Montclair State University Alumni Starring in Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’

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Published December 16, 2020
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The Montclarion
Spielberg's "West Side Story" is set to release in December 2021. Photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios

The man who sculpted film fanatics’ cinematographic knowledge with works such as “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park,” has joined the new age of remakes. Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is set to release in December 2021.

As if the news of a remake of the classic 1961 musical film is not exciting enough, Montclair State University graduates, Melody Martí and Annelise Cepero, are set to star in it.

Martí graduated from Montclair State in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in dance education. She began dancing at the age of six at the the first Hispanic dance school in West New York, New Jersey.

Martí auditioned and starred in musicals at Montclair State before going on to work as Ariana Grande’s stand-in for her “Breathin” music video and dance in Thalia’s “No Me Acuerdo” music video.

Melody Martí graduated from Montclair State in 2018 and is starring as Pila in "West Side Story." Photo courtesy of Mike Ramos Photography

Melody Martí graduated from Montclair State in 2018 with a bachelor’s in dance education.
Photo courtesy of Mike Ramos Photography

After what she describes as a long process, Martí was cast in Spielberg’s “West Side Story” as shark girl, Pili.

“I’m really happy because I can connect to my roots through this role in particular,” Martí said. “Even though they’re Puerto Rican, Puerto Rico is basically the sister of Cuba. So it [has] been amazing getting to work with people from the island.”

Beth McPherson, director of dance at Montclair State, recalled having Martí as a student.

“As a student at Montclair State, Melody [Marti] was incredibly hardworking and detail oriented,” McPherson said. “She has beautiful dance technique and is a standout performer.”

Cepero, who graduated from Montclair State in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, said college helped her to understand real world auditions as her professors encouraged students to go into New York City and take as many auditions as they could. She recalled the moment she found out about her role as one of Maria’s friends in “West Side Story.”

“I was shaking in the bathroom at this cater-waitering event,” Cepero said. “It was mostly just because I never thought that I would be in that position. ‘West Side Story’ is such a classic movie, I never thought they would remake it.”

Annelise Cepero graduated from Montclair State in 2017 with a Bachelor's in Musical Theatre. Photo courtesy of Shani Hadjian Photography

Annelise Cepero graduated from Montclair State in 2017 with a bachelor’s in musical theater.
Photo courtesy of Shani Hadjian Photography

Like Martí, Cepero was able to relate to her role in the film.

“Being as my family is from Puerto Rico and I also had family come here back in the ’50s and ’60s, that whole story is very close to my heart, and getting the opportunity to be a small part of that history was life changing,” Cepero said.

Mark Hardy, an associate professor in the theater and dance department, said Cepero was the ideal student and credited part of her success to her innate ability to separate her work-life from her personal-life.

“It’s thrilling to see Annelise [Cepero] doing so well, and she deserves it,” Hardy said. “Of course we hope that our students will go on to successful careers, but for a recent graduate to land in a Spielberg film so early on is unusual and very gratifying.”

According to Cepero, working with the director was everything one can dream of.

“[Spielberg] was so, so down to earth and so warm and so welcoming,” Cepero said. “Even from the auditions, he really made everyone feel like their role was needed and important.”

Steven Spielberg stands with Rita Moreno on set of the new "West Side Story."

Steven Spielberg stands with Rita Moreno on set of the new “West Side Story.”
Photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Studios

Martí attested to Cepero’s description of Spielberg, saying he made an effort to know everyone’s name no matter how big or small their role was. She went on to commend his work style.

“He’s very particular [when it comes to] redoing shots over and over again,” Martí said. “He likes making things look right in the moment, so that way he doesn’t have to go back and fix it.”

Martí says the most important piece of advice she can give to those in the arts is to continue believing in yourself.

“It’s not just believing in yourself once you get a job and you book it, it’s believing in yourself prior to that, during the process of you getting better [and] training,” Martí said. “A lot of the time we’re very hard on ourselves, and we don’t see how good we’re doing and how great we’re progressing. So definitely just believe in the journey and the path that you’re going [on].”

Cepero offered up her own advice that helped her find success in her career.

“You can’t go forward while you’re looking left or while you’re looking right,” Cepero said. “What I mean by that is that your journey is solely yours, and you cannot compare someone else’s path or success to your own.”

Be sure to mark your calendars for next December’s release of “West Side Story” and keep an eye out for these two talented performers as they further their careers in the arts.

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