From the opening whistle to the final chord, West Side Story is a beautifully crafted screen adaptation of a timeless musical about love’s volition to rise above hatred, class war, fear, rivalry, and racism. Every musical theatre lover should see this. However, beautifully crafted and without flaws are NOT the same thing. Here’s our West Side Story – Review
WARNING: This post contains spoilers.
West Side Story – Review
Since 1957, “West Side Story” has been a well-loved iconic musical by four of Broadway theatre’s greatest legends: playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. “West Side Story” is a story of unlikely young love transcending race yet ending in tragedy that has been filling stages in high schools, community theatres, and Broadway revivals for 60 years.
In 1961, the Broadway hit was brought to the silver screen and starred Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Neither were singers, so they lip-synced their love ballads while the Jets and the Sharks danced their way across the screen as competing gangs navigated the toxicity of racism, class war, and the fear of immigrants.
Enter 2021, and duo director Stephen Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have made a few modernizations in their interpretation of the script/story, though not enough to eliminate the bulk of the problematic themes and behaviors that the 60-year old retelling of Romeo and Juliet has always foisted.
What Works with West Side Story – Review
Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is the singular best element of the entire movie. Kamiński has worked with Spielberg on nearly all of his films since the pair first worked together on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List after meeting while working on Class of ’61. Both have experience in Hollywood classicism, and the result: bold, vibrant, stunning visuals. Kamiński is well-known for his style of creating heavy grain in his film and the use of fog and intense light through windows to create crepuscular rays.
All else aside, if you aren’t familiar with the story and you pay no attention to lyrics or plot, the film itself is visually stunning, absolutely ravishing. It’s worth a watch just for that alone.
Musical sequences reimagined
One of the things Spielberg is extremely good at within his craft is the flow and energy he creates within his blocking. In “Tonight,” specifically, Spielberg uses contextual items within the scene to both create and break barriers altering the flow as Tony and Maria profess their undying love for one another. The fire escape itself becomes not only a backdrop and a hurdle for Tony to overcome to reach Maria, but at one point, Spielberg uses the grates of the escape to symbolize a physical, psychological, and social barrier between them.
Song shift creates improved context
Some of the songs from the original Broadway play and the 1961 movie have been altered, and some work (some do not). The transformation of “America” to a sunny, open-air song and dance number in the streets instead of a rooftop number is capricious, but it really works. Ariana DeBose commands the scene and the multicultural ensemble of residents in Lincoln Square/San Juan Hill.
“Cool” is also moved. In the 1957 stage version, “Cool” is early on in the first act of the show. In the 1961 movie, it is moved into the second act right after Riff and Bernardo are killed. In this version, Spielberg has returned the number back to early in the first act.
“I Feel Pretty” has also been updated in timing and back to its original lyrics. Originally sung right after the Rumble, it was shifted to earlier in the 1961 version, but it makes more sense contextually and tragically when the audience knows Tony has killed Bernardo. The lyrics were changed to “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay, and I pity any girl who isn’t me today!” for the 1961 movie and they are now back to the original 1957 stage lyrics of “I feel pretty, and witty, and bright, and I pity any girl who isn’t me tonight!”
The biggest song change is with the finale “Somewhere.” Traditionally the final duet between Tony and Maria, it’s sung by new character Valentina (Rita Moreno) as a plea for harmony and lamentation of the loss of hope in trying to help the next generation succeed at interracial relationships and less racism. Those familiar with the original may pause but only long enough to realize it’s an impactful change, one whose implications far outweigh the other modernizations made to the plot and lyrics.
Unlike old Hollywood where white actors were often hired to portray non-white roles (and even wear make-up like Natalie Wood did to portray Maria in the 1961 West Side Story movie) they cast a diverse ethnic cast for this movie, including Colombian-American Rachel Zegler as Maria.
What Doesn’t Work with West Side Story – Review
While duo Spielberg and Kushner made modernizations in their interpretation of the script, there’s no risk-taking in the story. Adding a few lines such as having Riff and the rest of the Jets being referred to as the “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians” or later having Riff whine about waking up daily in a world that’s being “sold or wrecked or taken over by people I don’t like” hardly makes the movie resonate with modern audiences.
While it is apparent the storytellers have tried to be more mindful of the immigrant aspect of the story, it’s not enough. The changes barely touch the surface at addressing the race issues, and in some ways make pieces of the story worse. Showing Bernardo’s backstory and reason for being so aggressive toward the Jets is welcome, but it’s such a small fraction of what needs to be changed.
While some of the songs from the original Broadway play and the 1961 movie have been altered work, some do not. “Cool” is transformed into a chaotic song about a game of keep-away—with a gun—one that turns deadly later. Modernizing with a gun is likely an unnatural fit given the state of gun control in our country, and was possibly intended to be a statement on such, but is really a chaotic mess when the original was fine as it was.
As poignant as it is to give Valentina “Somewhere,” it means that not leaving the final duet for Tony and Maria to sing is a much less powerful ending musically. “I Have a Love” is a meh song compared to “Somewhere.”
Significant differences between the 1961 and 2021 versions of West Side Story
Spielberg has made some changes to the film, changes both big and small. Not all are improvements.
To be clear, both movie versions are adapted from the 1957 stage version. However, using the 1961 movie is a good reference point as it’s the easiest to watch if you want to see what any viewer has access to uses as a reference to as the “original version.”
Filmmaking and creative duo
Spielberg is a filmmaker with decades of experience and that alone benefits the film. That experience as a master of his craft gives him a distinct advantage in terms of being to create a beautiful translation to film.
Kushner and Spielberg have previously worked together, which makes it easier for them to fall into place as a creative team. Add that to Kaminski’s cinematography, and as mentioned above, the formula is a visually stunning piece of art.
The West Side
In the source material, the Upper West Side is the location for the staging of the 1957 musical. In the late 1950s/early 1960s, the Upper West Side was still very representative of the lower and working classes and the crime and other problems embedded in that demographic. Bernstein and Laurents were inspired by stories they read in the newspaper about the emergence of “gang culture” and believed they were telling a modern story about the current youth crisis. What they likely did was perpetuate a stereotype that heightened tensions between the two groups—especially since the area they described in San Juan Hill that was predominately African-American and Puerto Rican was torn down within a year of the release of the 1961 film.
San Juan Hill was predominately tenements that were labeled “slums” and demolished as part of the “slum clearance” to make way for an elite 16.3 performing arts complex that would be home to 12 separate performance facilities, the largest centralized arts complex in the U.S. at the time.
By focusing on this dichotomy of classes, what was there, and what is now there, it certainly doesn’t seem to improve the messaging by drawing more attention to the prejudice and lack of equality that seems to only fuel those tensions; it does not make the story better.
Opening taunts elevated to hate crimes and violence
In the 1961 movie, the early scenes between the Jets and the Sharks are low-key taunting. The audience saw lettuce throwing and schoolyard pranks. In the 2021 version, we move straight to hate crimes and stabbing Baby John in the ear with a nail, and we discover that Tony has spent a year in prison for what is described as attempted manslaughter. The 1961 version simply has Tony “over” the antics of the Jets.
Song context shift
In the new 2021 West Side Story, “Cool” is transformed into a chaotic song about a game of keep-away—with a gun—one that turns deadly later.
“America” is transformed into a sunny, open-air song and dance number in the streets instead of a rooftop number. Ariana DeBose commands the scene and a multicultural ensemble.
Shifted and new roles
The drugstore owner, Doc, is no longer in the 2021 version of West Side Story. He has passed, but his widow, new character Valentina, is played by Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie version.
Moreno’s Valentina is at the receiving end of Anita’s diatribe and calls her a “traitor to Puerto Ricans” delivered in Spanish toward the end of Act 3. The character is a Latina woman who married a white man in a time where races were more segregated
In a shocking, yet satisfying change, “Somewhere”—one of the show’s most memorable songs—is sung by new character Valentina (Rita Moreno) rather than the traditional Tony/Maria duet, as a plea for harmony and lamentation of what might have been. This impactful change serves the story well.
Is West Side Story Safe for Kids
That’s a NOPE from this mom. While West Side Story is at its base a modernized Romeo and Juliet story, it’s riddled with triggers that are inappropriate for young teens and absolutely inappropriate for younger kids.
Themes such as drug use, suggestive sexual acts, gun violence, murder, sexual assault, strong violence, and mature thematic content are content that makes West Side Story not safe for kids.
Overall Thoughts: West Side Story – Review
Is it beautifully filmed? Beyond a doubt. Are there a few modernizations that have made some contextual improvements? Yes. Is there a wildly talented cast that has captivated the viewers? 100%.
However, the short summary is simply, why? Why are we continually remaking films that have no reason to be made? While the original is not without flaws, it was flawed in its time period and without the foresight of knowing how much worse racial inequality would get. So instead of leaving alone a tired show with touchy themes, the creators felt the need to try to create a version that was nearly the same with a few updates, but not enough updates to eliminate the abundant racism—and in some cases—making it worse, like by showing actual hate crimes and murder. The icing on the cake? The premiere was held at Lincoln Center, the very complex that was built over those “slums” that Lt. Schrank is protecting throughout the film, where the Puerto Ricans will be able to get jobs as doormen but the ne’er-do-well Italian/Polish/Irish kids are going to die protecting “their” turf.
West Side Story is a great watch for those looking to see a stunningly beautiful film or those who just want to enjoy a well-filmed stage musical adapted for the screen. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking film or searching for a thoroughly updated iteration of the 1957/61 West Side Story, save your money and 156 minutes. While the updates are an improvement as a whole, the result is a visually stunning film with a lackluster coat of paint.
If you want to know what that area of Manhattan was like in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the NY Public Library has loads of online resources to read about the development that was done during that time period.
About West Side Story
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Ana Isabelle, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum
Screenplay by: Tony Kushner
West Side Story has been adapted for the screen from the original 1957 Broadway show, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and concept, direction, and choreography by Jerome Robbins.
Directed by Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, West Side Story tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.
This reimagining of the beloved musical stars Ansel Elgort (Tony); Rachel Zegler (María); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); Ana Isabelle (Rosalía); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); and Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works). Moreno—one of only three artists to be honored with Academy, Emmy, GRAMMY, Tony, and Peabody Awards—also serves as one of the film’s executive producers. Bringing together the best of both Broadway and Hollywood, the film’s creative team includes Kushner, who also served as an executive producer; Tony Award winner Justin Peck, who choreographed the musical numbers in the film; renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and GRAMMY Award winner Gustavo Dudamel, who helmed the recording of the iconic score; Academy Award-nominated composer and conductor David Newman (“Anastasia”), who arranged the score, Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), who supervised the cast on vocals; and GRAMMY-nominated music supervisor Matt Sullivan (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Chicago”), who serves as executive music producer for the film. The film is produced by Spielberg, Academy Award-nominated producer Kristie Macosko Krieger and Tony Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum. West Side Story has been adapted for the screen from the original 1957 Broadway show, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and concept, direction, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. From 20th Century Studios, The Walt Disney Company will release West Side Story in U.S. theaters on December 10, 2021.
Triggers: drug use, suggestive sexual acts, gun violence, murder, sexual assault, racism
Runtime: 156 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong violence, strong language, mature thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking)
West Side Story is now in theatres.
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