Something Great Has Come
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story: The Version This Generation Needs
I know I keep getting farther away from my first love of television. But those of you who read my tribute to Stephen Sondheim last year know that I worship both him and musical theater. And I’ve just come from seeing Steven Spielberg’s reimagining — because to call it a remake is to do it an injustice — and five hours later I’m still entranced. So buckle up and keep cool.
I worshiped the 1961 version of West Side Story when I was twelve. It played on a near continuous loop the first six months I lived in New York. When my sixth-grade class ‘read it’ I practically winced at every juvenile remark and the ridiculous reactions during the ‘screening’ of the film. (Did I know even then what my future job might be?) So understandably when I heard that Steven Spielberg was adapting it in spring of 2020, I had serious doubts. As highly as I regard Spielberg as a director, he hadn’t gone anywhere near a musical in his near half-century in film and television. How can we trust him with the treasured icon of our past? Even seeing all the trailers and hearing all the raves in the early stages, I will confess to doubts all the way to the original screening, despite my growing optimism.
Those doubts lasted less than a minute into the opening scene. Watching the Jets cross through the wreckage of New York City (in one of those supreme notes of irony we see them first coming across what promises to be Lincoln Center) you quickly see that Spielberg and his screenwriting muse Tony Kushner having taken the classic Bernstein/Sondheim production and turned into something real. For all the brilliance of the earlier film, you couldn’t escape the fact that the gang members were dancing with some kind of joy. From the moment you see Spielberg’s version, you can sense the rage that is just below the surface always just waiting to poke out.
Both the play and the original movie always suggested the Jets and Sharks struggle over turf was posturing. Spielberg makes it clear from get-go it is pointless. When the opening dance is over, Schrank (incredibly played by veteran character actor Corey Stoll) tells the Jets point blank their territory is going to be bulldozed. The show always hinted at the disdain he held for them; here it less crude but just as demeaning. You can see Schrank pulling the lever for George Wallace just a few years down the line.
But none of this dismays the Jets. Hell, maybe it only inspires them. So Riff (incredibly played, like the entire cast, by a searing Mike Faust) goes to see Tony (Ansel Elgort) to try and get him to help him plan the rumble. In the old version it was like pulling teeth; here he basically tells Riff to go to hell. We know that won’t stop from going to the dance.
The plot? Isn’t there an expiration date on spoilers, and if there isn’t, I seriously doubt the people who will seek this movie out won’t know what’s coming. So let’s ignore the plot and focus what makes this movie superior.
For a start, it’s angrier and darker. Riff was joyfully flamboyant in the 1961 version; here he seems violent, practically suicidal. You get the feeling when he meets his fate a part of him really wanted it. Bernardo is angrier, but also wiser; we see him an early scene arguing against Chino joining the Sharks. Anita is just a bit more maternal than she was in the earlier version, but a little more willing to loosen the apron strings. Tony is actually given more character than he ever was before; he’s on parole for having nearly beaten a man to death in an earlier rumble. And this Maria simultaneously more innocent and more willing to find her independence.
I know some purists will say that any change to the sacred text is sacrilege. To be fair, Spielberg’s version is truer to the makeup of the show than to the original movie and I can’t see a single change that didn’t benefit it. ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ no matter where you play it never seemed appropriate. Staged in the NYPD itself it seems like a deliberate middle finger to the authority the Jets also oppose. ‘Cool’, restaged as a battle between Tony and Riff (another nice change; the gun that eventually goes off the third act has an origin story and it’s even darker than you’d think) and in this version you see that the fractures between the two were never going to heal. ‘I Feel Pretty’ and ‘America’ seem far better staged then either was in the movie and there’s more energy both times.
There are also a couple of vital character shifts, which I approve of. Anybodys, a genderless woman in the original is played as non-binary. Some of part of me always suspected that the character was a lesbian in the original, because it would explain another level of that character’s being an outsider among outsiders. (Maybe Arthur Laurents was trying to be subtle in his original play; they were already shattering enough barriers as it was) This character has been fighting all their life (and indeed, they engage the most brutal beatdown in the movie) but they have an understanding of both worlds being on the outside of both. In the pivotal scene when Anita shows up at Doc’s; in a single word they express everything that they know will happen next.
And of course, there’s Rita Moreno as Valentina, the equivalent of Doc in the original. At its core this could be seen as the ultimate stunt casting — bringing back original Anita for continuity. But this is anything but a stunt. Valentina is closer to Tony and the world of the gangs in a way that Doc, who just sounded like a used-up old man, ever was. She knows what Tony is planning a little better, but isn’t as stringent as Doc was. We know from the beginning she’s not on any side — Riff is not even allowed in her store when we first meet her — and she wants so hard to believe in a way that none of the other characters truly do in some kind of better life. It’s not a stunt when she gets one of the most critical songs in movie history just to give it to Moreno; this is the first time I’ve actually seen it work.
Yes, the movie still ends the same; like I said, Spielberg does everything in his power to make the film darker and angrier. But I don’t think anyone who goes to see his West Side Story will feel anything less than I did when I left the theater: joyful, engaged and utterly enraptured. There is no way that way back in the pre-pandemic era that Spielberg could have known that Stephen Sondheim would be gone from this earth when his film finally debuted. But if there was a better way to tribute to one of the greatest composers and lyricists in history than this new film, I really can’t imagine it.
One last thing: see this movie in the theater. The movie will work just as well when you see on TV over and over (and you will) but every Spielberg movie does better on the big screen. For those of you who may never set foot in an actual Broadway show, this comes as close as you will ever get to the experience. And it’s slightly cheaper.