Friday, December 31, 2021

Restoring (and Rescoring) “West Side Story”

What does it take to remake the beloved 1961 musical, West Side Story? I’d say it requires two things: chutzpah and cojones. And Steven Spielberg has plenty of both. As a lover of the original film, which won ten Oscars in 1962, Spielberg sought to preserve the greatness of the original. But he clearly saw a need to re-contextualize a story (of feuding street gangs and a forbidden love affair) that has come to seem hackneyed over time.

 When the stage musical that melded the talents of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins first burst onto the Broadway scene in 1957, the contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seemed bold and fresh. Years later, though, we can’t ignore the creakiness of the material. And today’s sensibilities aren’t comfortable with the casting of Anglos in dark makeup as Latinos. (In the 1961 film version, the supposedly Puerto Rican Sharks gang was comprised of dancers from as far afield as Japan. Though Rita Moreno was genuinely born—like her character—in Puerto Rico, fellow Oscar winner George Chakiris is of Greek descent. Nor was Natalie Wood a PC choice to play the film’s romantic heroine,)

 Along with correcting the casting faux-pas of the original film, Spielberg gave his version a sense of the historical forces at play. New York City, circa 1960, was a place where slums were being noisily demolished to make room for Lincoln Center. In the opening, we spot at a construction site an idyllic sketch of the theatres and concert halls that will soon be springing up. A cop-character tasked with keeping order among the slum-dwellers drives the point home: one day the area will be filled with glitzy apartments owned by wealthy whites. Any Puerto Ricans still in the vicinity will be doormen and maids. And the feckless white kids who make up the Jets will continue to descend the social ladder, crowded out of their own turf first by immigrants, then by gentrification.

 I give playwright Tony Kushner full credit for fleshing out many characters, hinting at backstories for Jets like Tony and Riff, while also showing the aspirations of the immigrant Sharks. (Bernardo in this version is an up-and-coming boxer.) Fresh attention is paid to the women, who are given far more heft and dignity than in the previous film. Anita (at least sometimes) campaigns against the violence of the street gangs, Maria is less of a delicate flower than previously, and there’s an important moment late in the film when the women on opposite sides of the conflict are seen trying to look out for one another. The major addition to the familiar plot is a brand-new character, Valentina. Played by Rita Moreno, now an astonishing 90, she fills the function of Doc, the sympathetic Jewish drugstore owner of the first film. We learn she is Doc’s widow, a living example of how an interracial couple could thrive even in these fraught surroundings. As Tony’s confidante, she is in an ideal position to project the fundamental optimism behind the whole project, that SOMEWHERE there’s a place where love can survive.

 This new film is hardly perfect. There are a few serious gaps in plot logic, and the distinctive personalities of the Jets (so memorable in the earlier film) get lost here. I appreciate, though, the bleaker, tougher visuals, as well as the smart new use of the song ‘Cool” to lead into the climactic rumble. I suspect, though, that the new film will never have the same power for its audiences as the one I thrilled to back in 1961.



  1. Happy New Year Bev, may it be the best one ever for you and your family. You tried really hard to show your fans that there is SOME light worth appreciating in the new West Side Story but , honestly, they should not expect too much. As much as I tried to like it there was not even one little flicker excitement or engagement in the new one, save Rita from time to time. I guess the 4 New York Jewish gay guys from the 1950’s said and did it all with such explosive creativity that not even Spielberg could make the new the one sizzle at all. No harm, his record is still unsurpassable. 1961-A+, 2021-D- Bob

    1. I don't fully agree with you, Bob -- it happens -- but you're absolutely right in implying that this new version can never be exciting as the original, to those of us who watched it in awe back in the Sixties.