The man behind the musical is no other than director Steven Spielberg, whose soft spot for the 1957 Broadway musical and subsequent 1961 film of “West Side Story” shows in the beautifully loving touches of an authentically rendered remake now in movie theaters.
But it’s a different era from when Spielberg was growing up and he was first introduced to the Broadway musical, when his parents played the original cast recording.
Without taking the musical out of its setting of 1957 New York to keep it authentic, Spielberg and screenplay writer Tony (“Angels in America”) Kushner offer a statement that can speak to a 21st century audience.
A classic in the American theater canon written by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (who died on Nov. 26, 2021 and was able to see the new film before he passed away) and choreography by Jerome Robbins, “West Side Story” tells the tale of rivalries between two teenage street gangs in New York City. Their neighborhood is under the wrecking ball to make way for Lincoln Center, but still each group wants to claim turf. There are the Jets, a white gang that wants to get rid of Puerto Ricans who have moved in. The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, are out to show that they belong. But when one of the Jets, Tony, falls in love with the sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo, everyone is out for blood.
The music and lyrics are kept intact, but the choreography by Robbins is now interpreted by wunderkind Justin Peck, currently the resident choreographer at New York City Ballet. Peck himself is Argentinian on his mother’s side and Robbins has been a huge influence on his own work. While Peck doesn’t entirely keep the original steps, there’s no doubt that Robbins’ influence is there, especially the trademark finger snaps in the opening scenes.
The story stays the same, but the roles reflect more diversity. Rita Moreno, the original Anita, has been outspoken about a direction for her to wear makeup to darken her skin for the original. Maria was not played by a Latina, but by Natalie Wood. Spielberg casts Colombian-American Rachel Zegler in her first-ever movie role for the new film.
The original “West Side Story” was criticized for its depiction of Puerto Ricans steeped in age-old stereotypes.
The stereotyping was always a source of debate since all four white men who were involved with the original “West Side Story” were gay, leaving the conversation open as to how insensitive one marginalized group might be toward another. But the modern version goes deeper in its themes on race and identity. Afro-Latina Ariana DeBose reflects a segment of Latinx culture that is not seen in the movies.
DeBose will be no doubt in the running for a Best Supporting Actress nod in this year’s Oscars as she steals every scene she’s in as Anita, originally played by Moreno. DeBose could follow in Moreno’s footsteps. Moreno won an Oscar for her portrayal.
Moreno adds her own supporting actress energy with a sizable role, a new addition to the remake. She’s Valentina, the owner of the store where Tony (Ansel Elgort, the perfect leading man) finds solace in Valentina as a mother figure.
In certain scenes, Spielberg allows the characters to speak Spanish without subtitles. Many in a preview audience in Miami laughed and nodded in response to the choice, which Kushner was quoted as saying was intentional in today’s America — a country that is increasingly bilingual.
There’s much to enjoy and love about the magical remake, but there’s also plenty to ponder about where we’ve arrived in our issues of race in the last 60 years.
Originally slated to premiere around Christmas in 2020, “West Side Story” was pushed back due to the pandemic. It opened nationwide Dec. 10, 2021.
(Michelle F. Solomon is a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle @FLFilmCritics.)