Two days after Carolina Abreu graduated from Montclair State in May 2019 with a degree in Filmmaking, she reported to work at her new job as production assistant on legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Abreu says.
Abreu is among nearly two dozen recent Montclair State graduates who worked on the film – whether as dancers, actors, singers or behind the scenes in production. The experience was a high-water mark in many young careers – and has sustained the former students as COVID-19 hit pause on their early, remarkable success.
“I learned a lot from some of the top industry professionals as they showed me the ins and outs of this business.”
West Side Story – a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet through the lens of violent conflict between rival New York City gangs, the Sharks and the Jets – 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 has updated the classic with the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Tony Award-winning choreographer Justin Peck. The new film stars Clifton, New Jersey, native Rachel Zegler (as Maria) and Ansel Elgort (as Tony) of The Fault in Our Stars and is scheduled for release December 2021.
“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. “Telling this incredible story and getting to work with Steven Spielberg was truly a dream.”
“It was the best summer of my life,” says Melody Marti ’18, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in 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.”
Getting cast was no easy feat; more than 30,000 performers auditioned for the film.
Marti answered two separate open calls – one in New York and one in Miami – with hundreds of other dancers and endured more than six rounds of callbacks. She called the experience “pretty intensive.”
Annelise Cepero ’17, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre, reports that her audition process took almost a full year. “I first went in for an initial audition early 2018. It wasn’t until around the end of 2018 that I was asked to come back in and do a series of callbacks. I found out I would be joining the cast right before the new year! I couldn’t believe it.”
Working on West Side Story was a dream come true, but still a dream that required long hours, lots of sweat and, often, aching feet.
After weeks of rehearsal, filming for “Dance at the Gym” – where Tony and Maria meet while the gangs challenge each other in a dance contest – took place over one week at an indoor location in June 2019, says Marti. The scenes for “America” were shot on the streets of Harlem and Paterson, New Jersey, in July of the same summer.
“The work was grueling with long hours dancing in heels in hot summer temperatures and sun,” Marti says. “You’re so excited and in the moment that you just embrace everything, the good and the bad.”
Abreu spent much of the summer working as a production assistant (aka a P.A.) at the film’s location in Paterson, where she and her colleagues were recreating 1950s Hell’s Kitchen.
“Working 12-hour days for six days a week made me appreciate the people I worked with. They truly put their blood, sweat and tears into this project,” says Abreu, who worked both in construction and location services, handling everything from making blueprints “come to life” and acting as a liaison to Paterson residents. “I learned a lot from some of the top industry professionals as they showed me the ins and outs of this business.”
Filmmaking major Amy Muniz ’20 worked as a P.A. from mid-August to mid-September 2019, 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.”
“I learned so much about artistry and the magic of cinema,” says Cepero, 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 every day on set was a dream come true.”
Following West Side Story, Muniz was hired to be a P.A. on a number of high-budget productions, including Marry Me directed by Kat Coiro, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of The Chicago 7, ABC’s For Life and as a costume assistant for NBC’s Lincoln Rhyme: The Bone Collector. She did almost all of this while finishing her coursework at Montclair State last fall. Muniz walked in Commencement this past summer.
After wrapping her work on West Side Story, Abreu went on to P.A. for the Disney+ original series Encore! and as an office P.A. and audience P.A. for The Maury Show.
“This experience has given me many opportunities to learn and ask questions about this industry,” says Abreu. “Thanks to this journey, I have more confidence that I, too, can bring a movie to life.”
Hitting Pause, Then Hitting Play Again
Gonzalez, a former Acting major with a minor in Dance, gained media attention for being cast in both Spielberg’s West Side Story as well as the innovative Broadway revival of West Side Story directed by Ivo van Hove – a production that was shut down in March with the rest of Broadway because of the pandemic. Despite being on hiatus, Gonzalez’s trajectory to stardom seems assured: fans will also be able to catch a glimpse of him in the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights now scheduled for release in June 2021.
“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.”
After P.A. jobs disappeared with the pandemic this spring, Abreu and Muniz are finally seeing work take off again. Abreu is now working for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert through NBCUniversal’s apprentice program. To fill the stretch from March to July, she kept busy writing a script.
Muniz took on some freelance work to help local small businesses over the spring and summer but was recently hired for The Sopranos movie, a prequel to the series. Production began in mid-September.
“The break was very hard at first but I think I needed it more than I thought,” says Muniz, who worked multiple jobs while earning her degree. “I’m ready more than ever now to continue working and earning the title of First Assistant Director.”
“It has definitely thrown a curve ball at all of us,” says Cepero of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the actor – whose professional credits also include regional theater gigs such as The Prince of Egypt, Murder Ballad, Smokey Joe’s Cafe and The New World, as well as appearances on CBS’s God Friended Me and the award-winning digital series #LoveMyRoomie – is getting back to “doing what we do best.”
“Fortunately, I’ve been able to work on a few commercial and print shoots, but it will definitely be a little while until we can perform on a stage again,” says Cepero. “I’ve found it is important to use this time to take care of our bodies and our mental health. As artists, we are so used to ‘go go go,’ and it’s been a change to slow down and stay mostly at home. I’m practicing gratitude daily, and I am just thankful for my own health and the health of my loved ones. So many people are suffering.”
Roll Credits: Montclair State
Abreu and Muniz were two of 19 Montclair State students and recent graduates to work as P.A.s on West Side Story, 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.
The Department of Theatre and Dance is also producing students and graduates who are transitioning successfully into professional careers.
Gonzalez entered Montclair State as an undeclared student and explored other options before committing to the BFA Acting program. “Lori Katterhenry, [former] chair of the Dance department, encouraged me to audition for a dance show and take ballet as an elective,” he says. “Her encouragement is something I’ll always be thankful for.”
Gonzalez also cites Clay James, coordinator of the Musical Theatre program, for introducing him to the world of musical theater. James advised Gonzalez to stay true to himself and “embrace my authenticity of being Cuban and recognize that authenticity is what was going to help me succeed in the real world,” he says. “And it did.”
At Montclair State, Gonzalez was cast in musicals that allowed him to combine both his passions for dancing and acting. The result: Gonzalez became the first person to win awards from both the American College Dance Festival and the American College Theater Festival during his junior year.
Gonzalez credits Montclair State for giving him the foundation and training to succeed as a performer. “Take in as much information as you can – even if at the moment it doesn’t seem like it will be useful.”
With reporting by Jennifer Rossi ’17.