West Side Story: Revitalizing a Classic
I’ll admit to having been more than a little skeptical when I learned that Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner were reteaming to take a second cinematic swing at West Side Story. After all, it’s hard enough to successfully remake even a mediocre film that has nevertheless cemented itself into the cinema canon. But West Side Story? Box office juggernaut, winner of 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), cultural phenomenon, and one of the most beloved films of its genre? No matter the talent assembled on- and off-screen, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. In retrospect, we should have known better than to doubt them. Spielberg and Kushner have done the impossible; in a year full of movie musicals ranging from misguided to excellent, their thrilling reinvention of West Side Story improves on the original in nearly every way.
Spielberg has spent his entire career wanting to make a musical, and it turns out that he’s a natural fit for the genre. His greatest strength as a filmmaker has always been his ability to block his shots, so it’s no surprise that his dance sequences and soaring musical numbers are perfectly framed. The exquisite camerawork by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski ranks alongside the pair’s finest achievements, peppered with skillful homages to the original’s breathtaking visual language. And critically (unlike most modern musicals), he holds on wide shots, allowing the audience to take in the formations and dynamic movement of Justin Peck’s choreography (adapted marvelously from the original Jerome Robbins steps), Adam Stockhausen’s brilliant sets, and Paul Tazewell’s lush costumes. Leonard Bernstein’s sweeping score, arranged by David Newman for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, has never sounded better, and the vocal performances under Jeanine Tesori’s sterling musical direction are almost uniformly excellent, breathing rich new life into some of the late Stephen Sondheim’s most memorable lyrics. For the entirety of its brisk two-and-a-half hour runtime, West Side is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
But the real MVP of this revival is unquestionably Tony Kushner. A Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright best known for his groundbreaking epic Angels in America, Kushner is no stranger to the movies. But West Side Story is his finest film screenplay yet, a thoughtful and keenly observed adaptation that deepens the source material’s characters and enhances its themes without deviating from its core strengths. Critically, Kushner meticulously grounds this West Side with a specificity of time and place missing from both the 1961 film adaptation and stage version; his New York feels like a real place, not a fairy tale setting. The economic pressures and feeling of displacement that fuel the racial tensions between the two major factions are skillfully woven into the fabric of the film. He pays particular attention to balancing the scales between the Sharks and Jets, who now feel almost on equal footing in terms of prominence. In fact, the only “new” song added to this edition is a stirring rendition of “La Borinqueña,” the Puerto Rican national anthem, sung by Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Sharks—using the original lyrics composed in defiance of Spanish rule on the island. He carefully restructures the plot (including by shuffling several songs around) and refreshes some of the more outdated elements of the original without altering the fundamental character of the piece. The original West Side Story lost only one of its nominations at the 1961 Oscars—Best Adapted Screenplay. With any luck, Kushner’s remarkable achievement here won’t go similarly unheralded.
It’s not just the setting and plot that have been updated; Kushner’s script adds critical backstory to several major characters, and the talented young cast takes full advantage of their newly enriched roles. Newcomer Rachel Zegler, making her film debut as Maria, is an incredible discovery. She more than capably carries the film through much of its central romantic and dramatic plot with an exuberant energy and her crisp soprano vocals are just luminous. As Tony—typically West Side Story’s blandest and most underwritten role—Ansel Elgort does the best he can, but he can’t quite match Zegler’s vocals, and he can’t help but be eclipsed by the rest of his costars.
Of course, the supporting characters have always been West Side’s main attractions, and the largely Broadway-trained (and Tony Award-fêted) ensemble absolutely delivers. Mike Faist is absolutely electric as Riff, playing the Jets’ leader as a coiled panther, simmering with barely contained fury and livewire energy. As his Shark counterpart Bernardo, David Alvarez has a smoldering intensity and an equally dangerous physicality (in this version, Bernardo is a boxer as well as a gang leader). Anita has always been the showcase role in West Side Story, and Ariana DeBose marvelously conveys her character’s tragic arc.
And in Kushner’s most significant alteration to the original text, Rita Moreno makes a triumphant return to West Side as Valentina, the widowed owner of Doc’s drugstore. As a Puerto Rican woman who married a gringo, Valentina represents a glimmer of hope for Tony and Maria’s otherwise doomed romance; her performance of the second act ballad “Somewhere” is perhaps the film’s most touching moment. It’s also a canny piece of metatextual casting: just as Valentina is a bridge across the two warring factions, Moreno’s presence connects the 2021 and 1961 adaptations of West Side Story in dialogue with one another. Her return to the film that made her a star, albeit in a new role, is representative of Spielberg and Kushner’s overall approach to the material—conscious of and respectful towards the significance of the original film while thoughtfully reinterpreting it for a new age.
West Side Story is in theaters now.