SPIELBERG’S WEST SIDE STORY: Update or Improvement?

In 1957, when live theatre still rivaled movies for social relevance, and the latest Tin Pan Alley songs burst through the radio and were hummed everywhere, Broadway was teeming with musicals. Considering that the heyday of musical theatre was the 1930’s-1940’s, what’s interesting is how experimental the major composers got. Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon enchanted audiences with its mixture of fairy tale fantasy and modern romance. Rodgers and Hammersteins’ Carousel was also a melodic fantasy yet surprisingly dark – its leading man dies at the end of the first act while committing a crime. Harold Arlen’s Jamaica provided a showcase for Lena Horne but chiefly capitalized on the popular musical form of calypso. There was even an unlikely musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie with Gwen Verdon playing the downtrodden prostitute who can’t get a break – except since this was a musical she got her man and a dream ballet in the end.

In the end, though, 1957 boils down to a rivalry between the most experimental musical of the year and the most traditional: West Side Story vs. The Music Man. Ultimately, tradition won when Music Man swept the Tony Awards; West Side Story won two, for choreography and scenic design. Of all the musicals that graced the stage that year, these are the two that keep on coming. Next February, New York will welcome Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in yet another revival. As for West Side Story, even though the controversial production by Ivo van Hove was shuttered due to COVID, the musical is once again in the spotlight due to a new movie by none other than Steven Spielberg. 

I have had the honor of directing both musicals. Actually, I have a long relationship with The Music Man, directing it twice and appearing in it once as a member of the barbershop quartet. (We were . . . not great.) No musical is easy to do, but Music Man lends itself to high schools and community theatres, especially if you have a marching band waiting in the wings (and we did). There are lots of good parts, including great comedy roles for non-singers, big musical numbers and a feel-good vibe that all of the people need some of the time. 

West Side Story is, ahem, another story: the fact alone that you need twenty guys who can really dance is enough to scratch it off the to-do list of most amateur dramatic communities. When I decided to really direct it, I first looked at a number of YouTube videos of other high schools attempting to mount the show. It wasn’t pretty. I think my favorite was the school that staged the opening ballet in the style of Guys and Dolls, with tourists staring in awe at the skyscrapers of New York and dodging the skipping boys who seemed more like Runyonesque gangsters than juvenile delinquents. 

But there’s more to consider when you’re contemplating a production of this show. There’s the music of Leonard Bernstein, so challenging for any orchestra to play, let alone one dominated by students. I also think the book by Arthur Laurents is challenging, couched as it is in poetic slang (“In and out, daddy-o, let’s get crackin’!”) And, of course, Jerome Robbins’ choreography is iconic, but what high school would seriously contemplate tackling the complex athleticism of his steps? The answer is – we did, and I think, all in all, we did a more than okay job. It certainly made us proud. 

SMHS production of West Side Story

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Yesterday was my birthday, and some friends arranged a private screening for us of Spielberg’s West Side Story. I had been intrigued ever since I saw a brief interview on the Colbert show with my musical idol, Stephen Sondheim, who expressed great excitement over what Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) had done with the original show. It sounded less like a remake of an old movie and more a reimagining of the play. 

The 1961 Robert Wise film is a classic. It didn’t shy away from the poetic nature of Laurents’ script or the fact that a bunch of juvies were dancing ballet through the slums of New York. Robbins’ choreography is intact (he co-directed the picture), as is Bernstein’s music, although some of Sondheim’s lyrics have been “cleaned up” for the censors. There is some re-juxtaposition of musical numbrers, but by and large this is the stage play transferred lovingly to the big screen. The result is often movie-epic but then can capture the theatrical spirit of this specific work with lovely small touches, like when Maria (Natalie Wood) expresses her excitement over going to her first dance by spinning around, her lovely white dress becoming more abstract and blurred until it morphs into the thrusting bodies at the gym. 

Russ Tamblyn as Riff with Jets that seem a little too wholesome

There are issues with the movie, too. Wood and Richard Beymer, the original Tony, don’t sing, and Beymer is pretty bland. The Jets don’t seem like any juvenile delinquents you’re likely to meet, and that has little to do with the ballet dancing. Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks, was played by George Chakiris, a nice Greek boy. The acting throughout is very theatrical, in the manner of 1950’s problem plays – of which this is a prime example, only with musical numbers. Considering that this is a play about slum kids, it all seems very clean; even the murders are stylized, as are the characters’ reactions to death. 

George Chakiris, in brown face, as Bernardo

There’s also the “problem” with West Side Story itself, and I have read a number of articles about it that interest me. It’s hard to believe that someone today doesn’t know this, but the musical is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s easy to find parallels between the two stories, but what’s more significant are the differences. In fair Verona, the feuding Montagues and Capulets were two equal entities; in fact, while no specific causes for their enmity are ever laid out, they could just as easily hate each other because they are equals and want to be considered the other family’s betters. Simple pride and desire for status before Prince Escalus – that would do the trick. 

But in West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks are not equals at all. The Jets are white boys, second or third generation Americans, who have been denied or have wasted the opportunities supposedly granted to all good citizens. The Sharks have entered the country recently and been blocked from the American promise by anti-immigrant sentiment and the lack of resources in the crowded city. What’s worse, in the play, each Jet in an individual, fully-realized character, while the Sharks, with names like Indio, Anxious, Nibbles and Moose, could just as well be Lost Boys in Peter Pan for all the characterization they are given. The Shark-focused scenes are all about the women, Maria and Anita; even Bernardo and Chino, the main guys on the Puerto Rican side, are poorly realized.

Steven Spielberg does some interesting things in his version of West Side Story, including correcting this problem. He retrieves the grittier original lyrics from the play, but then he finds new meaning and use for them. He pays homage to the original film, as in an opening sequence where the camera gives us a birds’ eye view of the rubble of New York, but then he grounds it in specificity by showing us that this rubble is part of a giant slum that is going down to make way for the sparkling modern Lincoln Center. 

What Spielberg and Kushner do, visually and tonally, is strip the poetry and artifice from the original West Side Story and create something more realistic (if any story where people burst into song and dance can be considered so). The characters are more deeply etched, the violence is harsher, the relationship between these kids and the city in which they live is much richer and more specific. At the same time, something that made West Side Story the most experimental musical of 1957 is lost, and it is up to each individual fan of the show to decide how much they want to mourn. 

Personally, I came away from Spielberg’s version less exhilarated than from the earlier film but much more deeply moved. There are sacrifices made at the expense of musical theatre that account for that, beginning with an opening that is less dance and more drama. It IS the opening ballet and it isn’t. The fact is, I didn’t feel like I was watching a musical until the dance at the gym. Until then, it felt like a drama with songs, which is an odd distinction but, I think, a fair one. In the play and original film, “The Jets Song” is a “let’s get crackin’” celebration of being a gang together. It feels like a dance number. Here it’s a moment where the Jets explode through hostile neighborhoods, and the faces of the people who scowl at them or run to get out of their way juxtaposed against the boys’ cheerful hostility is a completely different, and I think, more dramatically compelling moment. “Something’s Coming,” Tony’s wanting song, is not sung alone on a ladder but to a friend, and it becomes something quieter and more natural. 

That “friend” is one of the most interesting things about the new movie. The character of Doc who, I suppose, comes close to a modern-day equivalent of Friar Lawrence, has been killed off and replaced with his widow, Valentina. It seems that Doc had married a Puerto Rican girl, and, they had overcome social disapproval to have a happy life together. Valentina is played by the great Rita Moreno, who of course won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film. The relationship between Tony and Valentina, who has been a surrogate mother to him, integrates the two worlds and makes the ease with which a former gang member like Tony would fall in love with Maria make more sense. 

The fabulous Rita Moreno

I think it’s a problem of the show itself that Tony and Maria are the blandest things about it. Anson Elgort can’t entirely escape that flaw, but he’s a stronger actor than Richard Beymer and possesses a fine natural voice. Rachel Zegler is a more appropriate casting choice than Natalie Wood and made a lovely Maria. (I may be a bit prejudiced here, due to a wonderful Six-Degrees story: Zegler auditioned for the film because a good friend of hers saw the try out notice and pushed her to do so, saying she thought Rachel would make a perfect Maria. That good friend was my wonderful former student Makena Reynolds, so really, I have to take some credit for Spielberg’s casting, right? RIGHT?!?) Due to the script and direction, Elgort and Zegler are a more down-to-earth pair of lovers, and although they soar musically and swoon romantically, they also bicker and crack wise like teenaged boyfriends and girlfriends have done for centuries. Laurents’ dialogue sought to elevate their love to Shakespearian heights; Kushner’s makes them human. 

The brilliant Mike Faist as Riff

The relationships that Tony and Maria have with the other important people in their lives has also been enriched by Kushner’s screenplay. The “womb-to-tomb, sperm-to-worm” brotherhood between Tony and Riff, the leader of the Jets, is more fragile and foreshadowing of tragedy due to the backstories given both young men. Riff is damaged goods, and Mike Faist, who I got to see play the similarly doomed Connor Murphy on Broadway in Dear Evan Hansen is the direct opposite of the bursting-with-life performance by Russ Tamblyn. Faist embodies the broken childhood that has stripped Riff of everything but the Jets. We meet him coming out of a wrecked building after an assignation with Daniela, and the look that passes between him and his fellow gang members suggests that he’ll do anything, even have sex, for them. 

The changes wrought here make the breakdown between Tony and Riff much more powerful drama than it was before. Tony’s backstory now includes a prison term for beating another gang member nearly to death. Now he has a strong reason for wanting to stay clear of the Jets, and yet he loves his gang brother so dearly that he can’t make a clean break. Riff views this change of heart first with amused bafflement and then with growing hostility. It reaches its peak in an interesting reimagining of the song “Cool.” This is a song that has had an unstable place in the story from the start. In the play, Riff sings it to the Jets to get them to “cool down” before the rumble, while in the 1961 film, the song is moved to later in the story and given to Ice to calm the Jets down after Riff’s murder. Both versions result in an explosive Jerome Robbins dance number because, of course you see, the boys (and their girlfriends) can’t stay cool in the face of all this impending tragedy. 

Here “Cool” is first sung by Tony to Riff and half the Jets (the other half are in the police station singing “Gee Officer Krupke”) as a sort of teaching moment, and while you know he means well, you can tell it’s going down all wrong. The number is staged on a pier that I did not recognize, high up above the ocean but with giant holes that make walking across it, let alone dancing, highly dangerous. The number builds into a struggle between Tony and Riff and his boys, all of whom have been jealous of Tony’s influence on their leader. This adds a new dimension when Riff breaks from Tony and co-opts the song. Now he’s telling his boys, “Forget this guy, you’re my guys now.” They leave, ready to do battle, leaving Tony heartbroken. 

A better developed Bernardo (David Alvarez) reluctantly leads the Sharks

The world of the Sharks has been widely expanded in this rewrite. Bernardo (David Alvarez) is a successful boxer who leads a gang reluctantly and as a defense mechanism against the prejudices his community endlessly encounters. Much is made of the difference between the Jets and the Sharks: the latter may be poor, but they are trying to fit in by working hard at thankless jobs; unlike the Jets, they have a strong family dynamic and live in apartments. (The only “home” we see on the Jets side is the basement room where Tony sleeps at Valentina’s pharmacy.) The character of Chino has also been given a whole new life. A budding young accountant, he envies the machismo that he sees the Shark boys embody, the women and the power that it gives them. But Bernardo, who sees Chino as a safe, kind and appropriate match for his little sister, is protective of his friend and discourages membership in the gang. 

The only Puerto Rican character who hasn’t changed much from the musical is Anita, who still works in a bridal shop, although she has ambitions to start her own business. This is fine because Anita is the best character in West Side Storyand, embodied by Ariana Debose, she is perfect. I dare to say this – because Rita Moreno was perfect, too – but Debose plays Anita with more vulnerability, letting us in on her grief as much as her anger. This is the first time I understood why Anita changes her mind from “A Boy Like That” to “I Have a Love.” 

The breathtaking Ariana DeBose as Anita

Spielberg realized, wisely I suppose, that modern audiences don’t want or need the tendency of musicals to cushion us from the harsh realities of life with song and dance, and so whenever possible he chose realism over artifice. There has always been a “Spielberg style” that favors sweeping shots, dramatic lighting and a focus on the eyes as windows to his characters’ souls, and all of that is here and serves the film well. His focus on setting the story in a more time-specific New York also surrounds the characters with more real places and people. Making Maria work as a night cleaner at Gimbels and using that place as a setting for “I Feel Pretty” adds some period character to a song that even Stephen Sondheim claims to have hated. And since she doesn’t work in a bridal shop anymore, Maria’s musical vow of love with Tony, “One Hand, One Heart,” cries out for a new setting. And so Kushner writes a scene of their first date together, meeting at a subway station and riding the train uptown to the Cloisters, a most appropriate place to declare one’s love. 

Despite the enrichment of Bernardo and Chino, I’m not sure the roles of the Jets and Sharks are made any more equal here, but that largely has to do with the fact that the Jets simply get more to do. They open the film, they have “The Jet Song,” they are divided in half for “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the latter staged inside the police department and made even more comical, perhaps to the detriment of its underlying anger. These Jets feel less individualized than in the play but harder and more vulnerable. When they attack Anita in the pharmacy, you see how they are driven as much by grief and confusion as by rage. I loved how Graciella and Daniella are barred from this event and slam on the door, begging the boys not to hurt this girl that they themselves had earlier insulted. And when they are called out for their actions by Valentina, you see the shame in their eyes as they seem to revert to the little boys they only were a short time ago. 

All the Sharks get are a few shared songs and “America,” and Spielberg honors the film to allow the boys to dance with the girls here. This time, however, the number is performed not on a rooftop at night but in the daylight streets, surrounded by cheering city dwellers. It reminded me of a film from earlier this year, In the Heights – except this time the whole thing felt less artificial and more like a brief burst of joy and fun. 

I know some people will be angry at the abandonment of Laurents’ poetic script in favor of naturalism, but I find myself siding with Kushner’s take on the story. I like knowing why Tony is conflicted about the Jets. I like how smaller characters like Lieutenant Schrank, Officer Krupke, Anybodys and Glad Hand are fleshed out. Schrank’s still bad, but he’s more of a petty bureaucrat than pure racist, while Krupke is no longer a human punchline but a cop frantically trying to do his best. Anybodys veers from tomboy to trans male, but in Iris Menas’ sensitive portrayal, they fit right in. 

The Rumble is a true battle, not a dance, and there’s no doubt that stylized transitions between scenes have been lost in support of greater naturalism. (I can’t help it – I do miss Natalie Woods’ twirling dress.) But it all makes more sense here, and of course this version of WSS resonates powerfully to what has been going on in our modern American society. 

When Tony gets shot by Chino as he is racing toward Maria’s outstretched arms, I got teary as you’re supposed to do. This is one of Arthur Laurents’ most affecting moments, and it’s telling that Kushner/Spielberg retained the last page of dialogue and staging from the original. This, however, is not the most emotionally powerful moment – or the biggest change – in this West Side Story. I’ve always found “Somewhere” a difficult song. In the play, it is basically a dream ballet where everyone lays down their arms and envisions (in dance, of course) a world where we all can get along. It’s in-your-face messaging and my least favorite part of the original. In the movie, it’s yet another ballad for Tony and Maria, and as lovely as it is, it seems strange that the two are singing when they should be running. In a surprising yet lovely move, Spielberg and Kushner give “Somewhere” to Valentina. She holds a picture of her late, white husband and remembers a time when together they built a place where race didn’t matter. As Rita Moreno, ninety years strong, sings in a light, plaintive voice, we see how lost the lovers, the gang members, and Anita have become. Somehow, Spielberg has achieved letting the song represent both the play and earlier film’s meaning. We watch and feel hope – that something like the love between Valentina and Pop, between Tony and Maria, can occur despite all the obstacles – and despair because the movement toward racial equity and mutual love keeps rising and ebbing, over and over. I guess a true happy ending still waits for us, somewhere.

20 thoughts on “SPIELBERG’S WEST SIDE STORY: Update or Improvement?

  1. I’ve been wondering what this was like, Brad, and I really appreciate your comments on it. It’s good to hear that Spielberg did some good things with this take on the story; not, mind you, that I’m surprised. But this a tough one to do really well. Very glad to get your thinking on it, and, oh, Happy (late) Birthday!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brad It is ironic, I stumbled on your review after just seeing the movie today. I loved the original, seen it many times. I went to see the new version feeling like with so many remakes, they don’t live up to the original. The realism of this version and the emotions I felt were very different. I came away thinking about the hatred, economic despair and the lack of options for the future these kids felt, has not really changed over the last 60 plus years. I loved your detailed analysis and perspective on the original play and the two films. A voice from your past, hoping to see you at some point.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bob, it’s great to hear from you. I’m glad you got a lot out of the film. I was frankly also surprised that it would grip me the way that it did.

      The real issue is: why didn’t we have any West Side Story questions on the show?!? I hope you’re doing well and would love the chance to catch up one of these days! Happy holidays!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So… you know how I hate “re-imagined” versions of other people’s work. Maybe it’s my outrage at the moral rights abuse, legalities and equities aside. OK endofrant…

    That having been said, your review and discussion is so intriguing, I must see this film! I was never a fan of the original lead casting for the film. I loved Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert so much in the OBC that I just couldn’t envision the musical without them.

    Natalie Wood was pretty, but Maria, she was not. I never liked Marnie Nixon’s voice for Maria, it just lacked bottom, imho and wasn’t really strong enough (without boosting) to be heard over Moreno’s voice. Richard Beymer never sold me as Tony, he was too effeminate to be taken seriously as a former street gang leader. Plus Beymer couldn’t sing, either.

    Russ Tamblyn was nothing short of amazing as Riff; he was just as I imagined him when I read the story. Not to mention, Tamblyn was the only gymnast/dancer I’d seen who could pull off the moves he made in the dance at the gym.

    I always thought it funny that a Greek played Puerto Rican Bernardo, yet Chakiris’ energy and dance skills were amazing.

    As far as Anita, there is a case where, others have tried, but there’s really only one — and that’s Rita. She so owned this role, really others can only offer their own rendition of Anita. Backstory: She would have sold her soul for this role –she was born to play Anita and she lobbied hard for it.

    As for the other characters, really Simon Oakland is the only one who stands out. Other Sharks and Jets were bland, though Graziella and Anybody’s did labor mightily to squeeze everything they could out of their screen time.

    I liked the rooftop dance. Musicals are supposed to be fanciful, not “realistic” — because in reality, if you suddenly burst into song and began to dance in the street, you would be killed by a speeding bus. Or hauled off to the banana farm. So lacking realism is a plus for me.

    And yet… I still need to see for myself what happens when grit meets musical. I could kiss and slap you. Have a great holiday!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In the case of WSS, I’d use the word “stylized” rather than “fanciful,” but your point is taken. I think your enjoyment of this film will depend on how you react to the changes, but there is STILL stylized filming and movement. The biggest change is the script (and how that new script utilizes some of the songs) because now it feels less like a musical libretto and more like a fully realized screenplay with songs in it.

    Please come back and tell me what you thought, even if it means my having to dodge a slap! Happy holidays!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do notice one thing — the movie remake re-orders the songs as they were originally on Broadway. I never did like the fact that “Cool” and “Officer Krupke” were reshuffled.

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        • The original (Broadway) Riff performed “Cool.” In the first movie version a character named “Ice” sang it after the rumble and I thought that change sucked.

          The first movie also had Riff singing Krupke, when, in the play that song was performed for comedy relief at the top of the second act after the rumble and sung by “the Jets.”

          I prefered the way the play originally was written and originally performed on Broadway. Evidently, Speilberg’s version returns these songs to the original order, or am I misunderstanding?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Okay, this’ll be a lengthy reply because I like talking about this stuff! Variations on a Song List:

            1. Prologue and Jet Song – these are essentially the same in all three versions, except that it’s much lighter on Robbins dance in the Spielberg film. There IS stylized movement but it’s more balanced with naturalism. “The Jet Song” is used in the same way, but what’s cool about Spielberg is that he wants to present the Jets in relation to the average citizens around them. And so they strut through the streets and folks scurry out of their way with angry looks.

            2. “Something’s Coming” – the same in the play and 1961. In Spielberg, it’s not a soliloquy: Tony is singing to Valentina, his surrogate mother. I frankly don’t think that adds much, but it might be the way Elgort performs it.

            3. Dance at the Gym – used the same! Exciting and thrilling in all three, even though I miss the iconic choreography of the original and first film.

            4. “Maria”/”Tonight” – the same in all three but the dialogue in Spielberg is longer, more revealing of who these two are

            5. “America” – in the play, it’s just the girls, with one of the most naive declaring her love for America while Anita leads the more jaded girls in a response. I think the rooftop dance and the addition of the men in 1961 may be the highlight of that film and has thus become iconic. Spielberg dropped the rooftop (as we discussed above) and again wants to show how the Puerto Rican youth are perceived by their community (much more positively than the Jets are by theirs!)

            6. “Cool” – yes, it’s moved as you describe. In the play, Riff sings it to calm the Jets down before they head to the rumble. In the 1961 movie, Ice sings it to calm the Jets down after they want to strike at the Sharks for killing their leader. In Spielberg’s film it’s put back before the rumble but is used in a completely different way to show different relationships. I’m hoping you’ll see the film, so I’ll leave it to you to discover this.

            7. “One Hand, One Heart” – same use in all three; different setting in Spielberg that works really well.

            8. “Tonight” Quintet/The Rumble – used the same, almost to the same camera shots but everything is more realistic, including the violence at the rumble

            9. “I Feel Pretty” – I think it’s moved earlier in the ’61 film, but in the play and Spielberg’s film it’s sung after the rumble to push the irony of how joyful Maria feels before she learns what happened to Bernardo. It’s moved to a different setting and has more girls in it.

            10. “Somewhere” – I’ve talked about this in the post. A beautiful song but a problematic one. I think the ballet in the play is dated and weird, and it’s almost thrown away in the ’61 film. I think the way Spielberg uses it is the best I’ve ever seen.

            11. “Gee, Officer Krupke” – frankly I think the ’61 film does this one better than the play. It never made sense to me that this comedy number was how they blow off steam from all their anger and grief; I think that was done for the audience. Given the way Russ Tamblyn plays Riff, having him lead this song makes sense. But the Riff in Spielberg’s film is completely different, so what they do is put the song early, like in ’61, but Riff isn’t in it. He’s somewhere else singing “Cool.” I think it makes more sense.

            12. “A Boy Like That”/”I Have a Love” – used the same.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Sounds like I have much to look forward too. I was concerned it might be saturated with “woke’ and “race” themes, which would imho make it unwatchable as so much of Hollywood recent productions are.

              It sure sounds like something I should give a watch. Thanks for the detailed discussion of musical performance and placement — it is the heart of the play after all 😀

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              • Grrr I hate it when an extra “o” creeps into the text. I hate WP because you can’t edit LOL. It should be: I have much to look forward to. Or if I bothered with correct grammar I guess I would say, There is much to which I have to look forward. LOL

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