Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a Technical Masterpiece, Despite its Sprawling Script
Olivia Rutigliano on the Adaptation of a Classic Mid-Century Musical
West Side Story, the charged, nimble musical created by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book), and Jerome Robbins (story and choreography) is one of the greatest artistic achievements of mankind. It is a blaze of sound and movement and feeling, full of pathos and gracefulness, indelible and ephemeral at the same time. Since it premiered on Broadway in 1957, and even more so since it was made into a Best Picture-winning movie in 1961, West Side Story has hummed in the air, permanent and resonant and revolutionary in the modern cultural imagination to such a degree that it might seem like a terrible decision for anyone to ever remake it—that the interloper brazen enough to do so would end up fortune’s fool.
But West Side Story is a work of theater (and at that, a musical), and so by its very nature it appears and reappears everywhere, over and over. And it is also, like its source text Romeo and Juliet, such an important touchstone (both for industrial practitioners and the zeitgeist at large) that it can’t help but inspire people to want to bring it to life again, decipher inner lives or possible ulterior motivations of the characters, and explore certain elements with new, updated perspectives.
Steven Spielberg’s new film version of West Side Story, which was made nearly three years ago and just released at Christmas, had very big shoes to fill for its taking on such tremendous source material. But to take on West Side Story is also to participate in a tradition of reworking and revising the musical, by its very nature. It is a perfect musical, but I do not think there has ever been a perfect production of it. The original Broadway cast featured mostly non-Latin white actors in the parts of Puerto Rican characters and an “America” number that oddly excluded the men.
The 1961 film version, co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, rearranged several of the songs but retained most of the non-Latin white actors in the roles of Puerto Rican characters, this time having them wear brownface. (Chew on this: George Chakiris, the Greek-American actor who won an Oscar for playing the Sharks’ leader Bernardo in the film, actually originated the role of Riff, the leader of the white, Polish/Irish gang in the 1958 West End production.)
Spielberg’s version, which features an updated script by Tony Kushner, reorganizes the musical numbers so that the structure resembles the original Broadway musical, except it keeps the more sensible changes to them made by the original film. (“America” features the boys, for example.) Anyway, West Side Story is a good enough piece of art to deserve an update which portrays all its characters respectfully, especially given its long history of misrepresenting and even demeaning the Latin American community it promises to represent.
West Side Story is the tale of two young lovers who want to be together despite their affiliations with rival street gangs in late ’50s New York City. Tony is best friends with Riff, the leader of all-white gang the Jets, while Maria is the younger sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. Duly, the script of this West Side Story cares about all its characters very much—and reveals the ways in which they are all abused, disadvantaged, and failed by society.
Kushner’s script clarifies that the Sharks are the younger generation in an immigrant community that must put up with relentless racism and exclusion, banding together in this unwelcoming place. The Jets, on the other hand, are all virtually homeless and without loving families; they band together to defend a block or two of asphalt because it’s all they have. These details can be inferred from the ’61 screenplay, but it doesn’t hurt that Kushner wants to bring these themes home. He is also committed to spotlighting the love story between Tony and Maria (admittedly, the story’s least interesting characters), giving them more bantering dialogue than they are normally afforded—dialogue which mimics several lines from Romeo and Juliet.
Moreover, his script appropriately reimagines the Jets wannabe, Benvolio-figure “Anybodys” not as a tomboy, but as a trans man. And most notably, West Side Story’s Friar Laurence, the gentle, middle-aged soda jerk “Doc,” is transformed into “Valentina,” Doc’s elderly widow and the proprietor of his candy store—played affectionately by the great Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film. Valentina, a Puerto Rican woman who managed to marry the white man she loved amid the contemporary racial turmoil, represents the life that star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria want to make for themselves.
Kushner’s script, genuinely productive in many ways and well-intentioned all around, does run into considerable superfluity. The story’s setting has been nudged temporally: moved forward slightly in time to match up with the real-life demolition of the West Side neighborhood to make way for the construction of the Lincoln Center Arts Complex that now dominates that landscape. Construction, which began in 1959, would begin just after the musical’s tragic events unfolded in 1957—in hindsight rendering pointless the turf war between the Sharks and the Jets and rendering meaningless all the related deaths.
But in the new adaptation, destruction is already underway, and the Jets and the Sharks are fighting over a few razed blocks of rubble, battling it out underneath giant painted advertisements of the glassy, mid-century apartment buildings and performance spaces that will soon dominate the neighborhood. These teenagers are clinging to the neighborhood because it’s the only thing they have, the film says multiple times. This is an interesting development, although it changes the film’s handle of dramatic irony and its nearly nihilistic tone.
Similarly, we learn that this film’s Tony (Ansel Elgort) has just served a year in prison for beating up a member of a rival gang—included perhaps as detail that might help us understand how he later comes to stab the brother of his girlfriend Maria (Rachel Zegler) to death. But in the original film, Tony kills Bernardo in a random burst of anger made possible by the horrible conditions in which he has lived his whole life. The original West Side Story is a tale of how the simmering forces of poverty, societal apathy and abandonment, prejudice, and resentment can, when pressurized to the right level, bring even the most innocent and peaceful people to violence. It is about how Tony’s act of violence is something that anyone would have done in his position, in his circumstance. In the new film, with its half-demolished neighborhood and a Tony’s history of violence, his murder of Bernardo merely becomes an act that makes sense specifically for him.
The new film is a tale of some kids who doomed themselves to go down with their home, rode the wrecking balls to equal ruin, fulfilled the expectations that society had for them. While the original film is more of a timeless portrayal of the ways in which poverty, neglect, and prejudice can harm young people, the new version feels more like a period piece about how a specific act of gentrification affected a few specific characters.
Nonetheless, West Side Story is decidedly the best movie musical to come out in recent years. It is technically excellent, with tightly choreographed dance sequences captured fully in beautiful long shots, tracking shots, and crane shots. It is tremendous to watch a film whose musical and dance sequences have not been edited to shreds: the few cuts in dance scenes are beautiful match-on-actions that enhance the action, rather than obfuscate it. This might seem so simple, but it is so vital to the visual energy of the musical and it has been missing from much of Hollywood’s musical productions of late.
This is Steven Spielberg’s first movie musical, and he’s as superb a director for it as if he had been directing nothing but this genre for his whole career. And if Kushner’s script stuffs in too much detail, at least Spielberg’s direction addresses it; Tony, for example, is frequently surrounded by reflective surfaces—puddles, shiny floors—suggesting that he’s been taking a long, hard look at his life. Spielberg might not have directed many dance sequences in his career, but this is not (obviously) his first time on the floor; West Side Story’s elaborate shots and expertly drawn tension are reminders that he is one of our greatest and most versatile working directors.
I do take issue with this film’s re-imagining of the landscape, however. West Side Story is a tale of confinement and “being stuck”—themes which are handily conveyed by the characters not leaving their neighborhood. Tony and Maria want so badly to be somewhere else, but can’t. And yet, in this film, they go quite a few places: Tony takes Maria on a date up to the Cloisters, while Maria heads downtown to Herald Square for a nighttime cleaning job at Gimbels department store (two locations that, in the original film, are confined to a West Side bridal shop down the street from Maria’s apartment).
Similarly, the sequence for the song “America” is given more sprawl, a sort-of montage capturing a walk around the West Side streets, which culminates in an enormous ensemble dance sequence watched by the entire community, whereas in the original film, it is confined to a rooftop, meaning that the actors must themselves evoke the “American” and “Puerto Rican” scenes they are describing without any visual aids.
The original film is staged more like a play than this new adaptation; it is more stagey and abstract, making the characters’ situations feel more isolating and psychological. But Spielberg’s new film is more interested in setting the story in a “real” New York of the past, with its inclusion of landmarks and the subway system. To me, this removes some of the potency of the characters’ plights, reducing the degree to which the West Side is an inescapable pressure cooker.
West Side Story is also clearly shot on film stock, not with digital, and the color palettes—gorgeous yellows, blues, reds, and blacks—are richly textured by the celluloid. The vibrant, sweeping production design by Adam Stockhausen and art direction overseen by Deborah Jensen paints a crisp, half-crumbling bygone New York.
And the breathtaking cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (o captain, my captain)—my god. If I had to guess, I’d say he designed the lighting and visual atmosphere after the rumination on Maria’s name Tony sings in the second act: “say it loud, and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like praying.” The outdoor lighting—in both daytime and evening—boldly glows in matte primary colors that will be emblazoned in your memory before the film’s final blue nightfall. The indoor lighting is dreamy and wispy, shining around the actors after being filtered through sheer colorful fabric and stained glass. It is a perfect visual accompaniment for Bernstein’s prismatic rumpus of a score.
But all of this means little in a musical if the performances are not to match—especially vocally. And West Side Story is extremely well cast, with actors who sing beautifully and emotionally. I was stunned at the richness of Elgort’s singing voice, and was captivated by Zegler’s innocent, even soprano. I shed a tear during their duet on “Tonight”—West Side Story’s fire escape balcony scene. Ariana DeBose (the film’s sole acting Oscar nominee) is a wonderful Anita, the fun, wisecracking best friend to Maria and girlfriend to Bernardo (David Alvarez). Meanwhile, Iris Menas’s Anybodys is a perfect blend of stubborn individuality and unflinching loyalty.
The film takes a new perspective on the Jets’ leader, Riff—unlike Russ Tamblyn’s discordantly yelling, rabble-rousing gymnast of the original film, this Riff (Mike Faist), is a gaunt, cynical, maybe even tortured kid with a psychopathic edge and a death wish. But Faist, a fabulous dancer with ballet-like movements, also brings a gracefulness to this scarred character, suggesting that somewhere inside his anguished self is the potential for peace. Which, again, jives with this adaptation’s overall tone: a tone which is brought to a head in the film’s standout number, “Cool,” in which Tony approaches the Jets to get them to refuse to rumble with the Sharks.
All in all, though, the film is clearly West Side Story—not even for its featuring the familiar music and lyrics and other hallmarks of the musical, but for the superiority of its production. It is a precise, rigorous, passionate reincarnation of one of musical theater’s greatest triumphs. I was glad to see West Side Story again, and for all my convoluted musings about its reconfiguration, I was sad when it was over. As with this version, as with all of them, parting is indeed such sweet sorrow.