Two days after Carolina Abreu graduated from Montclair State University in May 2019 with a degree in Filmmaking, she reported to her first day of work at her new job as production assistant on legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. After the pandemic delayed the opening by a year, the film finally had its New York City premiere on Monday and opens in wide release on December 10.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Abreu says.
Abreu is among nearly two dozen recent Montclair alumni who worked on the film – whether as dancers, actors, singers or behind the scenes in production. The experience is a high water mark in many young careers – and has sustained the former students as COVID-19 hit pause on their early, remarkable success.
West Side Story – a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet through the lens of New York City gang warfare – jolted Broadway in 1957, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and choreography and direction by Jerome Robbins. The 1961 film, directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Spielberg is updating the classic with the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Tony Award-winning choreographer Justin Peck. The new film stars Clifton native Rachel Zegler (as Maria) and Ansel Elgort (Tony) of The Fault in our Stars.
The film is already eliciting rave reviews, further cementing Spielberg’s status as a legend of American cinema.
“I consider my role in West Side Story my greatest professional accomplishment,” says Carlos E. Gonzalez ’11, a dancer and actor who was cast as a Shark (rival gang to the Jets). “Telling this incredible story and getting to work with Steven Spielberg was truly a dream.” Gonzalez has also worked on Broadway and in the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights.
“It was the best summer of my life,” says Melody Marti ’18, BA Dance and Education. “I went in as a rookie and I’ve been following these people on Broadway and So You Think You Can Dance. It never occurred to me that I would be working with them.” Marti rehearsed for weeks at an indoor location for “Dance at the Gym” – where Tony and Maria meet while the gangs challenge each other in a dance contest, and also for “America” which was shot on the streets of Harlem and Paterson in July 2019.
“I learned so much about artistry and the magic of cinema,” says Annelise Cepero ’17, who was cast as a singer and actor. “The professionalism on set was unmatched and everyone’s sole purpose was to work as a team and make something legendary. To be singing and listening to the classic score everyday on set was a dream come true.”
Filmmaking major Amy Muniz ’20 worked as a PA with crews in Paterson, Newark and Harlem. “The experience was amazing – seeing all of the aspects of filmmaking that I had been taught and had been practicing at Montclair State being performed by truly the best of the best in the industry was unforgettable.”
Abreu and Muniz and the 17 other Montclair students and recent graduates who worked as PAs on West Side Story were hired through Broadcast and Media Operations at the School of Communication and Media.
“We have talented and eager students and we produce graduates with real–world experience who are ready to hit the ground running – at the highest level,” says Patricia Piroh, director of Production Services and Technology for Broadcast and Media Operations.
“Montclair State is widely acknowledged as the leader among all universities in New Jersey in its engagement with the burgeoning film and television industry here,” says Daniel Gurskis, dean of the College of the Arts.
For photos and more about Montclair alumni in West Side Story read Ready to Rumble.
Story by Mary Barr Mann