In interviews dating back to the last millennium, filmmaker Steven Spielberg has always wanted to make an old-school musical with a modern twist. It’s a desire that dates back to Spielberg’s childhood and his love for West Side Story, the 1957 Broadway musical scored by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Decade after decade passed before Spielberg, in a literal return to his love of the musical form, was able to re-adapt West Side Story for modern audiences. With the popular, 1961 multi-Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Robert Wise (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Sound of Music, The Haunting) still top of mind for most, it left Spielberg to answer the lingering question of “Why?”.
It’s a query that looms large over the new adaptation — a film which allows Spielberg ample time to answer “Why not?” Not that the 74-year-old Spielberg, still working at or near the top of his form, delivers anything except production value of the highest order. Everything from Janusz Kaminski’s lush cinematography to Adam Stockhausen’s period-specific production design, Tony Kushner’s (Angels in America) clever update of Arthur Laurents’ book for the original musical, and, of course, Stephen Sondheim’s timeless lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s equally timeless score are all, as expected, among the best Hollywood could offer. Like its 1961 cinematic predecessor, the resulting film is worthy of the usual year-end awards and accolades.
For all of its well-deserved and well-earned praise, the original adaptation reflected the ethnically non-diverse pop culture of its time, casting non-Latinos (with one notable exception, Oscar-winner Rita Moreno) in specifically Latino (Puerto Rican) roles. Given the dearth of Latino roles at the time — and setting aside the limited depiction of Puerto Ricans as violence-prone, city-dwelling gang members — swapping out Latino roles with non-Latino actors (often in brownface) was and continues to be a major, maybe even insurmountable, obstacle in enjoying the 1961 version. Thankfully, it’s a problem Spielberg, recognizing the errors of early ‘60s America, has just as deliberately chosen to rectify by re-making West Side Story with a Latino cast.
And what a terrific cast it is. Starting with newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, one-half of West Side Story’s starstruck couple, and an impressive Ariana DeBose as Anita, the role that Rita Moreno turned into a Best Supporting Actress Award sixty years ago. Just as impressive are David Alvarez as Maria’s older, not-quite-wiser brother and gang leader, Bernardo, and Moreno herself as Valentina, a newly-written part meant to connect the two adaptations across decades. Valentina represents, in part, what Maria and Tony (Ansel Elgort, bland in a thankless role) hope to achieve, a reconciliation between the dwindling down-and-out members of the White underclass, led, as always, by the hot-tempered Riff (Mike Faist), and the Puerto-Rican immigrants as eager to embrace the American Dream as Riff and his gang, the Jets, are to deny them.
Kushner’s rewrite of the original not only foregrounds the ethnic animosity, bigotry, and hatred already present in the original but also emphasizes the utter futility of the turf war between the Sharks and Riff’s Whites-only gang, the Jets. They’re fighting, sometimes literally, sometimes lyrically, over territory that doesn’t belong to them and never will belong to them. Spielberg highlights as much in the bravura opening shot of a so-called slum clearance that will leave both Whites and Puerto Ricans displaced, forced to relocate to other parts of the city as Manhattan’s true owners, working in explicit cooperation with the city’s government, begin construction on the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Irony, however, has little place in the conflict Spielberg and Kushner outline in West Side Story. Driven by a combination of testosterone, hubris, and male ego, it doesn’t matter to either the Sharks or the Jets what they’ll win beyond the ability to stride into each other’s fading neighbourhoods without interference, heads held high, feet coordinated in muscularly choreographed dance moves. To practically every member except the recently-paroled Tony, it’s a fight possibly losing their lives over in increasingly violent confrontations that lead, as expected, to West Side Story’s central tragedy. (The peacemakers aren’t so much blessed as they are cursed.)
That inevitable tragedy, of course, centres on Maria and Tony’s brief, intense romantic relationship. Inspired, if not outright borrowed from William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo & Juliet, Maria and Tony stand-in for Shakespeare’s doomed lovers. They meet at a dance, their eyes locked on each other as the world spins around them, reunite hours later on the fire escape outside the apartment Maria shares with Bernardo and Anita, and later, in a virtual nod to Romeo & Juliet’s rushed matrimony, at the Cloisters where they take the equivalent of marriage vows and co-sing “One Hand, One Heart.” Just as inevitably the spectre of violence, a late-night “Rumble” between the Sharks and Jets that will determine primacy and/or neighbourhood bragging rights, hangs over Maria and Tony’s romance.
With Bernstein’s magisterial score, Sondheim’s ear-worm-worthy lyrics, and Kushner’s modernized revision of Laurents’s book, Spielberg didn’t have to do much except focus on getting the right performers in the right roles and keep out of the way. He doesn’t just sit by, of course. Spielberg brings his usual technical dynamism (e.g., composition, blocking, camera movement) to complement and not overwhelm either Maria and Tony’s central story or the overarching story of late ‘50s New York undergoing yet another radical transformation. Spielberg shoots the dance scenes with a decided emphasis on spatial coherence and intelligibility, turns the previous adaptation’s dance-fight scenes into fight scenes proper, and avoids static, stage-bound shots for song-heavy scenes.
Add to that (minus one key subtraction) a multi-talented cast that corrects the original adaptation’s wrong-headed oversight (non-Latino actors in Latino-specific roles), delivering song after song with admirable skill, range, and emotion, and it’s hard to argue that, however well or badly the new adaptation fairs in comparison to the 1961 original, West Side Story (2021 Edition) ultimately more than justifies its own existence. – Mel Valentin
You’ve read one That Shelf review, now watch as That Shelf’s Managing Editor, Jason Gorber, gives us another take on the new adaptation:
West Side Story is now in theatres.