Playing Maria in West Side Story may have been your teenage dream, but for one 17-year-old, dreams have become reality. After casting Ansel Elgort as male lead Tony, director Steven Spielberg has hired an unknown high school student to play Maria in his upcoming adaptation of West Side Story. But who is Rachel Zegler? The teen has showed off her singing skills in YouTube covers of popular songs.
Following the October 2018 announcement that Elgort would play the optimistic Tony, fans of West Side Story began speculating that an equally famous actress or singer would be his Maria. Rumors claiming that Camila Cabello would portray the Puerto Rican character floated around the internet, but leave it to Spielberg to do exactly the opposite of what we expected. On Jan. 14, the production confirmed that Broadway stars Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez would appear as Anita and Bernardo, while Zegler, a New Jersey student with no prior experience in film or TV, will play Maria. She joins the project after submitting a video of herself performing the musical's "Tonight" to an open casting call.
In a statement, Zegler said:
I am so thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Maria alongside this amazing cast. West Side Story was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character. As a Colombian-American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.
Zegler also posted about the new casting on Instagram, reiterating, "To be able to bring that role to life — a role that means so much to the Hispanic community — is so humbling."
In his own statement, Spielberg said, "When we began this process a year ago, we announced that we would cast the roles of Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino and the Sharks with Latina and Latino actors. I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community."
Frequently posting her own song covers online, Zegler describes herself on her YouTube page as a "17-year-old singer-songwriter who works as a wedding singer." Her past theater experience includes leading roles in Beauty and the Beast, RENT, Les Miserables, and, yes, West Side Story. In recent months, Zegler's YouTube channel also received viral attention for her performance of Lady Gaga's "Shallow."
The 1961 film adaptation of the Broadway musical West Side Story introduced Tony (Richard Beymer), a member of a white New York City gang called the Jets. At a community dance displaying the tension between the Jets and the Sharks, a local Puerto Rican gang, he meets Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the Sharks' leader. The two quickly fall for each other despite the gangs' fierce rivalry. Even as their friends and families begin to pull them in separate directions, Tony and Maria are determined to be together. Based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the bittersweet love story is one of the most beloved in musical theater canon.
In addition to working with other rising stars, Zegler will appear in West Side Story alongside original movie cast member Rita Moreno. Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her performance as Maria's best friend Anita, will play new character Valentina in Spielberg's production. Talk about teenage dreams coming true, huh?
Congrats to Zegler for scoring such an incredible opportunity!