Before I try to explain my regret that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story was not the original, with Robert Wise’s 1961 version as the 2021 remake, I ought to declare an interest.
West Side Story was the first film my mum took me to see. Early in 1964, the soundtrack of the film was among a handful of LPs she bought, when our spanking new ‘stereogram’ arrived.
Mum was also a fan of the 1984 special recording Leonard Bernstein made with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras (though she disapproved of the way Lenny bullied the finely drawn and sensitive Spanish tenor). When she died in 2004, we sent her on her way with Marilyn Horne’s rendition of “Somewhere”, from that same album.
Add to that my conviction that what Bernstein created (in collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and others) is probably the greatest piece of western performance art of the twentieth century, and you’ll have a sense of how much I yearned for West Side Story (2021) to be great.
It is good, though. Spielberg is an outstanding director, and he’s assembled a fine team (Tony Kushner, Gustavo Dudamel, Justin Peck). What they have produced is a fine film, which I do recommend seeing (especially if you’ve never seen the original or witnessed a first class stage production of West Side Story).
Kushner gives us a framing story – a historically-accurate social context: the slums and tenements, where our protagonists live, are scheduled to be cleared to construct a world class arts venue: the Lincoln Center. Clever as this seems, it is one of several underwritten threads in the new version. Although there’s a nice irony that these warring gangs are about to be displaced (they fight and die over turf that will soon belong to neither), class issues are more fully explored in other elements of the story. Similarly, the colour prejudice of Corey Stoll’s Lieutenant Schrank goes nowhere after a leaden monologue about invading ‘brown’ people and underachieving whites. On the whole, Sondheim’s lyrics treat of such issues with more grace, power and economy,
Dudamel is a remarkable conductor, but his feel for jazz remains in question in this handling of Bernstein’s classical jazzy score. Moreover, the singing feels less intimate, less keenly felt than in the original.
Highly rated choreographer, Justin Peck (star of the New York City ballet) devises some excellent routines, but to what avail? Where the steps aren’t actually Jerome Robbins’s originals, Peck seems, almost desperately, to be reaching for that star. His version of “Cool” is a notable exception – sad then, that the 2021 placing of this song inflicts some dramatic damage on the telling of the tale.
It is sometimes overlooked that 1961’s film was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. My guess is this helps explain the unmatchable force and centrality of dance to the original screen version (that, and Daniel L. Fapp’s breathtaking camera work). Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, do a good job, but the pulse never really quickens. The prologue sequence is skilfully shot and wittily choreographed but, unlike the original, never astonishes.
The songs are less effectively integrated into the whole. In 1961, Richard Beymer crackled with youthful anticipation delivering “Something’s Coming.” It’s the recognisable, often illogical and ill-founded excitement of a particular time of life. In Spielberg’s (and Kushner’s) tale, Tony is prompted to hope for something better by storekeeper Valentina’s belief in him. While the subplot is a sound idea, the song now feels tacked on and under-motivated.
Similar issues arise when Maria and Tony first set eyes on each other (at the dance at the gym). “I saw you and the world went away,” she will later sing. In Wise’s film this quite literally happens, whereas Spielberg (a director whose career was largely founded on bringing us moments of magic) presents a naturalistic, almost banal first encounter.
This time around, we take “America” out onto the neighbourhood streets in broad daylight. I understand why, but the passion and erotic promise of a rooftop at night are traded as payment for weaving the young Puerto Ricans into the broader community. Like non-craft beer, it’s perfectly fine if you know no better.
It’s a pity that Peck’s finest moment as a choreographer here comes with a disruption to the dramatic flow of the story. Kushner (again, not without justification) gives Tony a backstory – a red mist moment at a rumble led him to beat a rival gang member almost to death. After a year in detention, he’s out on parole and determined to reform and rebuild his life (with the support of Rita Moreno’s Valentina). Kushner is clearly aiming to construct more of a bond between Tony and Riff, as co-founders of street gang, the Jets (a friendship certainly underdeveloped in Laurents’s book). When the show first moved from stage to screen, “Cool” was re-situated and recast as a post-Rumble angst-ridden ritual, involving surviving Jets and their girlfriends. It’s an unforgettable, barely-controlled explosion of energy and style.
The same number now becomes an angry confrontation between the two friends over Riff’s purchase of a handgun. It is splendidly choreographed by Peck, but it is impossible (for those of us who’ve seen it) not to pine for the sweat, threat, heartbreak, and turmoil of the original scene. For my money, the original plotting works better, too.
One effect of enhancing the Tony/Riff bond is to undercut that between Tony and Maria. Part of the problem is casting. Rachel Zegler is a winning Maria – not quite Natalie Wood, but within touching distance. However, while Ansel Elgort’s Tony is tall and handsome (part young Brando or, less glamorously, young David Morrissey) he struggles to persuade us that he’s head-over-heels (a weakness partly redeemed in Valentina’s basement, as the finale approaches).
Because of the talent gathered together, the 2021 film does triumph in a couple of aspects. Iris Menas gives us Anybodys as more trans than tomboy, and this works unequivocally. David Alvarez as Bernardo is less pretty than George Chakiris, but more persuasive and menacing. Ariana DeBose, taking over the mantilla of Anita, gives the splendid Moreno a genuine run for her money.
Two key scenes in the remake exceed what was achieved in the original. “One Hand, One Heart,” (relocated to the Church of the Intercession, Washington Heights) is beautiful and moving, and the finale, powerful in 1961, is now more brief, more brutal and all the more effective for it.
If you haven’t seen West Side Story in any form, see a doctor to check your head (and also your heart); perhaps even a priest, to check your soul. Then, see both of these films (2021 version first) before booking, as soon as is permissible, to see it on stage.
“The air is humming,
And something great is coming!”
West Side Story (12A) is showing at Home, Manchester and cinemas nationwide.