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Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is a staggering showcase for Sondheim

West Side Story (2021) (20th Century Studios)

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner adapt the classic Stephen Sondheim musical into a vivid, gripping tale that builds on what the Robert Wise version did right.

While audiences and critics often bemoan the plethora of sequels and remakes that litter the media landscape, retelling a familiar story isn’t inherently bad. After all, Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, was based on earlier works, and in 1957 playwright Arthur Laurents (along with composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim) adapted the tale into West Side Story, which Robert Wise turned into a classic musical in 1961. Sixty years later, Steven Spielberg has thrown his hat into the ring with a new adaptation of the material. But can he make a familiar plot relevant to the 21st century? 

The answer, thankfully, is yes. Spielberg’s West Side Story is Golden Age Hollywood made modern. A celebration of the classic movie-musical while still feeling urgent and fresh. 

Tony Kushner’s screenplay hews close to the musical, transporting us to the New York City of the late 1950s where the streets of the West Side are being fought over by two rival gangs: the Jets (who are Polish) and the Sharks (who are Puerto Rican). Amid the violence, Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former Jet, and Maria (Rachel Zegler) the sister of the Sharks’ leader, meet at a dance. Their attraction is immediate and irrepressible, but their relationship causes the simmering tension between the two gangs to boil over, leading to a fight that will decide the fate of the West Side forever. 

West Side Story (2021) (20th Century Studios)
David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

While the story will hold few surprises for fans of the show, Kushner and Spielberg have made some rearrangements to the order and location of the musical numbers. For example, “America” no longer takes place on Maria’s rooftop; instead, it becomes a raucous and colorful dance number on the streets of New York. These changes may annoy stage purists, but they lead to a more cinematic and exhilarating experience. 

Other modifications aren’t as superficial, especially in regards to this version’s treatment of racial tensions. Spielberg shows a more diverse New York than previous adaptations. The Sharks have more Spanish dialogue, the cast is more racially diverse, and there’s even some implied queer representation (albeit ambiguous enough for foreign censors). As such, the racist motivations of the Jets are even more upfront, with one of their first acts being them defacing a Puerto Rican mural. 

While this racial animus was always present in West Side Story, Kushner and Spielberg expand upon it. The opening shot of the movie throws us into the destruction of low-income housing for luxury apartments, illustrating the growing gentrification of the West Side. Facing the loss of their stomping grounds, the Jets view the Puerto Ricans as a symbol of displacement and fight with them over turf while developers plan to take both groups’ homes. As New York becomes less and less affordable, this new storyline feels the most contemporary. 

Spielberg’s West Side Story is Golden Age Hollywood made modern.

Further complicating the racial divide is one of the biggest changes to the story: Tony’s employer and owner of the drugstore where both gangs frequent has been changed from the white Doc to the Puerto Rican Valentina (Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 version). Despite her heritage, the Jets accept her due to her marriage to the late Doc. While sometimes it seems odd that she would be so friendly with the clearly-prejudiced Jets, her torn loyalties between her countrymen and her friendship with the Jets provides a sense of nuance. 

But while the social themes help make West Side Story 2021 more relevant to modern audiences, it’s the musical numbers that will make them love it. Justin Peck’s vibrant choreography is as much a part of Spielberg’s storytelling fabric as Kushner’s screenplay or Sondheim’s lyrics, captured brilliantly by Janusz Kamiński’s dynamic camerawork. Of particular note is the opening scene, which translates the Jets’ anger and reckless behavior into an exhilarating dance number that is worth the price of admission alone. Even the less traditional dance numbers, like “Gee Officer Krupke”, which has the Jets sarcastically justifying their delinquency to the police, are full of anarchic energy and impressive movement. 

Unfortunately, while the dance numbers are dynamic, the slower songs don’t always hit the emotional highs required of them. The ballads often tend to feel low-energy, with more constrained staging and a sense of lethargy at odds with Spielberg’s otherwise breezy pace.

West Side Story (2021) (20th Century Studios)
Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

Much of this low energy comes from Elgort’s Tony. It’s not that he does a poor job (he can croon like a fifties heartthrob and brings a certain swagger to the role); he’s just a little too cool-headed for the part. Tony and Maria are ready to run away together less than 48 hours after meeting. I can accept that in the heightened reality of a musical, but the actors have to sell me on it. Zegler has me convinced with a portrayal that is a mix of youthful exuberance, naivete, and confidence that makes me believe she fell in love so fast. While Elgort has a charismatic screen presence, he feels too mature to be making some of the decisions the story requires of him.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast is impeccable. With a cast of thousands, it’s easy for any actor to get lost in the shuffle, but every player brings distinctive energy to their role. Even so, there are some standouts. Mike Faist plays Riff, the leader of the Jets, with a sense of resentment wrapped in youthful cockiness, and his angry body language blends seamlessly into his dancing. Maria’s friend and future sister-in-law, Anita, is played by Ariana DeBose in a spirited performance. DeBose has a mix of sassiness and motherly warmth that makes her captivating every time she appears onscreen. 

Any remake of a classic has its work cut out for it, but Spielberg has risen admirably to the challenge: West Side Story proves that there is room in Hollywood for an old-school musical. Sadly, its triumph is marred slightly due to the recent passing of lyricist Stephen Sondheim. While this loss to the theater world is incalculable, at the very least we were given a wonderful showpiece for his timeless lyrics. 

Something’s coming, and it’s West Side Story in theaters everywhere December 10th.

West Side Story Trailer:

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