How the New West Side Story Cast Stacks Up Against the Stars of the 1961 Oscar Winner

Ariana DeBose is the favorite to follow in Rita Moreno's footsteps as a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for West Side Story, but how does the rest of the cast fare in their classic roles?

By Natalie Finn Mar 27, 2022 5:00 PMTags
Watch: Ariana DeBose Cries Looking Back at Journey to "West Side Story"

No need to forget the old West Side Story, but here's another!

Sixty years after the big-screen musical first snapped, twirled and mamboed its way into theaters and won the Oscar for Best Picture, Steven Spielberg brought us his take on the Shakespearean story of love almost finding a way amid a prejudice-fueled blood feud. 

And with the tale as timely as ever and the music as enduring as it gets, the 2021 version (its release delayed a full year due to the pandemic) is also headed to Oscar night with a shot at the night's top prize. 

In fact, you've still got time to watch the newer West Side Story—or both, if you're ambitious—before tonight's ceremony. 

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In screenwriter Tony Kushner's adaptation of Arthur Laurent's groundbreaking 1957 musical, which notably brought contemporary social issues to the Broadway stage, a rapidly changing Upper West Side is squeezing out both the Jets and the Sharks as their mean streets are bulldozed to make room for future cultural landmarks like Lincoln Center (where the film's 2021 premiere was held, incidentally). But deep-rooted suspicion—of each other, of authority and anyone who tries to extend an olive branch—keeps them on opposite sides of the dance floor. 

Unless they're coming together to fight.

From their respective corners and into this tinderbox walk Tony, a tender-hearted former Jet, and Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant whose big brother Bernardo is head of the Sharks. They're instantly smitten but, while they're busy dreaming of a future together away from all the hate, they inadvertently trigger a tragic chain of Romeo and Juliet-inspired events.

United Artists/Zuma Press; Twentieth Century Fox

Spielberg—making his first-ever musical—sought to right some of the more glaring indignities in his film's predecessor, including the lack of Hispanic actors on the Sharks' side and the fact that future EGOT winner Moreno, who actually is Puerto Rican, was put in makeup to make her skin look darker as Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend and Maria's best friend.

Talking to Parade, Moreno, an executive producer on the new version, called the script "wonderfully improved" and the story itself "more relevant than ever."

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Spielberg told E! News at the Nov. 29 premiere, "It took about a year to find all the cast, tapes came in from 35,000 individuals auditioning for Maria, Tony, Anita and Bernardo. Ironically, the second person I saw on my first day of casting, was Rachel [Zegler]."

Ansel Elgort, starring as Tony opposite Zegler's Maria, called the experience "magical," telling Entertainment Tonight in 2019, when production was ongoing, "It's been a dream working with the best people in the business. We're having a lot of fun and pushing ourselves. It's been really great."

In honor of both films, here's a look at the 1961 cast vs. Spielberg's version, a new generation in the driver's seat of this classic ride:

Richard Beymer/Ansel Elgort as Tony

Elgort does his own singing as the boy who just met a girl named Maria, unlike his predecessor, whose vocals were supplied by crooner Jimmy Bryant—a fairly standard bit of movie magic when the studio's desired face didn't match the necessary pipes.

"The songs are great, even though I couldn't sing them perfectly right away," Elgort admitted during a Nov. 30 appearance on E!'s Daily Pop. "But that's good, anything that's a challenge is good, right? It's worth it."

Beymer—who started out as a child actor on TV in the 1940s—co-starred in 1959's The Diary of Anne Frank before landing the role of Tony, which led to him sharing the 1962 Golden Globe for New Star of the Year with Bobby Darin and Warren Beatty (who also had a doomed onscreen romance with Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass, another 1961 release).

Talking to the Los Angeles Times decades later, Beymer said he thought he "came out ridiculous" in West Side Story and, despite a few more plum roles in big pictures, he had soured on Hollywood by the mid-1960s. He turned his attention to civil rights activism in the South and continued to act in quirky films ("I never left the movies, I just made different kinds of movies," he told the Times) and on TV, In fact, another devoted fan base knows him as Ben Horne on Twin Peaks.

Elgort said on The Late Late Show With James Corden that he'd wanted to be a performer ever since his parents took him to see Oklahoma on Broadway when he was 4. The native New Yorker also recalled Stephen Sondheim's advice when the show's legendary lyricist, who died Nov. 26, visited the production. They ended up in an elevator alone together after what Elgort deemed a failed recording session on his part, when Sondheim turned to him and said, "'The most important thing a young performer can have is confidence.'"

And...scene.

Natalie Wood/Rachel Zegler as Maria

Before being cast as Maria, Zegler had done all the big musicals—in various high school and local theater productions in her native New Jersey, that is. But the then-16-year-old's videos of herself singing "Tonight" and "I Feel Pretty" set her apart from the 30,000 other aspiring stars who answered the open casting call.

Zegler, who's of Colombian descent, graduated from high school in 2019 and got to work, West Side Story marking her feature film debut—unlike Wood, who had been acting since she was 4 and co-starred in 1947's Miracle on 34th Street when she was 8.

Already Academy Award-nominated for 1957's Rebel Without a Cause, Wood was a controversial pick for Maria (she's not Hispanic and Marni Nixon did all the singing), though her spirited performance couldn't help but charm. She didn't account for any of West Side Story's 11 Oscar nominations, but she was still up for Best Actress that year for her heart-wrenching turn as a lovelorn high school student who suffers a nervous breakdown in Splendor in the Grass. She then starred in the 1962 big-screen adaptation of Gypsy (more lyrics by Sondheim) and notched another Oscar nomination for 1963's Love With the Proper Stranger.

Wood continued to act for the rest of her tragically short life. After remarrying first husband Robert Wagner in 1972, the 43-year-old mother of two drowned in 1981 off the coast of California's Catalina Island. The circumstances of her death are still being probed to this day, most recently in her sister Lana Wood's 2021 book, Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood.

With all eyes on her, Zegler is signed up to play Snow White in Disney's planned live-action remake, co-starring Gal Gadot as the Evil Queen.

Rita Moreno/Ariana DeBose as Anita

"The two Anitas," Moreno raved to Parade about watching Oscar front-runner DeBose take on the screen-commanding role of Anita, Maria's pragmatic confidante and the love of ill-fated Bernardo. "It was weird and strange and wonderful. And she's marvelous. She's a ferocious dancer. Way better than I was."

Very gracious to say, but Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, the first Hispanic actress to win an Academy Award, on her way to becoming an Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner as well. Her most recent splash came playing family matriarch Lydia in the acclaimed reboot of One Day at Time.

DeBose, who's of Puerto Rican descent on her father's side, competed on So You Think You Can Dance in 2009 and she made her Broadway debut in Bring It On: The Musical in 2012. She was a member of the original Broadway ensemble of Hamilton when it premiered in 2015, co-starred in A Bronx Tale: The Musical, was nominated for a Tony for the 2018 Donna Summer jukebox musical Summer and appeared in the Netflix musical Prom.

She was getting her nails done when she got the call from Steven Spielberg, and when he "asks you to be part of something like this," she recalled to the Daily Mail, "it is something you never forget, because of the journey I've had."

George Chakiris/David Alvarez as Bernardo

The Greek-American Chakiris—who first played Jets leader Riff in the West End production of West Side Story—won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his piercing performance as Maria's over-protective brother and Anita's boyfriend, who also happens to be the leader of the Sharks, the Jets' archenemies. Which means Tony, too, never mind Maria's pleas that he's not like the rest of them. Tragedy ensues.

In real life, Chakiris went on to more stage and screen work and he is the godfather of Moreno's daughter Fernanda. "We became extremely close [on set]," Moreno told Parade. "He and I and a girl named Yvonne Wilder. Yvonne was one of the Shark girls and was hysterical. So the three of us became the Puerto Rican mafia. Even though George was Greek. We laughed so hard. We had such a good time."

Bernardo's jazz shoes are on good feet, with Alvarez already a Tony winner at 14 for his turn as Billy Elliot. After performing in the company of On the Town, however, he joined the Army, where "no one knew I was a dancer or an actor or a singer," he explained on the Just for Variety podcast. "I felt like I wanted to be like everyone else in my platoon. I wanted to just be a soldier and I didn't want to be treated any differently or thought of any differently. I just wanted to be one of the group."

Then he went to college to study philosophy, but a casting director tracked him down in 2018 while he was backpacking in Mexico. The message, he recalled: "'Hey, Steven Spielberg's making West Side Story. We would love to see a self-tape from you for the role of Bernardo.'"

Alvarez also starred in the 2021 Showtime limited series American Rust and West Side Story marks his feature film debut.

Russ Tamblyn/Mike Faist as Riff

That's Amber Tamblyn's dad as the charismatic leader of the Jets and Tony's best friend—aka the Mercutio role, and we know what happens to him.

An Oscar nominee for 1957's Peyton Place, Tamblyn also started out as a child performer (he's Elizabeth Taylor's little brother in the original Father of the Bride) and made his movie musical debut in 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (though Tucker Smith, who played a fellow Jet named Ice, sang Riff's lines in the gang's classic opening number). 

A star of numerous cult-classic films and a go-to character actor after his big-studio work dried up in the 1960s, Tamblyn also played Dr. Jacoby on Twin Peaks (reuniting with Beymer) in the 1980s and in the 2017 revival, and most recently showed up in Django Unchained and on Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House.

Faist received a Tony nomination for playing Connor Murphy, the boy whose suicide is at the center of the drama in Dear Evan Hanson, and while he's been in a few indie films and stars on the Amazon Prime series Panic, West Side Story is his first massive big-screen production.

"I put together a tape, and then they said, 'We want you to come back in and dance,'" he recalled of the audition process to the New York Times. "I was like, 'Is there any way you could not have me dance?' They were like: 'What are you talking about? This is West Side Story!' The only saving grace is that [choreographer] Justin Peck and I have similar body types: tall, nothing but arms and legs. They had their work cut out for them in order to get me up to snuff."

And, Faist shared, "Maybe this is so pretentious, but West Side was everything I had ever hoped to accomplish as an actor. It's really crazy, but it was transcendental: either I didn't feel like I was myself, or I was the most authentic version of myself. I can't really tell which one."

Jose De Vega/Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino

Maria's scorned fiancé (a reluctant promise rather than a love match on her part) was more of a caricature of a hot-headed Puerto Rican gang member in 1961, so Rivera had a chance to make Chino more of a fleshed-out character.

Both movies, however, feature a newcomer (to the big screen and IMDb) in the role. 

De Vega, who died in 1990, was also a dancer and choreographer and kept acting throughout his life, the Filipino-American performer's final credit a 1987 episode of Dynasty

"In a lot of ways this experience has been so incredible," a beaming Rivera said in an on-set interview released by 20th Century Studios, "kind of building this family with the Sharks almost feels like getting so in touch with my roots, my heritage...They remind me of my family in a lot of ways. I don't know, they're just wily and hilarious, and just, like, loud." He laughed. "I love it, it's fantastic, it makes me feel so at home."

Susan Oakes/Iris Menas as Anybodys

Menas, who identifies as nonbinary, takes over as Anybodys, who in 1961 was a tomboy who has no use for girly nonsense and wants so badly to be taken seriously by the Jets (who ridicule her constantly and snipe at her to "go wear a skirt").

"He's kind of been disowned by his family and is looking for a home, essentially," Menas, who previously appeared on Broadway in Jagged Little Pill, shared in a production interview. "He's sleeping on the streets and he's been following the Jets closely...We see this kind of lost soul hoping to join this gang of brothers, not only to be accepted into a family...but to be accepted for who they are as a person and accepted in their own skin."

West Side Story was Oakes' only movie, and after a few TV appearances she left acting behind in 1964.

In the 2021 film's production notes, David Saint, executor of the estate of Arthur Laurent, who wrote the original book for West Side Story, observed, "Arthur was ahead of his time with this. Anybodys is a character who was a man born in a female's body.' End of story. If it were today, he would be a transgender." Casting director Cindy Toland explained, "We had a lot of conversations about it and decided this role could be played best by a trans person."

Ned Glass as Doc/Rita Moreno as Valentina

The role of Tony's kind, concerned boss at the candy shop has been passed on to Doc's Puerto Rican widow, Valentina, who's seen too much to be entirely optimistic about her young employee's long-term chances for happiness with Maria.

"No. 1, it's a beautiful name," Moreno, who's also an executive producer on the film, told Parade of her new West Side Story character. "No. 2, she has a close relationship with Tony, the lead. It's very, very different than the relationship that Doc had with the kids."

"Valentina is a wonderful character, she's loving, she's warm," the actress continued. "She's nothing like Anita at all. She is definitely an older woman. And it's been the joy of my life to play her. I could not believe it when Steven called me, and then I talked to [screenwriter] Tony Kushner. Apparently, Tony was a big fan of the [original] movie and suggested me to Steven."

But she wasn't interested in just a wink-wink cameo. "Playing a cameo when you've been a lead is just a distraction," she explained. "All you're doing is distracting people. Oh, look who's there? [Spielberg] said, 'No, no, no, no, no, no, it's not a cameo. It's a real part.' I said, 'OK, then I would like to read the script.' And that's how it happened. But I can tell you, going back to the past in the present—it's incredible."

Glass, who died in 1984, was a busy character actor whose first part was an uncredited role in the 1937 screwball comedy True Confession. Later TV jobs included Barney Miller and Cagney & Lacey.

When You're a Jet...

...you're both tough as nails and can do grand jetés like a champ...till your last dyin' day.

Just Play It Cool

"Every Latino in this movie is Latino," Moreno told Parade, contrasting the 2021 version with the sparsely Latinx cast of the original. "All the boys in the Sharks are Hispanic. Not everyone's Puerto Rican, but they all are Hispanic. And that makes me happy."

John Astin/Mike Iveson as Glad Hand

The father of actors Sean and Mackenzie Astin had an uncredited role as the social worker who unsuccessfully tries to thaw tensions between the Sharks and the Jets—and at least gets them all in the same gym for a pivotal dance. 

Astin appeared in films such as That Touch of Mink, 1976's Freaky FridayTeen Wolf Too and The Frighteners, as well as on countless TV shows, but he's a cult-classic figure largely due to his role as patriarch Gomez Addams in the 1960s-era The Addams Family sitcom (and he was the original Riddler on Batman with Adam West).

Iveson's only previous credit is an episode of Orange Is the New Black, so he's making quite the splashy movie debut.

Simon Oakland/Corey Stoll as Police Lt. Schrank

Fruitlessly trying to keep the peace is Schrank, a plain clothes cop who'd prefer the local youth shed less blood on his streets.

Oakland was a busy character actor whose other films included Psycho (he's the psychiatrist who reveals Norman Bates' mommy issues) and Bullitt, and he did tons of TV work before his death in 1983.

The very busy Stoll (Scenes From a MarriageThe Many Saints of Newark and Billions, just to name a few newer credits) carries the badge this time around.

William Bramley/Brian d'Arcy James as Officer Krupke

Technically it's Police Sgt. Krupke, but the Jets' baton-wielding nemesis hasn't exactly garnered their respect.

D'Arcy James is known from onscreen turns in Spotlight and 13 Reasons Why, and he has more more than a dozen Broadway credits to his name, most recently starring in the Sam Mendes-directed The Ferryman.

Bramley originated the role on Broadway and made his film debut in the 1961 film, going on to dozens of more appearances in movies (often as a cop) and TV before his death in 1985. The indelible character lives on in pop culture infamy, though, including in the "Officer Krupke" episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David encounters a cop with the same name. By the end, as usual, everyone's saying, "Krup you, Larry."

(An earlier version of this story was published Dec. 11, 2021, at 3 a.m. PT)