West Side Story – Film Review
by Brian Merriman
Directed by Steven Speilberg
Screenplay by Tony Kushner
Produced by Steven Speilberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Kevin McCollum
Duration: 156 minutes
When the modern ‘Romeo and Juliet’ musical ‘West Side Story’ first burst onto our screens in 1961, it became the biggest box office success of the year, grossing over $40 million. It received 11 Oscar nominations and won 10 of them. Job done. Seeing this new interpretation in the week following lyricist’s Stephen Sondheim’s sudden death at 91 is even more poignant, as we recall the incredible artistic team that brought this original ground-breaking musical first to the stage in 1957 and then to the screen sixty years ago. So, why do it again?
Steven Speilberg’s reimagining of this iconic musical masterpiece answers that question magnificently. Speilberg (codenamed on set as SS2) collaborated with Sondheim (SS1) on this new movie and with Award-winning writer Tony Kushner (‘Angels In America’) and the iconic 90-year-old eternal star, Rita Moreno as Executive Producers. He assembled the A-team of this generation to do justice to the brilliance of the originators, Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (choreography), and Sondheim (lyrics). Job done.
Running a brief 2 hours and 36 minutes, this is a visual feast of artistic excellence through music, drama and dance. Now set during the slum clearances of New York in the 50s (ironically to build the Lincoln Centre), Spielberg assembles a larger cast of brilliant dancers who can sing and act. It is beautifully located and filmed. The lighting is superbly atmospheric and stands out amongst the many technical achievements on screen.
‘West Side Story’ was originally set in the East side of New York and was a story of the Irish and Jews in teen gangland. There are a few Irish references in this movie including an Irish cameo character. No expense has been spared in this lavish production. Gone is the clean-cut styling that helped the 1961 American audiences engage with a musical that wasn’t about glamour and wealth in the 1950s. The notion that ‘juvenile delinquents’ could have a story of their own was revolutionary then and is graphically presented here. ‘Sooner or later the Gringos kill everything’. The characters convincingly get down and dirty.
Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) remain our ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but Speilberg finds further stories to explore in the development of more substantial roles for ‘Chino’ (Josh Andres Rivera) and the replacement of ‘Doc’ by his Puerto Rican widow, ‘Valentina’ (Moreno). Moreno won an Oscar for her passionate portrayal of ‘Anita’ sixty years ago and is a shoe-in for a nomination in a supporting role today. She lights up the screen in a beautifully scripted new role. The reconfiguring of the song ‘Somewhere’ is powerful, filled with emotion and another superb innovation.
Speilberg enhances the number of ‘Jet’ and ‘Shark’ gang members which leads to Justin Peck’s pulsating and magnificent dance sequences that do Jerome Robbins proud. The ‘Cool’ dance duet between Tony and Riff is original and brilliant.
Elgort’s ‘Tony’ is the most comparable performance to the original created by Richard Baymer. They look alike, but Elgort’s evolution during this screenplay is astounding and unexpected. He is conflicted between idealist and being an authentic gang member. His ‘Tony’ has a darkness and depth not seen before. Maria (Zegler) has one up on her predecessor (Natalie Wood), as she sings her own soundtrack and has a determined edge more befitting of ‘Bernardo’s little sister.
This movie has new dialogue fitting to the new locations. It explores the social deprivation of the slum neighbourhoods and the sense of abandonment experienced by the young people, lost, looking for love, meaning and status. Initially, I wondered would the fact that the actors were primarily brilliant dancers might detract a little from the drama, but no, their skillset was equal and complete. Jets leader, ‘Riff’ is physically slight but intense (Mike Faist) and Shark’s leader, boxer, Bernardo (David Alvarez) gets a greater opportunity in this screenplay to lead their gangs and they do it with strength and conviction.
The bilingual dialogue throughout works so well even if you don’t speak Spanish. The acting delivers the meaning. Anita (Ariana DeBose) epitomises this multifaceted skill set. To play in scenes with the original Anita (Moreno) is quite something. She is a class act. Her style, delivery, emotion and performance are flawless. Her sultry presence as an ambitious woman ahead of her time, as she challenges the traditional female roles to build an independent future light up many sequences. The singing of the cast is not as operatic as some of Bernstein’s later concerts, as it is clear the primary skill set is dance amongst the performers, but musically this production is realistic, and first-class.
In this interpretation, the ‘cops’ are not so much the bad guys, though they still hold an anti ‘Puerto Rican’ bias. The ‘Officer Krupke’ number which is possibly the only dated number in the original show, is adapted, skilfully showcasing the wide range of talents that exist in the casting of ‘The Jets’.
A final word is the development of the role of ‘Anybody’s (iris Menas) from a young 1950s ‘tomboy’ to a striking non-binary presentation. They get an opportunity in this movie to make their impact.
Speilberg’s movie version has not sought to or replaced the original. It stands on its own as a work of musical and cinematic art. Speilberg has a deserved cinematic reputation. He took on a gigantic challenge to recreate validly the work of the original masters of their crafts, consolidated for over sixty years. He assembled a team of contemporary artists and put his own stamp on this classic.
Speilberg clearly loves and respects the original work as much as so many will love what he has done with it, to bring it to a twenty-first-century audience, who will be blown away by this masterpiece of musical theatre like previous generations. ‘West Side Story’ 2021 should get a truckload of deserved Oscars and you will want to see it again and again.