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Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" Uses New Jersey As Its Backdrop

NEWS | FEATURES | PREVIEWS | EVENTS


originally published: 12/10/2021

Steven Spielberg

(NEWARK, NJ) -- Steven Spielberg's reimagining of the legendary "West Side Story" was filmed on location on the streets of Paterson and Newark. The film, already garnering positive reviews from critics, marks Spielberg's musical debut and his third time filming in New Jersey.

"West Side Story" tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City. This is the second feature-length adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Spielberg's version of the musical was written by two-time Tony Award ® and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner and produced by 20th Century Studios.

The new film stars Ansel Elgort as Tony and Clifton-native Rachel Zegler as María, in her feature film debut. Zegler graduated from Immaculate Conception High School in Lodi and starred in the school's musicals all four years. In 2018, she responded to an open casting call for Spielberg's new film of "West Side Story" and was selected for the role of María from over 30,000 applicants. She first played María in a 2017 BergenPAC production of the musical. Zegler was recently named Best Actress by The National Board of Review for her role in "West Side Story" and made Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2022 list. Rita Moreno—an Oscar winner for the 1961 movie adaptation—is recast as the drug-store owner, Valentina, with Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez and Mike Faist also starring. Patrick Higgins, a North Arlington resident, Melody Marti, a Secaucus resident and Montclair State University graduate, are also featured in the cast.

"We are absolutely thrilled that Steven Spielberg and his team chose New Jersey for his new version of this iconic musical, and the casting of Clifton's own Rachel Zegler as María makes that choice extra special," said Governor Phil Murphy. "New Jersey is on the rise as a location for film and television production and seeing the streets of Paterson standing in for 1950's New York City proves that no matter what kind of set location you're looking for, be it cityscapes, suburbs, beaches, mountains or farms, you can find it here."

Streets in Paterson and Newark were redressed to bring to life late-1950s New York, the territory of the rival Sharks and Jets gangs. Paterson's Downtown Historic District was used to build sets in the parking lots between Veterans Place and Hamilton Street across from Paterson's Center City Mall. Businesses on Ellison Street were transformed to recreate Broadway and 68th Street in Manhattan in the movie. Filming also took place in downtown Newark. The interior of the National Newark Building on Broad Street and the exterior of the former Bamberger's on Washington Street were used to recreate Gimbels Department Store.



 
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"Across generations and cultures, West Side Story is a film that brings people together," said First Lady Tammy Murphy. "Likewise, New Jersey — with its unparalleled diversity of geography and people, alongside our opportunity zones, incentives and raw talent — is an ideal location to bring such a story to life. We are incredibly proud to have been a part of the creation of this film, look forward to its imminent release, and hope to host many more film productions in the Garden State."

"From the moment we conceived of this film, it was clear the story needed to come off the stage and onto the streets of New York in order to evoke the grit and authenticity we were striving for in recreating 1950's New York," said Steven Spielberg. "New York itself served us very well as a primary filming location, and New Jersey afforded us another incredible backdrop for much of our story. The communities that welcomed us in both Paterson and Newark were fantastic partners, working closely and collaboratively with our production at every turn."

Steven Spielberg

Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger told Variety that filming in New Jersey was critical to the film's success. "We looked all around, and Paterson, N.J. gave a grit and an authenticity to the film that I don't think we could have gotten anywhere else," Krieger told Variety. "They treated us like family, and that felt important since we were making a movie that was special to them and us."

Since the reintroduction of the state's film tax credit, New Jersey has once again become a destination for filmmakers looking for diverse locations and a welcoming atmosphere.

"The selection of New Jersey by a premier production like West Side Story speaks volumes about all New Jersey has to offer projects seeking diverse, top-tier talent and iconic settings," said New Jersey Economic Development Authority Chief Executive Officer Tim Sullivan. "The state's many assets and ideal location, complemented by the Film & Digital Media Tax Credit, has created a welcoming environment for film and television projects. Under Governor Murphy's leadership, we stand ready to support productions that recognize New Jersey's advantages and bring economic benefits to small businesses in communities throughout the Garden State."

Spielberg is no stranger to New Jersey, having briefly lived in Haddon Township as a child. He returned to the state previously to direct two other features including 2002's "Catch Me If You Can," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks -- which was partially shot in Orange -- and the 2005 film "War of the Worlds," starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, which was filmed extensively on location in Newark and Bayonne.

Steven Spielberg

"Since Governor Phil Murphy and the legislature enacted the film tax credit law, they have successfully opened New Jersey to the industry to work. It was truly an extraordinary experience to bring this American icon to the Garden State," said Robert Striem, location manager and a resident of Maplewood. "The Paterson location broadened the scope of the film visually to an incredible extent. We created the largest back lot on the East Coast, with unprecedented cooperation from Mayor Andre Sayegh and the various departments. The Newark team remained flexible and accommodated our needs no matter how challenging they were. Working in Paterson and Newark to complete the filming of ‘West Side Story' was an unparalleled experience."

The New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission, which falls under the New Jersey Department of State's Business Action Center, is staffed by industry professionals and serves as a resource for production companies. The Commission promotes film and television production in New Jersey.

Photos Copyright by Walt Disney Pictures






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