Last night, we saw Steven Spielberg’s new West Side Story. I grew up listening to the soundtrack of the 1961 movie repeatedly. My sister and I would put the LP on just for fun and dance around the living room. I know every second of the score by heart (and it took me many years to realize “Krup you!” is not an actual insult). I’ve seen the original movie countless times and the stage version at least twice.
So yes, I was a little nervous about how the new movie would hold up. I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved it. If you’ve never seen another production of West Side Story but you’ve seen the new movie, you have seen West Side Story. That’s how well they did. In many ways, they did better.
It’s not a slavish recreation, but it’s also not a daring new take or reinvention. What Spielberg did was make sufficient changes and adjustments and yes, improvements, so that a modern audience could understand and appreciate the show for what it always has been.
A warning: Plot spoilers here. (Guys, the show is 60 years old. You’ve had your chance.)
If you’re looking for some kind of incisive comment on racial tension that’s especially apropos for 2021 America, this isn’t it — unless maybe you’re an optimist who’s had your heart broken, and you’d like to see that portrayed on screen.
That’s what happened to Anita, played by Ariana DeBose, whose performance, sorry, has so much more depth than the beloved original Rita Moreno’s. She’s not just a fiery and sultry Latina; she’s someone who is working through conflict in her head. You see on her face and in her posture the struggle between the old and new, between tenderness and ambition. She starts out defiantly singing “I like to be in America” but ends up seeing who America has really been to her, and when she spits out the lie about Maria’s death, it feels like it’s been a long time coming. She’s suffered a lot and has stuffed down so much to try to make her new life work, and when she’s finally cornered, the least she can do is protect Maria and inflict a little pain. That was always there in the script, but in this performance, and in her betrayal in particular, you feel the deep tragedy of what has played out in these few blocks.
But speaking of Rita Moreno, let’s turn to one of the most startling changes in the new movie: The short song “There’s a place for us” gets sung not by Tony and Maria, but by Tony’s mentor, the Valentina, who, in this production is a Latina woman who long ago married a white man — and she’s played by Moreno. They’ve added some dialogue to flesh out the idea that such couples will always struggle.
What’s the effect of putting the doomed/hopeful song in the mouth of someone who has already lost? It adds another layer of real pathos, because her husband is long dead, and things have only gotten worse since her time (and there’s also the pathos, for those familiar with the old film, of seeing Moreno still beautiful but so very old. This is a tricky maneuver, but I think they pulled it off.)
Changing this song from a romantic duet to a tragic solo also does the service of making the show slightly less sticky. Musicals are always a little bit sticky, by which I mean there is going to be a certain amount of . . . well, couples standing side by side, staring up into the stars singing a duet about how much they love each other. This exact thing recently happened when Tony and Maria sang “Tonight,” and you wouldn’t want them not to sing it. That’s the show: It’s about gangs and stabbing and racism and attempted rape, and also ballet and rhythmic snapping and a lot of extremely graceful choreography on crumbling brick walls. People burst into song with trained voices and cleverly rhymed lyrics to express how they feel. If this is something that’s going to bother you, then please don’t watch a musical! Nevertheless, they engineered tweaks and tightenings here and there that modified how artificial the show felt, and made the whole thing make more sense emotionally. One such tightening was to have Valentina, in a reflective mood, musing on the past and the future, rather than having Tony and Maria interrupt their drama and sing about it.
Another change that I believe was intended to de-stickify the show: They moved “I Feel Pretty” back, so it happens after Bernardo kills Riff and Tony kills Bernardo, but Maria doesn’t know it yet. I’m pretty proud of myself for noticing they did this and figuring out why: The song was always a little too cute and clever, especially for someone who doesn’t speak English well, and it’s an adorable song, but it’s hard to reconcile it with Maria as a tragic figure. By shoving it right in the middle of the action, it takes your discomfort with Maria’s inane giggling and prancing and uses it. You feel slightly ill, watching the number, because you know there are two bodies on the ground. (I was gratified to see that this L.A. Times article backs my theory up.)
I love this change not only because it works, but because it’s completely in character with the show. There has always been a desperate shred of hope in every tragic song, and a heavy shadow of dread in every hopeful song. That’s the show; always has been. So this change is an improvement. Amazing.
The one change they made that I didn’t like was relocating “One Hand, One Heart” to the Cloisters. In the original, the couples improvise a bridal scene, and it’s very clear that, in their minds, they are in a church and are exchanging vows before God. It’s always been one of my favorite parts of the movie. The new movie locates them in a literal convent, and it’s just heavy-handed, which disappointed me. A small quibble.
One more improvement: “Cool” (the song that starts “Boy, boy, crazy boy”) makes so much mores sense in the new movie. In the new movie, Tony is going to Riff to try to retrieve the gun he’s bought, and stop the rumble. It takes place on some kind of ramshackle pier with gaping holes in it, giving Tony and Riff plenty of chances to leap precariously over and around the edges, daring and threatening and sweating and menacing each other. It emphasizes the tension and peril so much better than . . . whatever was in the original, which I can’t remember, which is telling.
I liked the casting overall. Everyone sang well. It seems foolish to have to say that; and yet we’ve all seen our share of musicals cast with people who seem to have been hired for reasons other than their voice. Maria (Rachel Zegler) is young and fresh and lovely and impatient to start her life.
Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a vast improvement over 1961 Richard Beymer, who essentially showed up and had big shoulders and hit his notes, and that was it.
Elgort’s Tony is a good actor with a fine voice and a slightly odd, interesting face, and you feel like he’s got something going on in his skull.
He and Maria come across more like a real couple and less like a couple of movie stars. This new Tony has a lot more to work with, because they rather daringly added significant backstory: He very nearly killed someone, only avoiding it by luck, and just got out of jail. He spent his jail time thinking, and wants to change his life. Voilà, a motive, other than a vague “he’s different from the rest.”
They also provided a bit more motive for why the gangs are so territorial in general, other than that one is white and one is Puerto Rican. There is some kind of urban renewal project going on in the neighborhood, which involves wrecking balls tearing down all the buildings these young men have grown up with. So it’s not just a slum, but a pretty explicit war zone, and so we understand better their fierce, furious desperation to hold on to the little scrap of something that that belongs to them.
An interesting point: The character of Anybodys has become not just a goofy tomboy, but an actual trans character who really suffers at the thought of being perceived as a girl. It’s not inordinately magnified; it’s just another character rescued from being a caricature in the new version.
To my relief, they don’t appear to have altered the choreography much (or if they have, they preserved the character of it very well). The dancers are wonderful, weightless.
The music was performed faithfully, which is another thing I was worried about. (In a few previews, they movified the music, for some reason; but they didn’t do that in the actual film.) The score is some of the greatest American music of any kind ever written.
The only scene I didn’t like was “Gee, Office Krupke,” and I don’t know why I didn’t like it. Maybe it just had so many dated references, it was harder to work with. As my husband said, it suffers from the same problems as “I Feel Pretty,” but it’s harder to know how to fix it. You definitely can’t take it out of the show, but it just doesn’t land right.
But oh my friends, this movie is gorgeously shot, every moment. The long views of the city streets with the crumbling bricks, just magnificent. The dance before the rumble is opulently heightened, the white students in blues and greens, the Puerto Ricans in reds and purples. When the two gangs approach each other for the rumble, there’s an overhead shot of their shadows mingling that’s pure abstract expressionism, just breathtaking.
And then later the shadows of the cops are shot from a different angle as they come upon the two bodies, and they’re so stubby and ineffective. There’s a little scene where Anita and Bernardo are making out in the morning sun behind some hanging curtains, and it’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.
Beautiful, beautiful work. But it stays true to the era. It doesn’t feel like an update or a reboot; it feels like you’ve returned to the original, but with new powers.
If you have a chance, do watch it in the theater so you can see it as big and hear it as big as possible. Bring tissues. BRING TISSUES.
All images are screenshots from embedded video, above.
Correction: In an earlier version of this essay, I repeatedly referred to Bernardo as “Roberto.” The reason for this is that I am an idiot, sorry.