Steven Spielberg directed this newest West Side Story with passion and integrity using cinematic tools not available in the 1961 film version co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. But be forewarned, one must get past an expectation that the 2021 production mirrors the 1961 version adorned simply with new technological accouterments.
Initially conceived in a book by Arthur Laurents, the music is by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 1957 stage production of West Side Story was Sondheim’s first musical, reappearing now cinematically at his death at age 91.
We travel in time, arriving at Spielberg’s striking realism in the old Manhattan neighborhood of San Juan Hill, bordered by 59th street to the south, West End Avenue to the west, 65th Street to the north, and Amsterdam Avenue to the east.
The sets are remarkedly authentic. We’re not in a studio or stage but on the gritty streets and subways of the late 1950s. The Hudson River, roads, cars, busses, signs, buildings, and stores surround us, visuals aurally amplified by the kinetic power of dance and the expressive command of Leonard Bernstein’s musical genius in a rich landscape.
Cultures are shifting. A new sign for a Spanish bodega covers the sign for a defunct Irish bar. We see a large wall adorned with a Puerto Rican flag mural. We tour this slum of gang and immigrant tension recently obtained by NYC under eminent domain for demolition and redevelopment – all its denizens to be displaced from this place destined to emerge as Lincoln Plaza, a haven for the performing arts, wealthy donors, and patrons.
The first fight we see occurs when the Sharks catch the Jets defacing the Puerto Rican flag mural with paint. There’s some dark humor as police arrive and ask for a witness who saw a nail that had been driven through one of the Jet’s left ear lobes. As expected, no witness came forward. The Sharks respond to police commands to disperse by singing La Borinqueña, the Puerto Rican national anthem.
Striking also are the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks. Gone are actors playing supercilious stereotypes we’ve seen in the past, like Warner Oland as Charlie Chan or Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Choreography and dance are powerful and dramatic. The school dance with a five-star band in the high school gym supervised by teachers is nostalgic and evocative, even when half the local police precinct is present.
Dramatic talents emerge in this Romantic tragedy. The singing is marvelous and honors the music. Rachel Zegler as Maria performs her own songs with craft and aplomb, unlike Natalie Wood, dubbed by singer Marni Nixon in 1961. Zegler’s Maria, Ariana DeBose’s Anita, David Alvarez’s Bernardo, Mike Faist’s Riff, and Ansel Elgort’s Tony are exciting and refreshing. Oscar-winner Rita Moreno’s delightful reprise from Anita in the original film to Valentina, who tries to protect Tony beyond his doubts and aspirations, is sobering and beautiful.
The story unfolds true to the abject tragedy of one of history’s most famous ill-fated couples, the bard’s doomed Romeo & Juliet. It is propelled by the contemporary creative voices of Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and choreographer Justin Peck. Its depictions, longings, and fears desperately seek hope and promise as death, and broken hearts spring from youthful conflicts over turf and nationality in a disappearing neighborhood – an ironic waste of young promise. Corey Stoll’s Lieutenant Schrank tries to explain the futility of a turf war for an area soon to become a community with no room for, as he describes, Puerto Ricans or Caucasians with no future.
The deaths of Riff and Bernardo at the rumble are shockingly intimate and personal, products of a close look at violence and consequences of ubiquitous knives and Riff’s pistol.
West Side Story is a compelling cultural, visual, aural, and emotional dreamscape. The themes, music, and dancing are as fresh as ever and ably characterize the timelessness and excellence of the original creative masterpiece.
Spielberg and company modified the story a bit to fit their artistic vision by casting, for example, the Jets defacing the Puerto Rican flag mural, Tony as an ex-con, and Tony and Maria expressing their love at the Cloisters. Their masterful efforts to emphasize a darker, powerful focus on the tragedy of the deaths fit a need arguably unfulfilled in earlier productions.
“West Side Story,” a 20th Century Studios release, PG-13 rating. Runtime: 156 minutes. Director Steven Spielberg
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Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort – Balcony Scene (Tonight) (From “West Side Story”/Audio Only)