“West Side Story” is getting more representational.
The classic musical is getting a new big-screen adaptation from Steven Spielberg this Christmas, and among the many updates he and screenwriter Tony Kushner are making to the play is the addition of a brand new character, Abe, played by “The Chi” actor Curtiss Cook.
Abe will be the first Black character featured in the story of young lovers caught between battling teen gangs and ethnic divides in 1950s New York.
“‘West Side Story’ was one of those musicals the I never really could be a part of, unless there weren’t enough Latin folks, they would probably cast me as a smaller role,” Cook recently told ET Canada in an interview.
“The fact that now in 2020, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner had the wherewithall to make this time period, 1957 New York City, how it really was by including Black folk in It is amazing to me,” he added. “It’s one of those things that you know, as you kind of dream about things you would like to do, because you were never involved in it, you don’t fully think, ‘Oh, I could probably do ‘West Side Story’,’ if it ever became a movie. That wasn’t one of my dreams, you know what I mean? Because it was so far-fetched.”
Cook continued, “And here it comes, they’re casting ‘West Side Story’, and my team is like, ‘They’re interested in you for a role,’ and I’m like, ‘What role?'”
He explained that at first he thought Spielberg and his team must be making one of the musical’s classic characters like Officer Krupke into a Black man, before he learned that he would be playing an all new character.
“I’m thinking about the roles that have been there for for such amount of time and thinking that they’re gonna, you know, just zhuzh them up and think out of the box, but that’s not what they did,” he said. “They went in and they started to tell the story with all those facets that were also there at the time.”
He added, “How they incorporate Abe into the storyline, it makes so much sense. I’m really dumbfounded sometimes when I think about it. Like, I can’t believe I’m talking about being in ‘West Side Story’.”
Talking about what it was like to originate a new character rather than play one of the classic established roles in the store, Cook said, “I think there’s a lot less pressure because I don’t have to live up to anybody’s portrayal that was done before, because a lot of those folks won Oscars. So I don’t have that pressure on me. But I do have the responsibility of knowing the history that was going on at that time.”
Cook also expressed that part of the honour of creating the character was simply “the fact that I’m there, as a Black man in this production, being presented in a way where we matter, where we exist.”
Getting to be on set for shooting in New York was also a special experience for Cook.
“It’s magical man because a lot of the places that they found were actual, real buildings that didn’t need a lot of dressing to transport them back into that time period,” he said.
Sharing his love for the expressiveness of working in musical theatre, Cook said, “Now you bring it back into movie form, and all of a sudden you hear music and you start to see movement, and it starts to tell story. And there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing more compelling when it’s done right.”
Working on “West Side Story” also had another personal connection for Cook, who once got to work with the musical’s original writer on a play.
“I had the fortune of working with Arthur Laurents, who was the original writer of West Side Story, a few years back on a play,” he said. “He was a gay man and he grew up in the ’30s, and we would like to equate his gayness with our Blackness, and he would say things about how hard it was for him… He would be very supportive of the fact that ‘West Side Story’ is now opening its arms up and showing the world how it really is.”
Cook added, “It’s great to see that representation, and I know if a young Curtiss would be watching this, I think I would perk up.”
In the meantime, check out Curtiss Cook in the season 3 finale of “The Chi”, airing Sunday, August 23. Watch the preview here.