“West Side Story” has always been one of my favorite musicals. While I didn’t see the original stage version that opened on Broadway in Sept. 1957, I’ve watched the 1961 film version so often I know all the lyrics. The central love story is based on Shakespeare’s tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet, young lovers torn apart by feuding families.
Legendary names like Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, (who created the 1957 stage version), and Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (co-directors of the 1961 films that won 10 Oscars) have been associated with the classic musical. So why did our contemporary legend, Steven Spielberg, decide it was time for a redo? Like many musical fans, I didn’t see how the original “West Side Story” could be improved upon.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story
I was wrong. After seeing Spielberg’s “West Side Story” at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, I understood–even something wonderful can be made better in the right hands. Spielberg’s 2021 version keeps the fabulous music, dancing, and heartbreak of the original and takes them to another level. The new version is grittier and more realistic (especially the fight scenes) but the joyful dance numbers and climactic moments are even more stunning.
The film is set in 1957 in the West Side of NYC, where housing developments and mom and pop stores occupied by the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks are being leveled to make way for the Lincoln Center. As the camera pans out, it shows that the rival gangs are fighting over a scruffy territory that is about to vanish. With the book by yet another legend, Tony Kushner, the characters spout more realistic dialogue and have more authentic voices than before.
Spielberg’s casting for the new film is equally authentic, with the Sharks played by Puerto Rican or Latina actors. While I adored the late Natalie Wood (Maria in the 1961 film) newcomer Rachel Zegler is perfect as the wide-eyed, 18-year-old Maria, Bernardo’s little sister who just arrived in America. Zegler not only looks like an angel, she sings like one too.
Tony (Ansel Elgort) is also terrific as the recently paroled co-founder of the Jets who falls instantly in love with Maria at a high school dance. He only attended the dance to stop Riff (Mike Faist) from rumbling with Bernardo (David Alvarez), but even in the noisy, crowded gym, Tony and Maria are struck by Cupid’s dart the moment their eyes meet.
Bernstein’s Classic Music
Most of us know this story so well, there’s no danger of a spoiler. Still, I found myself wishing the doomed lovers might find happiness in this new version. Their love songs like ‘Maria,’ ‘Tonight,’ and ‘One Hand, One Heart,’ are beautifully and heartbreakingly performed. Even my husband, after complaining about seeing another musical, had to borrow some Kleenix.
Happier numbers, like ‘I Feel Pretty,’ ‘America,’ ‘Cool’ and the hilarious ‘Officer Krupke,’ add joyful interludes to the production. The cinematography by Janusz Kominsky expands and enlarges our view of the dazzling production numbers. As the dancers spill onto the streets, we’re right in the middle of the action.
Magnificent Ensemble Cast
Everyone in this cast is magnificent, but standouts include Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita. She shares sizzling chemistry with Bernardo (Alvarez), and their lively banter and dance numbers are highlights of the film. Anita is the role that won Rita Moreno an Oscar for best supporting actress in 1961.
Spielberg gives a nod to the original by casting Moreno as Valentina, a new character who’s Doc’s widow. She runs the drugstore where the Jets hang out and where Tony works. Valentina sings the poignant ‘Somewhere,’ the closing number in the new “West Side Story.” Mike Faist also delivers a strong performance as Riff, Tony’s BFF and leader of the Jets.
Even if you’ve seen numerous stage versions of “West Side Story,” and worn out your DVDs of the original film, you need to buy tickets to Spielberg’s new version of this timeless musical. You can thank me later.
“West Side Story” opened wide in local theatres on Dec. 10, and is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, brief smoking, strong language, suggestive material and thematic content. It runs two hours and 36 minutes, and is distributed by 20th Century Studios.