When the first full trailer of West Side Story debuted, Rachel Zegler’s face fills the frame in its opening moments, and she sings notes from Leonard Bernstein’s swelling romantic classic, “Tonight.” It’s full of promise and hope for how young love can change the world, and Zegler’s voice is so pure and so clear. She is the perfect Maria, and she has won a Golden Globe and the National Board of Review’s Best Actress prize for her performance.
The roles of Tony and Maria are surprisingly tricky. You have to make the audience buy into their instant connection but not think that they are too sickly in love. Thanks to Tony Kushner’s textured screenplay, Maria brings up Riff and Bernardo in a scene with Tony before they sing “One Hand, One Heart.” This Maria is conflicted between the messages that her heart and her head are sending her. While she is determined and speaks up for herself to her brother, we are reminded that she is also still a child eager to come into her own as a woman.
Zegler was thrilled to not just work with one of the greatest living directors, but she was ecstatic to collaborate with Jeanine Tesori, Tony Award winner for Fun Home and vocal producer of West Side Story. Tesori helped Zegler truly find the right tones for her voice to indicate when she felt more childlike or more mature. In the end, I wonder how Maria will begin to piece together her grief. In such a short amount of time, she has experienced supreme loss, and she will carry that heaviness throughout her coming-of-age. Zegler’s performance is beautifully layered and heartbreaking.
West Side Story is in theaters now.