In the days since legendary composer Stephen Sondheim died, many have pointed to his extraordinary contributions as a mentor and champion of the arts.

That was certainly true when it came to making director Steven Spielberg's take on West Side Story. Sondheim first broke out as a lyricist on the classic Broadway show in 1957, and he's been a Jet all the way ever since.

He was on-hand to offer advice and insight throughout the recording process for the new film version (a refreshing approach according to Rita Moreno, who appears in both the 2021 and 1961 films and says none of the original Broadway team beyond Jerome Robbins came to set in the 1960s).

Spielberg says he'll always remember sitting next to Sondheim in a recording booth for three weeks as the actors laid down their vocal tracks. "His musical acuity, he always closes his eyes. He always listens to the music," Spielberg tells EW. "He expresses what he's loving and not loving about what he's hearing, and then, he is so articulate to communicate to me and to Jeanine Tesori, the musical director."

The director clarifies that Sondheim did not direct the actors — that was Tesori's job — but rather offered invaluable insight into the score he helped write. "It's not how skilled you are as a vocal artist," Spielberg recounts of Sondheim's view on performing the songs. "It's how skilled you are at diving into the character you're playing. The truth of your character is more important than whether you're hitting all the notes in the right way. You have to believe what you're saying through song."

For Spielberg, working with Sondheim was a chance to connect with a fellow film lover. "I went on to have an amazing relationship with him on the phone, on text, on emails all through COVID because Steve was one of the greatest cineastes I've ever met," he gushes. "Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorsese, I know a number of cineastes that know every single old movie. I've never known anybody with Steve's knowledge and memory. We forged a relationship based on a love of cinema."

That love of what's come before also meant it was important to Spielberg that this film have input from Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein's family. The young cast reaped the benefits of that involvement.

Ansel Elgort, who stars as Tony, remembers his first interactions with Sondheim vividly. "The first day we're singing 'Maria,'" he recounts. "Everyone's still filing in and I hadn't overthought it yet. And I'm just coming to the mic and I'm warmed up and ready to go, and they play 'Maria' and I sing through it once and it's a good take. I feel good about it. And they hadn't even sat down yet, and Sondheim said, 'Wow, I'm so happy he can sing.'" (The 1961 film famously dubbed much of the cast, including Richard Beymer as Tony).

But Elgort says a more valuable lesson came from a less successful recording session when he and Rachel Zegler were recording Tony and Maria's love duet, "Tonight."

"It didn't go very well," he remembers. "I couldn't hit the notes, and I was also acting silly. I was looking through the windows [of the recording booth] and I could see Spielberg, Sondheim — they're all there. At the end of the session, somehow it was just me and Sondheim left. And he turned to me and said, 'The most important thing a young performer can have is confidence.'"

Elgort knew Sondheim was commenting on his distracted approach to the work that day. "I opened the door for him, and he looked at me like, 'Think about what I said.' And I think about that advice all the time now."

West Side Story hits theaters Dec. 10.

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