When costume designer Paul Tazewell first met Steven Spielberg for West Side Storyhe found him “a very generous creator” who quickly provided all the information he would need, right down to the “point of view” on the material that would inform his adaptation.
“His intention was to have a West Side Story it would reflect courage, the reality of New York City in 1957, when the original Broadway show premiered. He wanted to make sure it wasn’t some Hollywood or polished Broadway musical or musical film,” Tazewell told the film’s star, Ariana DeBose, in the latest edition of Deadline’s video series, The Process. “He wanted to make sure it reflected those gangs that were struggling to live in New York at that time.”
Spielberg’s film for 20th Century Studios is the second feature film adaptation from Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ 1957 musical of the same name. The New York story explores the forbidden love and rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. DeBose plays Puerto Rican immigrant Anita, the girlfriend of Sharks frontman Bernardo (David Alvarez), previously played by Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera, who is most famously featured in the song “America”.
Marking Tazewell and DeBose’s third collaboration, following on from the original incarnation of hamilton at the Public Theater in New York, and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, West Side Story brought their first two Oscar nominations. DeBose says that in hindsight, Tazewell’s costumes for Anita were a powerful tool in helping her tap into the character’s identity and emotional experience.
“Design-wise, balancing Anita and her looks, and as a seamstress, what she was gravitating towards, what would trigger her… my thinking [was], ‘Ok, well, she’s looking at gossip magazines at the time, and making choices about, ok, well, I know how to make a dress, so I’m going to make my version of this dress, thinking about Elizabeth Taylor in the 50s and its vibe,” Tazewell says of his thought process when designing the character’s wardrobe. “It seemed very appropriate that Anita be in this new country, having emigrated, but in this new environment, and she’s recreating herself. She’s becoming a full-fledged American, Latinx, and it was very powerful.
DeBose praises Tazewell on The Process for how he was able to “bring classic style to a new era” on their latest project, also expressing his appreciation for the functionality he brought to clothing for dance productions like West Side Story, and his open-mindedness as a collaborator. “I just think you really have your own language. It really is… a beautiful language. You have such a way of sculpting a body, and not all designers do that,” she says. “I think the way you sculpt, which speaks to your craft, allows for such movement in a garment and allows it to come to life when someone like me walks into it.”
Tazewell, in turn, speaks of DeBose’s ability to communicate his needs in his mission to “serve the work”, while leaving him space to do his part as an artist. “I rely on you, as a performer, to bring my work to life, and that’s the beauty of our collaboration, I think, is that I have an idea of your A-game that you’re going to bring to the performance, and I have to get involved as a designer to match that so you feel supported,” he says. “Then you can take off and bring what I imagined to life. nothing hanging on a hanger, on a shelf. It’s only when it goes over your body and becomes an extension of your movement, and who you are as a character, that it really pays off .
In a conversation with DeBose on The Process, Tazewell not only talks about the “documentary research” that informed his West Side Story costumes, his relationship with the actor and how he handled the looks of the massive set of the film, but also the beginnings of his artistic journey in Akron, Ohio, as someone interested in performance, his experience of the stage and the sewing of costumes for a production of West Side Story in high school, his journey from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to the North Carolina School of the Arts and NYU, pivotal Broadway collaborations with everyone from George C. Wolfe to Tony Kushner and Lin-Manuel Miranda, his thinking about choice of colors and fabrics, her desire to do “meaningful work that is beautiful on many levels and creates connection,” and more.
DeBose speaks for his part of his admiration for the longevity of Tazewell’s career, his intuitiveness as a designer, giving him “a race for [his] money” with her hamilton corset, the evolution of her concept for her “America” dress over time, a “wild kismet moment of collaborative storytelling” on West Side Story and more.
West Side Story also stars Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll and more. Tony Kushner adapted the screenplay and executive produced alongside Moreno, Daniel Lupi and Adam Somner, with Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Kevin McCollum producing. Carla Raij co-produced, with David Saint as associate producer.
Check out Tazewell’s full conversation with DeBose above.