Bucks County native and Broadway veteran Paloma Garcia-Lee, who is starring as Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, sat down for a conversation Happenings Media Publisher Angela Giovine.
Performing is coded into her DNA, you could say. The daughter of artists (her mother is a professional dancer who owned a dance studio for over 20 years and her father is a successful jack-of-all-trades including studio musician, writer, scenic and lighting designer), Paloma Garcia-Lee spent many of her formative years growing up on a stage, in a theater booth, and in the dance studio. When Garcia-Lee realized her passion for dance and theater later on in childhood, she went all in. She was accepted to and attended the University of North Carolina School of Arts (UNCSA) and after graduating early at age 17, moved to New York.
She was quickly cast in Broadway’s legendary show The Phantom of the Opera. “I really view it as Phantom College,” says Garcia-Lee, “I did that for four years, that was an education.” Working within one of the most famous productions in history is an on-the-job education that no formal education can replicate. Following Phantom, Garcia-Lee performed in several other Broadway productions: Nice Work If You Can Get It; On the Town; Natasha Pierre ; The Great Comet of 1812 (starring Josh Groban); Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; and Moulin Rouge! The Musical. “Phantom was the gift that keeps on giving. I have gone back to that show in between every other Broadway show that I have done. I think I’ve gone in and out at least a dozen times. It’s been, for me, a really cool marker for myself. I keep coming full circle.”
The School of Spielberg
In 2018, Steven Spielberg began a very public, worldwide search to cast his remake of West Side Story. A highly publicized YouTube competition had every aspiring star looking for their big break, from professional actors to virtual unknowns, competing for a role. All told, over 30,000 people auditioned.
“I wrote down in my journal: ‘I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story,'” she said, “and there was just some weird knowing in my gut.” West Side Story, as Garcia-Lee put it, “had just been in my periphery for so long.” Garcia-Lee’s mother, Terri Garcia-Lee, had performed in some of the first-ever productions of West Side Story during her professional career. She remembers growing up and seeing West Side Storyposters and costume pieces like bomber jackets around her house. She went on to perform Graziella, her first-ever theater production, as a teenager at UNCSA. It was her experience with “Grazie,” as she affectionally calls the character, that led to her to widen her focus early on from dance-only to also include acting. “How could I even feel that?” recounts Garcia-Lee, remembering the entire audition process as feeling oddly natural. “I’ve never felt so authentic in an audition.”
And, among the many stars and rising talents in the global audition pool, Garcia-Lee landed that dream role of hers. The 2021 musical film stars New Jersey native Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony. Broadway star Mike Faist plays Riff, who is Graziella’s boyfriend.
If her Phantom of the Opera experience was her college degree, she graduated with a master’s degree in film from the “School of Steven Spielberg” through her West Side Story experience. Garcia-Lee shared how far above and beyond Spielberg went for the cast, many of which are newcomers. He rented movie theaters on the weekends in order to share films he felt were important for the cast to see, and facilitated discussions from a technical perspective about all aspects of the film, from lighting to storytelling to cinematography. After her involvement in Spielberg’s film, which will premiere in December 2021, “The bar is set so high to make such high caliber art, in such a safe and beautiful environment,” Garcia-Lee said. “And now that’s all I want to do.”
A New Direction
Garcia-Lee’s career was full steam ahead, without much of a pause from age 17. She was seizing opportunities that every performer dreams of: Broadway original casts, leading teams as dance captain in both On the Town and The Great Comet of 1812, and delving into the Hollywood scene. She shot her role in FX’s Emmy-award-winning miniseries Fosse/Verdon—in which she made her first TV debut and played Adrienne.
Moulin Rouge! Was famously the first Broadway cast to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Garcia-Lee was one of the unlucky cast members to catch the virus. The world of theater and performing arts came to a complete standstill. Garcia-Lee nevertheless found a silver lining. The “pandemic pause” gave her time to recuperate from previously overlooked injuries and enduring physical and vocal strain. No longer performing eight shows per week, Garcia-Lee also found time and space to recuperate mentally, and to envision a new direction. “I started asking myself the big questions,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘What do I want to do?'” Garcia-Lee realized, then, she wanted to shift her focus to acting.
That moment led her to make the decision to relocate to Los Angeles in September 2020, where she started a new chapter in her life after making New York her home for 12 years. And while film and television production resumed, movie production companies were making the difficult choice between a delayed theatrical release or a pivot to a streaming premier. The decision was made to push the release of West Side Story by a year. While the delay has been an exercise in patience, Garcia-Lee’s work life has returned to its former fast-moving pace, as she flies back and forth between Los Angeles and New York for fashion week, cover shoots, and callbacks. She’s has spent valuable time during her first year on the west coast preparing for her shift in career focus. “I’ve been able to dip my toes in meeting the [film] industry in a really fun and cool way.”
More #WestSideStory Clips from Paloma Garcia Lee on Instagram
You can see West Side Story in movie theaters beginning December 10th, 2021.
BY TRACY DINH AND ANGELA GIOVINE
COVER PHOTO FROM CHANCE MAGAZINE