WEST SIDE STORY. Play it again, Steven

The strongest aspect of the new West Side Story remains the songs.

Jan Brzozowski

12 December 2023

2021 marked the 60th anniversary of the original West Side Story. Was it a good reason to tell this story once again, to create a remake of one of the most popular musicals in the history of cinema? Steven Spielberg thought so; this specific task turned out to be so important to him that he gave up working on the fifth installment of the Indiana Jones adventures, handing over the directorial reins to James Mangold. He devoted all his energy and attention to refreshing the classic American musical – and such an approach paid off with interest.

The story is quite well-known, but for those who haven’t seen the original West Side Story for a long time (or haven’t had the pleasure yet) and read Romeo and Juliet in high school (like me), it’s worth recalling some basic information. The key conflict of the film is the rivalry between two New York youth gangs: the Jets (assimilated descendants of European immigrants, including those from Poland) and the Sharks (non-assimilated Puerto Ricans staying on the sidelines). The former is led by a certain Riff (Mike Faist), while the latter is led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). Guided by a hand reaching all the way back to Shakespeare, fate has it that one of the Jets’ representatives, Tony (Ansel Elgort), falls in love with Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler). The feelings that arise between the characters, instead of uniting the two warring gangs, directly lead to an escalation of the conflict – a brawl ensues, ending in unplanned bloodshed.

Spielberg, as you might guess, approaches the original with great respect. The over 70-year-old director (when the first West Side Story hit the big screens, he was already 15!) is far from a cinematic rebel who would overthrow Hollywood monuments, replacing them with his own, revolutionary constructions, more original and suitable for contemporary times. The narrative changes made by Spielberg and Kushner, the film’s screenwriter, are cosmetic. Sometimes they rearrange the songs, sometimes they change the gender and ethnic affiliation of characters (before anyone gets upset – in a justified, intelligent way: instead of Doc from the original, his wife, a Puerto Rican named Valentina, played by Rita Moreno, appears, who played Anita in the original West Side Story and rightfully won an Oscar for that role), and sometimes they stage dance sequences in a different, sometimes better, sometimes worse way. An example of an interesting, valuable transformation is the relocation of the song “Cool” before the gangs’ clash – in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ film, the character singing it tried to calm his friends down after the fight, regroup the ranks, and prepare the shattered Jets for what was to come later. In Spielberg’s version, however, Tony, the one singing it, tries to prevent the tragic confrontation, to prevent what seems (and rightly so) inevitable.

One significant advantage of the new version of West Side Story is undoubtedly the cast. Spielberg allows himself what the creators of the original could only do to a limited extent, namely, casting real Latinos in Puerto Rican roles. One of the two main roles is played by an American of Colombian descent – Rachel Zegler, who started her career by recording cover songs on YouTube (she earned her role in Spielberg’s film out of 30 thousand candidates, creating her own versions of “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty” for the audition). Whatever one may say about Natalie Wood, the original Maria – she performed significantly worse not only as a singer (she was eventually secretly dubbed by Marni Nixon) but above all as a Puerto Rican, despite being the daughter of a Ukrainian and a Russian. Zegler is matched by Ansel Elgort, who has been combining an acting career with a musical one for years – perhaps even to the benefit of the latter, although I am far from the opinion of people claiming that the American completely lacks charisma and stage craftsmanship. Skillfully guided, as in Baby Driver, Elgort can create an interesting, fully-fledged character on screen. In Spielberg’s film, he performs decently, compensating for all unconvincing moments with excellent vocal and dance performances. Another matter is whether the actor should even appear in the cast of West Side Story given the allegations that were made against him in June of last year. I leave this question open.

However, the strongest aspect of the new West Side Story remains the songs – immortal, timeless (master)pieces written by Stephen Sondheim and musically framed by Leonard Bernstein. Intelligent, catchy, playing with both the English and Spanish languages, funny, penetrating, and, when necessary, moving. Spielberg’s film successfully refreshes these wonderful classics, providing an opportunity for new, incredibly talented performers to showcase their skills. If I had to name one reason why it’s worth going to see the new West Side Story in theaters, I would without hesitation point to the musical layer.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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