By Olivia Sterenfeld
Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited rendition of West Side Story has finally reached theaters nationwide. Although the film has not found success at the box office, it is a much-needed re-telling of the iconic 1950s New York version of Romeo and Juliet. While I have never seen the stage musical and thus cannot discuss the potential outdatedness of it, I have seen the 1961 film adaptation and can confidently say it needed an update. The music has always been the star of the movie, with clarity of plot taking the backseat, and rightfully so, given the brilliance of Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. The story itself, however, is worthy of the improvements it received in this adaptation. Coincidentally, what a way to pay tribute to Sondheim, given his death in late November.
Spielberg’s West Side Story resolves all points of plot confusion from the original movie, primarily due to Tony Kushner’s writing. The film opens with a shot of the plot of land that will become Lincoln Center, a cluster of buildings that houses the performing arts. We see a poster displaying a model of Lincoln Center outside of a construction site where buildings are being torn down. These opening images instantly make clear the slum gentrification of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Paired with these shots, references in dialogue to the increasingly gentrified surroundings throughout the rest of the movie build an important context for the pressure on competing gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, to fight for the limited land left, the land that remains unrenovated. Kushner’s screenplay also provides a clearer sequence of events in the film, which, in addition to the context for the rising tension between the gangs, creates a more compelling story. Maria’s (Rachel Zegler) infamous “I Feel Pretty” does not feel as trivial given that immediately after the scene ends, she runs into Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), who reveals the tragic news about a loved one. The juxtaposition of Maria’s glee to sorrow and confusion emphasizes the latter emotions. For the audience, “I Feel Pretty” follows this sad scene, making the song already upsetting to watch, given that we know the tragic news Maria does not yet know. Ultimately, Kushner’s screenplay not only provides us with a more engaging story but situates the music in the plot in new, necessary ways.
Visually, the film is striking. Justin Peck’s choreography seamlessly blends dance and action so that the feel of a musical was not lost but did not dominate the screen time. The scene in which Tony and Maria sing “Tonight Tonight” on Maria’s fire escape, for instance, flows like a dance number without much of any dance occurring. The use of grating on fire escape balconies to separate Maria and Tony, who struggles to reach Maria on her platform, conveys the nature of their relationship as star-crossed lovers. The divide of the two by bars, on the escape’s stairs and railing, builds tension to the moment when they are finally face to face, in each other’s arms, on the balcony. The song simultaneously escalates to this moment, forming a truly romantic, exciting scene for the couple.
Paired with choreography, the use of color in costumes contributes to the stunning visuals of the movie. In the school dance scene, the white couples wear blue and the Puerto Rican couples wear red and yellow. Maria, however, is dressed in white lace, wearing only red lipstick and Anita’s (Ariana DeBose) red belt to connect her to her Puerto Rican community. She is even seen wiping off the lipstick before Bernardo sees her. The white lace dress and removal of lipstick communicate Bernardo’s, and, accordingly, everyone else’s, view of her: a young and inexperienced, with the subtext of sexually pure, woman. We see, though, that she wants to be treated as a mature adult and wants to make her own decisions, demonstrated in not only her attitudes that she conveys to Anita but in that she tries on the lipstick in the first place. The white costume also helps her stand out for the audience, making her easier to spot among the crowd at the dance. Maria’s costume is nearly identical to the 1961 counterpart, so this choice is nothing new but is certainly effective.
The visuals are supported by audio that lends itself to authenticity, further conveying the need for this updated version of the film. While autotune is inevitably used, compared to many other movie musicals, it does not feel so overdone. There are still moments where we can hear the unadulterated voice of each character, especially allowing them to sound genuine in instances of strong emotion, which is not uncommon in this story. It certainly helps that many of the actors are professionals in musical theatre, such as Zegler, DeBose, and, of course, Rita Moreno, who plays the added character of Valentina. The film also, necessarily, includes characters speaking Spanish, contributing to the authenticity of this version. After all, the 1961 movie did not cast a Latinx Maria, instead opting for the famous Natalie Wood. The actress could not even sing, therefore requiring a ghost singer, Marni Nixon. Although Spanish is spoken throughout the film, subtitles are not provided. There is no need for subtitles, however, because the acting and action reveal all that the audience needs to know. Transitions from dialogue spoken in Spanish to English are cleverly incorporated, having frustrated police officers yell at the Puerto Ricans to speak in English as a means of understanding them and Anita demanding that Maria and Bernardo use English in order to practice speaking the language for their own benefit. The effort to cast Latinx actors and use Spanish in scenes with Puerto Rican characters contributes to the more accurate depiction that is this version of West Side Story.
It feels like more screen time, however, is given to the Jets, the white gang, and some of it could have been cut. There is a scene, for instance, in which they buy a gun for the climactic fight. The seller recognizes Riff (Mike Faist) as being similar to his father, which ultimately supports the idea that the Jets have bums for parents and how it is such a shame that they have not found their way out of poverty. The scene drags on for too long, though. Whereas the Jets receive perhaps too much screen time, the Sharks could have been allocated more of it. The musical number “America,” sung by Anita and her friends, was shortened. While it is likely that several songs were shortened for the sake of time, every one of the ingenious lyrics in “America” deserves to be heard and probably could have been if a few of the Jets’ dialogue scenes were shorter.
Otherwise, West Side Story was thoroughly entertaining and well done. Hopefully, it will be shown on streaming services sometime soon and receive the widespread attention it deserves. For those who grew up on the 1961 original and those who have barely heard of the musical alike, this adaptation is worth seeing.