Rising star Rachel Zegler takes the lead in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Rachel was selected from a pool of 30 000 applicants to play Maria in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. (PHOTO: Gallo Images / Getty Images)
Rachel was selected from a pool of 30 000 applicants to play Maria in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. (PHOTO: Gallo Images / Getty Images)


Rachel (20) plays Maria, one of the most popular roles in the classic musical West Side Story. In the story, which is based on Romeo and Juliet but set in New York City, Maria falls in love with Tony, played by Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver). 

As a forbidden love blossoms between the pair, they fuel the fires of a bitter battle between their neighbourhood street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. But can their romance defuse the rivalry and conquer all? “West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character,” Rachel explained to Deadline, referring to her character being Puerto Rican. 

“As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.” The young star landed the part, her first major film role, after Spielberg auditioned a reported 30 000 hopefuls from around the world. 

In 2019 the then 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey was elated to learn she’d made the cut after submitting an audition tape of her singing Tonight and Me Siento Hermosa (I Feel Pretty). 

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler play star-crossed l
Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler play star-crossed lovers in the new West Side Story. (Gallo Images / Alamy)


Rachel has gone from working on her school production of Shrek the Musical and uploading cover versions of her favourite songs to her YouTube channel to making her big-screen debut. She says she received heaps of advice personally from filmmaking legend Steven Spielberg. “He’s in my phone as ‘Creative Sponsor’,” she told Allure.

“I can call for advice whenever I need it. He gave me a lot of advice the second I got the part. It started with, ‘Just don’t read what people have to say.’”Since landing the role of Maria, Rachel, who had some experience in musical theatre, has been cast as Snow White in Disney’s upcoming live action remake which starts filming in 2022. 

“Rachel’s extraordinary vocal abilities are just the beginning of her gifts. Her strength, intelligence and optimism will become an integral part of rediscovering the joy in this classic Disney fairytale,” says Snow White director Marc Webb. 


Critics were sceptical about Spielberg “messing” with West Side Story, but since the premiere the production has been dubbed “top-tier” and “one of 2021’s best films that’s managed to respect yet reinvent” the original. 

West Side Story made its Broadway debut in 1957 and the first film adaptation premiered in 1961 with Natalie Wood and Richard Breymer as the star-crossed lovers. 

It is also Spielberg’s first musical film. “I’m pretty sure the only musical-esque thing he’s done is Anything Goes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!” Rachel told Total Film magazine.

“Whenever we would read things by sceptics about Spielberg doing a musical, I was like, ‘That’s one of the most incredible film openings ever!’“I had never done a film before. And he’d never done a musical before. We would make jokes that we were going to teach each other how it’s done!” 


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24