of us.’

Aside from his prolific work on shows like Into the Woods, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim was also known for being an avid fan of musical theater himself. He hand-typed letters to various MT hopefuls throughout his life, which helped to encourage their own creative process. It’s partly for this reason that his legacy will continue on, and why his recent passing was such a gut punch to so many.

Anita actress Ariana DeBose (Schmigadoon, The Prom) is another icon of Broadway, originating the role of The Bullet in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. She offered her perspective on the loss of Stephen Sondheim, and what it means to be sharing West Side Story to the world so sooner after his death. As she told me,

I think with his passing it brings a new meaning to the moment. This moment is not what we thought it was going to be. But I do think it’s a moment of celebration. This was a piece that Stephen Sondheim worked on at the beginning of his career, and yet it was one of the last things that he was able to give to the world. He was very much apart of this. He and Steven Spielberg had a beautiful working relationship on this. It was actually kind of fun to watch their bromance during this production. But I think it’s such a beautiful blessing got be apart of the Sondheim legacy. And what better way to celebrate his contribution to the world? Because his words, the words that he gave us (and he gave us copious amount of words) will live on. I think this is such a beautiful springboard into what those words will come to mean now that he has left us.

That legacy is on full display in the West Side Story movie, which highlights just one small part of the way Stephen Sondheim’s genius changed the world of musical theater forever. Generations were brought up on his words, especially the lyrics sung by beloved characters like Maria, Anita, and Tony. So while the Broadway community and the cast of Steven Spielberg’s movie might still be in mourning, the new film is a fitting way to celebrate his impact on the medium.

West Side Story will hit theaters exclusively on December 10th. In the meantime, check out the 2021 movie release dates to plan your next movie experience. 

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated with degrees theater and literature from Ramapo College of New Jersey. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid. He's particularly proud of covering horror franchises like Scream and Halloween, as well as movie musicals like West Side Story. Favorite interviews include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more.