Just hand Spielberg the statuette already. It’s that good.
The original production of West Side Story opened on Broadway in September of 1957. At the time, it was considered a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet replacing two rival gangs, The Jets and The Sharks, in place of the two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues.
The concept and choreography was created by Jerome Robbins, the book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Only Carol Lawrence, the original Maria, was nominated for a Tony. However, Robbins won a Tony Award for Best Choreographer and Oliver Smith won one for Best Scenic Designer. The production closed after 732 performances in June of 1959. Since then, it has seen five Broadway revivals including the most recent in 2020.
The musical was adapted into a film in 1961 with Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins serving as director. It has been regarded as one of the greatest musicals ever made. It starred Natalie Wood as Maria (but her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon), Richard Beymer played Tony (but his singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant). Even Rita Moreno, who played Anita, had her voice dubbed. Still, it was nominated for a dozen Academy Awards and won 11 of them. The only one it lost was Best Screenplay – Based on a Material from Another Medium.
Now 60 years later, with Steven Spielberg daring to remake this classic film, the pressure is on. And this time, the entire cast is singing their own parts. Will it stand up to the original? Yes it does and maybe, given today’s advanced filmmaking and different style of storytelling, it surpasses it.
Unlike many other film updates, this West Side Story stays fairly true to the original repeating much of the original dialogue and all of the songs, though in a slightly different order and in one case, one song is sung by a completely different character. In fact, the 2021 film follows more closely to the original Broadway musical than the previous film. A lot of Robbins original choreography is still shown with new choreography designed by Justin Peck. While the older film feels more like an extension the play with simple and open sets, the new one looks more realistic. And yet, the film editing is done is such a way that it actually looks like it was filmed many years ago. Spielberg also chose to use a full Latinx cast for all of the “Sharks.”
Set in 1957, Ansel Elgort plays Tony, a working class teenage descendant of European immigrants. He’s a former leader of The Jets gang, but after he got in trouble with the law the year prior, he’s trying to live life on the straight and narrow. Valentina (Rita Moreno), a pharmacy shop owner, took him in and gives him room and board in exchange for helping her run the store. His former partner in crime, Riff (Mike Faist) is still causing trouble getting in fights with the Puerto Rican gang from across town and want to recruit Tony back into the fold before a student dance meant to intergrate the European kids with the Pureto Rican kids.
Meanwhile, Maria (Rachel Zegler) and her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), along with his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) live together in one apartment. Reluctantly, Maria agrees to go to the dance where she meets Tony and its love at first sight. But their love is doomed.
Even after all these years, the tough street gangs pulling off ballet moves still looks awkward, although less so than in the 1961 film. But of course, you have to keep it in there. Perhaps it’s just a preference, but the songs “Something’s Coming”, “America” and “I Feel Pretty” are actually quite a bit better than the original movie with “America” taking place out on the streets with a huge cast. With all of these light numbers, it’s easy to forget that this story is based on tragedy, but you’ll get there soon enough. If you’re looking for a happy ending this time around, you’ll be disappointed.
Every actor is perfectly cast and does a fine job, but the standout here is DeBose who has the right wit and dance moves to make Moreno proud. And speaking of Rita, she plays a much larger role than just a cameo (although three other stars in the original film do make cameos here) and it is she who sings the song, “Somewhere”, not Tony and Maria. It is a scene change which makes the film even more relevant to today’s culture. And she does a fine job without another singer’s help!
West Side Story shares some similarities to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights regarding race relations and urban living. The musical also did well on Broadway winning a number of awards before becoming a movie. But Heights did poorly in theaters. One can only hope that West Side Story will resonate with younger audiences.
It’s hard to say if this is Spielberg’s greatest work since he’s done so many great films, but you will be seeing his name listed as possible recipients for next year’s Oscars. Under his direction, scripted lines are given new life, former blank and empty scenes are full and lively and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is just incredible. The 156-minute runtime actually flies by, but you might need to pick up some tissues on the way home.
Main Image: 20th Century Studios
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.