When I was six years old, I had a friend called Edwina who lived just a few houses down from my primary school. Edwina and I were friends because we both loved West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in 1950s New York City.
In West Side Story, the warring Verona families become two warring city street gangs: the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The titular teenage lovers are transposed as Tony (former Jet and best friend of Jets leader, Riff) and Maria (sister of Sharks leader, Bernardo). Our star-crossed pair meet not at a family party but at a community ‘Dance At The Gym’, and their romance climaxes with a deadly rumble between the Jets and the Sharks.
If this doesn’t sound like the kind of thing two six-year-olds should be watching, well . . . it’s not, really. And yet, Edwina and I would sojourn weekly to her house near school to watch her West Side Story VHS, which was so worn by our repeated viewings, the tape was intermittently fuzzy from ‘Somewhere’ onwards. When I turned seven, my parents gave me my very own West Side Story VHS and a copy of the movie soundtrack on CD.
West Side Story, my very favourite musical, has become like a balm for me. So, it’s safe to say I have been trepidatious about the creation of a brand-new adaptation of this legendary musical by director Stephen Spielberg, starring Rachel Zeigler and Ansel Elgort as the star-crossed lovers. Hollywood’s hit rate for movie musicals is, by my most recent count, low. Anyone who saw Tom Hooper’s utterly abysmal, body-horror-inducing Cats, would naturally be worried about a new blockbuster musical. And it’s tempting to question: Why mess with perfection?
Except, much as I adore West Side Story, it is not perfect. Like many mid-century musicals, it has become a rather unfortunate product of its time: a multi-racial musical where the Latinx characters speak totally in English; a masculine musical that under-appreciates its fabulous female leads and fails to make any interesting comment on gender; an elegy on race relations that does not take its message anywhere near far enough. And it’s impossible to put on the show without it feeling . . . fusty, with its astonishingly dated book.
Famously, Bernstein and his collaborators began writing West Side Story as a love story between a Catholic man and a Jewish woman, before switching to their race allegory—and their tone-deafness on race shows. Stephen Sondheim, the musical’s lyricist, famously regrets his lyrics for ‘I Feel Pretty’, sung by an young Puerto Rican woman struggling with her English, who rhymes ‘it’s alarming how charming I feel!’ There is much in the show, sweeping and glorious though it is in scope and feeling, that feels off—especially to contemporary audiences reflecting on this mid-century classic.
As Spielberg’s new film begins, the camera pans over crumbling slum tenements being knocked down. Eventually it’s revealed this construction is to make way for the shiny Lincoln Centre—where Bernstein’s West Side Story will later be performed many times. The past making way for the future is an interesting metaphor to open Speilberg’s film. Spielberg and his screenwriting collaborator Tony Kushner (Angels in America) saw the imperfections in West Side Story and, in their update, have set out to ‘correct’ them, while still paying homage to the spirit of Bernstein’s musical and Robert Wise’s beautiful, Oscar-winning 1961 movie. What results is a film that feels very ‘now’: both in its filmmaking style and in its contemporary perspective on gender and race. It’s a gorgeous, deeply enjoyable film, but one that will no doubt age itself as quickly as Wise’s original film did.
For what is more 2020s than the great, hulking discomfort of a lead actor whose image has been marred by sexual assault allegations? Ansel Elgort, the young superstar from The Fault In Our Stars and Baby Driver, who is cast in Spielberg’s West Side Story as Tony, has recently been plagued by such allegations, and they make what is already a middling performance deeply uncomfortable. (Though it appears filming wrapped before these allegations surfaced, it’s simply impossible to disentangle Elgort’s performance as good-hearted Tony from this alleged reputation.) Spielberg has cast, for the most part, a range of fiercely talented ‘unknowns’. Among them, Elgort’s performance stands out for all the wrong reasons: weak-voiced and tepid, especially when he is playing against the dynamite Rita Moreno. Moreno, who was the original Anita in Wise’s 1961 film, is recast here as the soda shop owner Valentina (usually ‘Doc’ in the musical). She’s such a pro, and she brings intense gravitas to her role; it’s a shame she has to bounce against the jelly wall that is Elgort’s Tony.
But among the rest of the cast there are plenty of performances to delight. Mike Faist is an enigmatic, tightly wound Riff, and he brings an entirely different, somewhat more terrifying energy to the role than anyone I’ve seen. Iris Menas plays a beautifully open, wounded and rough Anybodys (my favourite role, expanded by Kushner in this version), and as lovers Bernado and Anita, David Alveraz and Ariana DeBose are outstanding. Their scenes pop with vibrancy that you can only get from true stars, and they are best when they are flirting and taunting each other in unsubtitled Spanish.
Which brings us to some of the alterations Spielberg and Kushner have made to the text. With the sense to note that modern audiences would not accept native Puerto Ricans, new to America, sitting around in their apartments speaking English to one another, Kushner has updated his screenplay to include rafts of unsubtitled Spanish spoken between the Sharks. This move was perhaps inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s update to the musical text in 2009, which translated some of the lyric and book to Spanish. The result is a more authentic-feeling depiction of life for the Sharks, all new migrants to New York.
Kushner also takes the time to delve further into the lives of his Sharks: Bernardo is now a successful professional boxer, and Maria works after-hours cleaning at a department store but wishes to go to college. In an homage to the iconic stained-glass doors of the Wise film, Anita, a talented seamstress, has draped their apartment in long swathes of colourful fabric. ‘America’, by far the best number in every production of West Side Story, now takes place in the streets of the tenements, with the rest of the Puerto Rican community (children, elderly shop owners, business people) looking on and joining in. The scene is reminiscent of some of the large, joyous neighbourhood scenes from another movie musical released in 2021, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s glorious In The Heights. In Spielberg’s West Side Story, The Sharks, who have previously been painted as the misunderstood ‘other’, are given more identity and authenticity by Kushner in this version. (It helps that none of them are white actors in brownface, as Natalie Wood was, playing Maria in 1961.)
By comparison, the Jets become more troubled and villainous in Spielberg’s and Kushner’s retelling. Now they are truly racist, macho monsters, who begin the film by collecting paint tins from worksites to destroy a Puerto Rican flag mural in the centre of the tenement community. What before felt devilish but unthreatening (wrought in Jerome Robbins’ defying, delightful choreography) is now much more menacing. ‘The Jets Song’ makes the jocular disturbing; a desperate ‘Officer Kruptkee’ takes place in literal jail. Sometimes Spielberg appears a little too enamored with the literal and visual metaphors, especially when it comes to The Jets and their villainy. Riff and his Jets stomp around the Lincoln Centre worksite, knocking down a sign that says ‘Men Working’. (Ohhhhh!) In the fabulous jazz number, ‘Cool’, Riff and Tony fight over a handgun, rendering the song’s propulsive ‘pow’s into literal . . . well, ‘pow’s from a gun. (Ohhhhhhh!) The handgun also becomes a literal Chekov’s gun when Chino goes hunting for Tony after the Rumble, which is extra exposition I’m not sure the story ever needed.
Spielberg also underestimates his audience in the popular manner that all movie musicals tend to these days: no one is really allowed to sing alone. Tony’s gorgeous ‘Something’s Coming’, where he wonders what joy is waiting around the corner, unseen, for him is now sung to a bemused Valentina. ‘Maria’, after Juliet’s ‘What’s in a name’ soliloquy, is serenaded to various people in the street. These songs, traditionally private musings only the audience is privy to (sometimes called ‘I want’ songs), become significantly less magical when given an audience inside the musical. I wonder why these directors feel their audience doesn’t understand the traditional structure of a musical (or the practice of breaking the fourth wall).
But there’s still a lot to love about this version. That pesky ‘I Feel Pretty’? Suddenly, Maria is cosplaying as a wealthy white woman in her department store after dark, and the lyrics make much more sense. ‘One Hand, One Heart’? Well, Tony and Maria are visiting a monastery, so play-acting a wedding seems entirely appropriate. And ‘The Rumble’ now takes place in a visually spectacular salt factory, which gives this new version an edge of danger and thrill. But the moment when Anita is attacked by the Jets in Valentina’s shop is rendered somewhat unbelievable with a contemporary gender reading: Graziella, Riff’s heart-broken girlfriend and die-hard Jets girl, is kept screaming outside the shop while the men attack Anita. This kind of Go Girls feminist moment doesn’t quite gel with what we know about how white women in the mid-1900s treated their sisters of colour. I found it a crass, contemporised inclusion.
Is Spielberg’s new version better than Wise’s Oscars-daubed 1961 film? Maybe not, though it is certainly a valuable and winning alternative to the older movie, and a more palatable version for contemporary audiences. Kushner’s screenplay is undoubtedly more beautiful and thoughtful—a vast improvement—but virtually none of the songs (save ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘America’ and, perhaps, ‘Officer Kruptkee’) felt like a really strong or well-serviced update on Wise’s work. Many of the cast make their mark on what have become iconic musical theatre archetypes, but I am still yet to see a Tony I enjoy more than Richard Beymer.
Is it worth remaking West Side Story? Absolutely. Remaking the classics is always valuable if we have new, ground-shaking takes on them. And adaptation that offers us food for thought, that challenges us, while capturing the spirit of its original source, as Spielberg’s film does, is a glorious way to check and re-check what we consider to be ‘canon’ and why. West Side Story, or so it appears Spielberg is saying, can stay.