West Side Story has a chequered history. The musical by Jerome Robbins (first staged in 1957) met with wide acclaim, as did the 1961 film version directed by Robbins and Robert Wise. But it hasn’t aged well. The depiction of the Puerto Rican characters was always fraught; but the original film’s largely white-washed casting (Rita Moreno as Anita being the notable exception) has made it particularly problematic. Now legendary director Steven Spielberg and legendary writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America) try to rehabilitate it in this 2021 updating. The result is a mixed bag.
The core of West Side Story (unsurprisingly) has always been Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. Spielberg wisely doesn’t mess with them, keeping the story’s beating heart intact. Although some numbers appear at different places in the narrative, fans of the original will be well-pleased. Where the film departs is in its treatment of the characters, particularly the Puerto Rican ones. Kushner provides a far more nuanced take, particularly with the female characters. But for all that, even he can’t overcome the thinness and artificiality of the plot, notwithstanding its source in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The year is 1957. What is now the upscale Lincoln Square district is a jumble of tenements between Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem. The city has begun razing buildings for wide-scale urban renewal (including to build the new Lincoln Center), but for now the place resembles a war zone. In that war zone, two street-gang “armies” vie for control. The Jets are the kids of poor European immigrants; the Sharks are more recently arrived from Puerto Rico. A corrupt and racist NYPD – represented by Lt Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) – tries to keep an uneasy peace. But their efforts are in vain as Jets boss Riff (Mike Faist) plans a “rumble” (a street fight) with the Sharks to settle their turf battle once and for all.
Meanwhile former Jets leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) has returned home after serving a prison sentence. Seems he’s learned his lesson and is trying to stay “straight” by working at the drug store run by Valentina (Rita Moreno). Riff however considers Tony still very much a Jet. He convinces Tony to come to a neighbourhood dance where he’s going to challenge Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) to the “rumble”. But once there, Tony meets Maria (Rachel Zegler). They’re instantly smitten. But Maria is Bernardo’s sister, and their liaison threatens to explode the already simmering tensions – both in the community and in Maria’s family. Bernado’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) does her best to navigate a path through the mess. But things take a dark turn when Riff is able to get his hands on a gun.
Spielberg is a master of the craft, and brings a particular vision to this production. That includes rendering the whole thing in sepia tones reminiscent of the 1961 film. He’s made significant strides in casting actual Latino actors in the Puerto Rican roles, even if Rachel Zegler does bear an uncanny resemblance to Natalie Wood. The song-and-dance numbers are brilliantly staged (particularly the show-stopper “America”). The music and choreography is – of course – impeccable. And although it has some resonance with the recent In the Heights, I’m prepared to give this a pass as the OG.
Still, I found it hard to get past the artifice of it all. A scene near the end where Maria and Anita have a verbal fight in song was particularly jarring. Similarly, the idea that a gang of street toughs would tear up a police station while being completely off-book in a cheerful rendition of “Officer Krupke” is faintly ridiculous. And while Spielberg has absolutely brought all his powers to bear on it, the disconnect is simply too wide for even he to bridge. I understand that’s the essence of musical theatre, but I’m not sure it really translates to the cinema. Plus, being adapted from Romeo and Juliet should give you a clue that – 420 year-old spoiler alert – there won’t be any happy ending.
As usual, Spielberg entices some brilliant performances from his cast. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ariana DeBose (Schmigadoon!) were to receive an Oscar nomination for her turn as Anita. And if she won, it would mean two different actors will have scored Oscars for the same role 60 years apart. The “other” Oscar-winning Anita is of course Rita Moreno, who appears here in a rather less showy role as the kindly Valentina. Rachel Zegler makes her feature film debut with a solid acting turn (and some fabulous singing) as Maria. Broadway actor Mike Faist gives a fine reading of the combustible Riff, while David Alvarez (American Rust) is wonderful as the smooth Bernardo.
But the elephant in the room is Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) as Tony. Whether by design or accident, he comes across as surprisingly insipid. His chemistry with Zegler is wan, and his singing and dancing are lacklustre. So while I get his box office drawing power, he seems entirely unsuited for this role.
West Side Story – Spielberg style – is probably best considered as one for the purists. Musical theatre nerds will lose their marbles over this, I’m sure. And with good reason, because it ticks all those musical theatre boxes. But as a cinematic experience, it just lacked that certain something for me.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television