'West Side Story' star Ariana DeBose pays tribute to Stephen Sondheim (exclusive)

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HamiltonWatch: Ariana DeBose pays tribute to Stephen Sondheim

Ariana DeBose says it is 'bittersweet' releasing the new take on West Side Story into cinemas following the passing of Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for the original Broadway production.

DeBose, who is best known for playing the Bullet in Hamilton, portrays the role of Anita in Steven Spielberg's new adaptation of the musical.

She paid tribute to the enormous impact of Sondheim — who wrote iconic musicals including Into the Woods and Company — in the musical theatre world, after his death in November at the age of 91.

Read more: West Side Story praised for decision not to subtitle Spanish dialogue

"It's bittersweet giving this movie to the world in the wake of his passing, but it's also such a beautiful celebration of his legacy," DeBose told Yahoo.

Ariana DeBose praised the legacy of musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios/Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)
Ariana DeBose praised the legacy of musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios/Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

She added: "West Side Story was one of the first things that he created and I think it's just a testament to how his work will live on. Not since Shakespeare have we seen someone who's been able to leave a mark like Stephen Sondheim.

"He gave us so many things, so much beautiful music and words. Oh the words he gave us, and they will live on. It's such an honour to be part of his legacy, even as just a small part."

Read more: Sondheim discusses West Side Story in final TV appearance

Tributes poured in from across the creative industries for Sondheim, who is credited as one of the most successful and innovative composers and lyricists in Broadway history.

He has theatres named after him in both New York City and London, with the West End venue currently home to the long-running production of Les Misérables.

Ariana DeBose plays Anita in Steven Spielberg's version of 'West Side Story'. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios)
Ariana DeBose plays Anita in Steven Spielberg's version of 'West Side Story'. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios)

In the new take on West Side Story, DeBose plays the role of Anita — best friend of protagonist Maria (Rachel Zegler) and the girlfriend of her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez).

Rita Moreno, who portrayed Anita in the 1961 film adaptation, also appears in the new movie, which DeBose said gave her a great outlet for inspiration.

Read more: West Side Story trailer shows off Rita Moreno return

"Our Anitas are inherently very different, just by virtue of me being Afro-Latina. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do with the character," said DeBose.

"So it ended up just being a lovely experience of getting the opportunity to observe her on set and watch a living legend in action."

Ariana DeBose stars alongside Rita Moreno, the original big screen Anita, in 'West Side Story'. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios)
Ariana DeBose stars alongside Rita Moreno, the original big screen Anita, in 'West Side Story'. (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios)

But despite the enormity of the role, DeBose wasn't intimidated by the task of taking on some of the biggest songs in the musical theatre world, including the raucous America.

"I wasn't really daunted by the idea of taking on the music or the dance numbers," said DeBose.

Read more: Best films based on musicals, as West Side Story turns 60

She added: "I've been trained as a triple threat, so this is literally what I do and I love it so much. I just was sort of ready to take it on.

"I'll chew the scenery when it comes to musical numbers like [America]. I find them thrilling and challenging in all of the best ways."

West Side Story arrives in UK cinemas on 10 December.

Watch: Trailer for the new take on West Side Story

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