Spielberg’s Gamble Wins Big with his Spectacular West Side Story

The In-Person Movie Exprience: Spielberg’s West Side Story

My Sondheim Week of Appreciation in NYC, Part 4

By Ross

The whistles and the sweeping landscapes of deconstruction drive us into Steven Spielberg’s epic and magnificent new version of “West Side Story“. It truly is a glorious vision to behold, one that I had not made a plan to see on that cool Sunday evening in New York City, But after having the good fortune of seeing a matinee of Sondheim’s Assassins at the Classic Stage Company, I just couldn’t resist sitting in on this brave and noble adventure. Generally speaking, when I’m in NY, my days are scheduled out almost to the minute, with work, dinners, theatrical shows – on and off-Broadway, and more importantly, hanging with friends on the overwhelming agenda. That afternoon and evening had been set aside for a trip out to Jersey to spend time with some of my favorite people, but a “not feeling well” text sidelined the idea and made me think: What would be the best way to follow up the inventive Assassins, other than going to see one of Sondheilm’s earliest pieces of work, a new remake of West Side Story, a musical, once turned into an iconic film, now remade into something truly special by one of America’s most well-respected commercial filmmakers, Steven Spielberg.

To be honest, every time I thought about this remake, I found myself flip-flopping back and forth. Is Spielberg the right man for the job? He obviously is a superb filmmaker, creating some of the most well-crafted blockbuster commercial hits, such as “Jaws”,” E.T.”, “Jurassic Park“, and the Indian Jones series, as well as making a number of more emotionally connecting dramatic films, such as “The Color Purple” and “Schindler’s List“. He also seems to have a strong affection for live theatre, having run into him a number of times uptown in a Broadway theatre and downtown at NYTW. But the question remained: Could he be trusted with one of the most iconic movie musicals ever made? I had my doubts, but I also thought, the man knows how to tell a story, and also sees the importance of fine craftsmanship and the relevance of film history. He also, maybe even more importantly, knows how to surround himself with people who are both strongly theatrical and super-intelligent, like Tony Kushner (Angels in American; Caroline, or Change) who wrote the adaptation of the film, and the Tony Award-winning choreographer Justin Peck (Broadway’s Carousel). Great storytellers, each and every one of them, taking on what many call “one of the greatest musical films of all time.” What could go wrong? A whole lot, many people thought, and maybe said out loud (or quietly to one another over a drink at the bar). Regardless, it was a huge, brave risk, taken on by everyone involved, especially Speilberg. But I will say, right off the bat, by almost all accounts, this new version of “West Side Story” is a magnificent, unparalleled, dynamic success.

Since first appearing on Broadway in 1957, this iconic musical, conceived by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by newcomer Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents, was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, winning two. All of this I’m sure any Sondheim fan knows, but for those few who don’t, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story of two New York street gangs fighting it out in the alleyways and parking lots over ownership of their ‘turf’, was greeted with high praise, just like the 1961 film, directed by Robert Wise and Robbins. With a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the film starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and the Oscar-winning Rita Moreno, becoming one of the highest growing films of 1961, as well as the recipient of 11 Academy Award nominations, of which it won 10, including Best Picture. It is deeply loved by many, including me, but has also generated a lot of heated debate over its writing and the casting of its Puerto Rican characters. Natalie Wood is almost ridiculous when you think about her playing the part, beyond the fact that she didn’t even sing the part. Rita Moreno, a Tony Award-winner for The Ritz, was the only Puerto Rican cast in the film, and even she was forced to wear dark brown makeup to play Anita. Outrageous, one could, or really should say, loud and clear from the top of that building she danced her heart out on.

Rita Moreno performing ‘America’ in ‘West Side Story’ (1961) | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Lucky for us, nearly sixty years later, Moreno signed on as an executive producer on Spielberg’s West Side Story, and was given a pivotal part in the film, one created just for her, and the outcome is exceptional. In the newly created role of Valentina, Moreno portrays the widow of Doc, the drugstore owner, and in that role, she not only delivers an extremely touching creation right down to her solo, but gives a tribute and correction to the complicated history that surrounds the 1961 film. Her role reads like an added dimension to the scenario, sometimes finding herself on the opposite side of the argument and war, like when she shelters Tony in a war that will have no hero. And even though there was one moment that felt a bit hard to believe, the part gave the whole film a weighted base that assisted the structure set out by Spielberg and the whip-smart playwright Kushner (“Lincoln“).

This film is probably the most daunting of my career. West Side Story is arguably the greatest score ever written in the theater, and that’s not lost on any of us. It’s very intimidating to take a masterpiece and make it through different eyes and different sensibilities without compromising the integrity of what is generally considered the greatest music ever written for the theater. But I believe that great stories should be told over and over again, in part to reflect different perspectives and moments in time into the work. — Steven Spielberg

Their vision, although following the respected storyline almost to the letter, gives us a tougher and more dangerous version of a world at war on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the midst of a teardown. It’s the 1950’s, and the working-class neighborhood that these characters can home, San Juan Hill, is being demolished to make way for the shiny new structures soon to be called The Lincoln Center. The foundations are being knocked right out from under their feet, creating an added edge of desperation and anger, and maybe even violence inside their heads and home. The tense energy flies off the screen, especially when we see the white boy Jets stomping their way menacingly down the mostly Black and Latino streets of their neighbourhood, beautifully captured by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (1998’s “Saving Private Ryan“). As the leader of the Jets, Mike Faist (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen) finds weight and heft in the part of Riff, giving one of the most compelling performances within. His hate and desperation are at the igniting heart of this war-time drama, feeding itself like gasoline from the inside, and destroying his future on the outside.

Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story” (2021).

But the spotlight of “West Side Story” 2021 really falls on Ansel Elgort (2017’s “Baby Driver“) well-defined shoulders to deliver fully on the role of Tony, a former member of the Jets who is trying his best to stay out of trouble. He lives quite simply in the basement of the drugstore, now run by the widow Valentina, who looks out for him as a sweet aunt would. His voice and stance are wonderful to see and hear, breathing romantic life into every moment and every song he sings. He’s a wondrously handsome creature to watch, and his touching attachment to Moreno’s Valentina is an added slice of luster to the already beautiful-to-watch film. Their caring bond fills out a void that we didn’t know was there until Speilberg and Kushner shone their sharp light on it. Elgort also finds fire and fight in his complicated attachment to Faist’s dynamic Riff, digging into an idea of testy brotherhood that is key to the wrecking-ball trouble that is soon to come. Their battle over control of the gun and so much more rings solidly true, even as we hold our breath worrying about the outcome or a potential fall, even though we know better to worry. The only real stumbling comes with his less passionate connection to María, most beautifully portrayed by the young newcomer, Rachel Zegler, which is, sadly, the true and core connection in the piece. The two seem to do all that is required of them, but their sexual chemistry doesn’t ignite in the same way everyone else’s passion, both good and bad, does. That weakness leads us to want just something a bit more to emotionally hold onto, in order for that eventual tragedy, the deadly one that we all know is coming, will register more strongly than their standoffish sexual attraction gives rise to.

Mike Faist, Ansel Elgort, and David Alvarez in 20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story” (2021).

Over in María’s world, this time around, the actors cast as the Sharks are actually of Latino descent, with the intense and compelling David Alvarez (2021’s ‘American Rust‘) taking on the role of Bernardo, the strong and fiery leader of the Sharks, and the over-protective older brother to young María. Playing Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita, the part once played by Moreno, Ariana DeBose (Broadway’s Hamilton; 2021’s ‘Schmigadoon!‘) shines the brightest of the bunch, giving the part a level of depth and energy that must have made Moreno proud. Their familial engagement, the three of them within those apartment walls crafted authentically and intuitively by production designer Adam Stockhausen (2021’s The French Dispatch“), feels honest and true, particularly with the actual use of Spanish, with no subtitles, and DeBose’s Anita continually begging them to speak English.

Once again, we all know where this tale is going. María is going to fall for the handsome Tony early on at the dance, and that ill-fated romance will carry them through the classic fire escape balcony scene to the violent and tragic end. We just aren’t prepared, or at least I wasn’t, for the pure artistry of getting them there. The electric dance sequence, remarkably enhanced by Peck’s athletic and intricate choreography, is a wonder to watch, much like DeBose’s Anita and Alvarez’s Bernardo star dance number, “America,” this time played out on the streets of their hood in the light of day. I couldn’t image how they could do anything to compare to Jerome Robbins spectacular work in the 1961 film, but each moment, especially the much improved “I Feel Pretty” number, and the fantastically rearranged and recalibrated “Gee, Officer Krupke,” elevates the film and the energy to a surprisingly pure and emotionally vivid level.

Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, and the cast of 20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story” (2021).

The film flies forward with that energy at every moment, with anger and violence slipping its way in most deviously. The fights, and more importantly, that scene in the drug store when DeBose’s Anita comes late at night and almost gets sexual assaulted, vibrates with a tense violence that I never really got from the more theatrical 1961 film. No, I didn’t really believe that Moreno’s Valentina could have stopped this group of angry young white men from doing the terribly violent thing they were intending. Maybe that’s just me and my discomfort with the scene, but it was my only true moment of being taken out of my emotional involvement in the film. And yes, in regards to the 1961 film, that iconic film sizzled with tight power in its time, I’m sure, but for the modern audience who is taking in “West Side Story“, Spielberg’s direction is brilliantly unrivaled, finding a flow that matches the musicality of the piece while never letting it slip too far away from the heightened reality presented. He seems to know what is needed, particularly around the modern topics of racism, violence, class, and white privilege before we even realize it.

He’s a natural, telling us this tragic and beautiful tale at a Shakespearian level that is truly awe-inspiring, both in the way it modernizes the piece and keeps its musicality traditional and connected. Feeding on his strong instinctive impulses, he seems to understand the rhythm and the wrecking ball energy needed to keep us involved and alarmed as the tempers escalate and the knives are drawn, creating a memorable film remake that might live to triumph over the other in our memory for years to come. I must admit, just like in the 1961 film, the ending failed to move me as much as, let’s say Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular “Romeo + Juliet“, in the way it handled the violent end of the lovers, but this “West Side Story,” deep inside its far grittier and violent tone, lies a film that will be forever listed as a gamble that paid off big and strong, and we can only turn our eyes to Spielberg for making it all happen so gloriously. You have outdone yourself brilliantly. Good for you, and Bravo!

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in 20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story” (2021).

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