By Juan Barquin
West Side Story
Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., 20th Century Studios
The opening of Robert Wise’s 1961 screen adaptation of West Side Story is a celebration of New York City through aerial snapshots. It serves as transport from reality into fiction, from the actual Manhattan to the gorgeously designed backdrops that are a stagy emulation of San Juan Hill prior to its bulldozing and redevelopment in the early 1960s. Wise places the viewer in the world of theater, where everything is communicated through heightened performance and emotion, whether it’s loving or fighting. Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner immediately set apart their new version of West Side Story (2021) by opening instead with a camera floating through ruin, dust blowing as we see bulldozed apartments and the wrecking balls that destroyed them. Rather than sideline history for fantasy, this film begins by confronting the past with signs that announce the clearance of the slums to make way for Lincoln Center.
This West Side Story no longer treats its story as one of pure escapism, of a simple Romeo & Juliet update with white Americans (the Jets) and Puerto Rican immigrants (the Sharks) in lieu of the Montagues and Capulets. It’s an adaptation that has rightfully come to terms with the limited scope of Arthur Laurents’s book, particularly on a cultural level. More importantly, it’s an adaptation that, for better or worse, attempts to engage with over half a century of everlasting conflict between white Americans and the immigrants they love to exploit and blame for their troubles.
When discussing West Side Story in his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim notes that “numbers like ‘America’ and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ serve to remind the audience that this is an entertainment, not a sociological treatise.” What Spielberg and Kushner’s adaptation seems to posit is: Porque no los dos?
Three key features of the original Broadway production helped take the show beyond its bland book: Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, and Jerome Robbins’s choreography. Every subsequent production, stage or screen, has had the benefit of working with these three features, but few have truly grappled with the limited text at its core. The musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks via their constant fighting and the romance between Tony, a former member of the Jets, and Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo. Laurents’s writing explores a number of social problems through the push-and-pull of “white versus Puerto Rican,” but its limitations are painfully clear due both to the text’s shallow observations about xenophobia and the fact that its core creative team was comprised of white, Jewish men who did not manage to create fully fleshed-out characters of another ethnicity, rarely allowing them to grow beyond archetype.
Some have questioned whether Kushner and Spielberg—another pair of white, Jewish men—were right for the job of adapting the text yet again, and, furthermore, doubted that this tale was even worth approaching once more. While some may dismiss it as a handsome retelling of a story that needed no more telling, I’d argue this is the first time that the musical has ever felt complete. For all the adaptations and revisions that have existed over the decades, this new director and writer approach the material with sensitivity and an interest in richly expanding its characters that is nothing short of remarkable.
Though much of the new film stays true to its source, from its simple but memorable lyrics to its extensive choreography, the most immediately notable update is the way Spanish is incorporated throughout. Where Wise’s film had Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, and Rita Moreno (the sole Puerto Rican in the main cast) caked in darkening brown makeup to fit a stereotype, Spielberg’s film hosts a diverse collection of Latinx actors that breathe new life into the story. Where simply including actors for the sake of representation would be shallow on its own terms, Spielberg allows them to slide in and out of Spanish (and Spanglish) in a way that’s more natural than anything else in contemporary American cinema. The choice to not provide subtitled translations for these characters speaking in their native language is an especially bold one, satisfyingly and intentionally avoiding the further “othering” of its Latin American characters (as well as the Latin American audience stepping out to see themselves appropriately represented).
When characters are told to speak English, they’re either being talked down to by white men with power (most notably the police, whom both film and stage production are pleasantly critical of) or being encouraged to assimilate. Kushner uses Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita and a new character, Valentina, to explore how immigrants navigate double consciousness in a way that was never present in Laurents’s book; while both Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno’s nuanced performances and captivating voices add layers to these limited figures. Where Anita is always asking Maria to speak English and trying to pass for American, she is constantly aware of her existence not just as Latina in America but as a dark-skinned woman within a culture that prioritizes whiteness. When Bernardo dismisses her in an argument with his sister, she cuttingly responds by bringing up the colorism inherent in many Latinx communities: “Y ahora no soy parte de la familia—porque soy prieta?” (This roughly translates to “So now I’m not part of the family—because I’m dark?”)
Rather than use Doc’s pharmacy as a safe haven and meeting ground for the gangs, as in the original play and movie, Kushner’s script explores the way that Doc’s widow, Valentina (Moreno), by virtue of being married to a white man and being part of the Jets’ lives as they grew up, has managed to assimilate into white American culture. It goes beyond giving Moreno a legacy role in a new production of the film she’s best known for; she subtly engages with the casual racism and misogyny of both the characters and source material in all her interactions with those around her. The actress is in constant conversation with the character she once played; where Anita dreams of passing, Valentina is a testament to the perils of passing and how it can, ultimately, make one complicit in violence against one’s own people.
Even Sondheim’s lyrics barely touch upon these themes, with “America” coming closest but inevitably falling back into the trap of having its Puerto Rican cast regurgitating white complaints and assumptions about immigrants and the islands they come from. Kushner’s version of “America” falls somewhere between the stage production’s original lyrics (which contrasted “you lovely island” with “you ugly island, island of tropical diseases” and ends with “babies crying and the bullets flying” about Puerto Rico) and the updated 1961 lyrics (which switched this out for “Puerto Rico—my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean” and ends with “sunlight streaming and the natives steaming”). It keeps “Puerto Rico, you lovely island, a land of tropical breezes, always the pineapples growing, always the coffee blossoms blowing” from the original and closes with one of Anita's friends challenging the negative phrase “babies crying” with “and the people trying.” It’s a simple lyrical change but a meaningful one, not only a reminder that there were actual human beings left behind on the island whose struggles continued but also a conscious choice to turn an argument between Bernardo and Anita about life in America into an internal battle against assimilation.
Eschewing an intermission while keeping the movie to about two and a half hours gives Kushner additional time allow the characters to simply exist, with everything from Tony and Riff’s relationship to Bernardo, Anita, and Maria’s dynamic expanded through minor scenes that have major impact. This expansion of character makes each song feel like a conversation rather than a means of advancing the story—between characters, between actors and the audience, and between the internal and external. Take “Cool,” which has now been presented as something of a pas de deux between Riff and Tony, emphasizing the downfall of their friendship. Or, better yet, the transposing of “Somewhere” (which, like the 1961 film, ditches the stage ballet portion of the number) onto Valentina, who makes the song come across less as a hopeful ballad in a tragic tale and more of a confrontation: questioning whether change is truly possible as she witnesses the persistence of hate.
Transformative screenwriting alone would do nothing if not accompanied by talented performers, and Spielberg’s adaptation is marvelously carried by Rachel Zegler’s Maria, DeBose’s Anita, Moreno’s Valentina, Mike Faist’s Riff, David Alvarez’s Bernardo, and Josh Andrés Rivera’s Chino. It’s hard to highlight any one performer over another because each is exquisite at conveying the qualities most necessary to make the roles pop: Maria’s tenderness and naiveté, Anita’s electric charm and fury, Valentina’s aged wistfulness, the sensitivity beneath Riff’s scrappiness, Bernardo’s machismo, and Chino’s tortured soul.
Though Ansel Elgort is typically a charisma void, his physicality works for the role of Tony, a notoriously bland character in every production of West Side Story, and his shared set pieces with other actors (especially Zegler, Moreno, and Faist) are surprisingly compelling. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s skill as a filmmaker that he manages to liven up every scene that Elgort is in through camera movement and how characters engage with him, including solo numbers like “Something’s Coming” and “Maria,” whose raw emotion he can’t quite nail. There’s weight to his movements in dances and fights alike, and his voice is warm despite his apparent inability to emote. Most actors who portray Tony cannot sell the romance or the tragedy, but it’s hard not to fall for the material’s melodrama when the narrative is as sumptuously presented as it is here.
Visually, everything about Spielberg’s West Side Story is beautiful, notably the way cinematographer Janusz Kaminski allows the camera to float alongside performers in tune with Justin Peck’s dazzling choreography, and how each cut is timed perfectly to the music. There’s real tension in scenes between the Jets and the Sharks, which evolve from the playful opening to bouts of truly visceral fighting. The theatricality and choreography of the musical is still present in these moments, but rather than feeling overly expressionistic, the movements of the young men are packed with unexpected aggression. This keeps the film grounded in realism as opposed to Wise’s embrace of fantasy, and Spielberg nails the ever-shifting tone of the musical: its tragic moments only make as great an impact as they do because of the charm in the scenes that precede them. Take the way he cuts from one of the film’s heaviest beats (the tragic rumble between the Jets and Sharks) to Maria’s number “I Feel Pretty.” The emphasis it places on her innocence and the ease of escapism when the world around her is quite literally crumbling provides an interesting challenge to folks like Ivo Van Hove (who outright scrapped the number in his recent Broadway revival) and even Sondheim himself (who criticized the song’s repetitiveness and lack of substance in Finishing the Hat).
Where much of Wise’s adaptation comes across a bit like filmed theater, Spielberg is at his most cinematic here. Equal attention is paid to the spectacle of a massive number like “The Dance at the Gym,” with bodies sliding and twirling all over, and intimate scenes like “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” Anita and Maria’s climactic duet, “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love,” perfectly melds intimacy and spectacle, a scene that has as much color, movement, and dynamism as any dance sequence despite being a sung conversation between two women torn apart by love and loss essentially contained to the space of one apartment.
Spielberg and Kushner have managed to update and enhance the text far beyond those before them. Whatever flaws still exist within West Side Story are easy to overlook in a production that has been so thoughtfully reconceived, and which, even at its most dour, so entrancingly applies color and light in every frame. It’s the rare movie musical that makes one question why anyone bothered reviving this on stage when something this thrilling could come along on screen.