West Side Story: High school student cast as Maria in Spielberg remake

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There has been criticism of the 1961 film for casting non-Hispanic actors, such as Natalie Wood

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A high school student has been cast as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake.

Rachel Zegler, 17, was chosen from 30,000 applicants after responding to a casting call for Latino and Latina actors in January 2018.

Some past performances of the musical, including the 1961 film, have been accused of whitewashing its Puerto Rican characters.

Zegler will star alongside a cast of Broadway veterans.

Writing on Instagram, Zegler said she was “honoured” to have been cast in the role, having only ever played Maria in a high school musical.

“When I played Maria on stage a few summers ago, I never could have imagined that I’d be taking on the role again in Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’,” she wrote.

“As a Colombian-American woman growing up in this day and age, strong roles like Maria are so important. To be able to bring that role to life – a role that means so much to the Hispanic community – is so humbling.”

The young actor describes herself as a “singer/songwriter who works as a wedding singer” on her YouTube channel, where she has uploaded videos of herself singing hits from Queen, Ariana Grande and Sia.

One clip of her singing Shallow by Lady Gaga, which she posted on Twitter last December, was retweeted more than 81,000 times.

The original film has drawn criticism in the decades since its release in 1961, mainly for having a predominantly white cast play Hispanic characters.

Natalie Wood, who played Maria in the film, was of Russian descent.

In 2017 Rita Moreno, one of the few Puerto Ricans in the film, told the In The Thick podcast that at the time she felt uncomfortable with everyone’s “extremely dark” make-up.

Moreno, who won an Oscar for her original role as Anita, will also star in the remake as an expanded version of the character Doc.

Announcing the reboot, Spielberg made clear that he would only cast Latina and Latino actors for the Puerto Rican roles.

“I’m so happy that we’ve assembled a cast that reflects the astonishing depth of talent in America’s multifaceted Hispanic community,” the director told Deadline.

“I am in awe of the sheer force of the talent of these young performers, and I believe they’ll bring a new and electrifying energy to a magnificent musical that’s more relevant than ever.”

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