Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated West Side Story is a cinematic masterpiece. Take note directors, this is how you bring a stage musical to the screen!
WHAT IS WEST SIDE STORY?
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers’ story, Romeo and Juliet comes West Side Story. Created from the minds of Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents the show hit the Broadway stage in 1957.
Set in the 1950s Upper West Side of New York City in a multi-racial, blue-collar neighborhood, the musical explores the world of the rivalry gangs the Sharks and the Jets. Two teenage street gangs, one white and the other Puerto Rican. Tony, a former member of the Jets, falls in love with the leader of the Sharks’ sister, Maria. All hell breaks loose because neither side approves of the couple.
THE WEST SIDE STORY 1961 MOVIE
After its success on Broadway, the musical was adapted into a film that went on to sweep at the Academy Awards. However, making history, the biggest win of the night goes to Rita Moreno for her portrayal of Anita. This win makes her the first and only Latine woman to win an Oscar.
The music itself won a Grammy, which is no surprise; it’s a Sondheim musical. The show gives us iconic songs such as, “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “I Feel Pretty” to name a few. While on the surface West Side Story seems like a fluffy rip on the Romeo and Juliet story it dives deeper into a world of racism, classism, police brutality, and more. Which are all things we still deal with as a society today.
As you can see, West Side Story is iconic. However, for me, that doesn’t actually make it good. As controversial as it is to say, I have NEVER enjoyed this musical…until now.
STEVEN SPIELBERG’S WEST SIDE STORY IS A CINEMATIC MASTERPIECE
It is obvious that West Side Story is one of Spielberg’s favorites. It’s also known that he has been dying to do a musical for a long time. So, you can see his love and passion in every frame of this film. Adapting this passion project is Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize Winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America). If you’re going to trust anyone to make changes and update this iconic musical, it’s him.
Some of these major changes, besides updates to the script, is the creation of Rita Moreno’s character, Valentina. The choice to remove Doc wasn’t an easy one, but in doing so Valentina adds an extra layer of depth that is missing from the original. Valentina is a Puerto Rican woman who is Doc’s widow. Yes, she married a white man. She spends her life raising the Jets with a kind grandmother’s hand. However, they don’t see her as a Puerto Rican woman because they know her even though she is the same as those these kids claim to hate.
Rita is also given the 11-O’Clock number that typically Tony and Maria sing, Somewhere. I love this change. Having Valentina sing this song gives it an extra layer of nuance. It’s no longer about Tony and Maria finding a place that will accept them, but a song for all. A song of hope. “Someday. Somewhere. We’ll find a new way of living. Will find a way of forgiving. Somewhere.”
HOW DID SPIELBERG DO THIS?!
The cinematography, set design, costumes, and choreography of West Side Story is nothing short of spectacular. Without the use of CGI, Spielberg and his magical team create blocks in 1950’s New York City, incredible lighting design, and spectacular musical numbers that will have you dancing in your seat.
Somehow the film looks like it’s from the ‘50s, but shot with state-of-the-art cameras, as well as ripped right from the stage. Every lead has a personal spotlight, you can see Ansel’s eyeliner (which normally would never happen in a film). The choreography gives a nod to the original while updating it from the Fosse Esque ballet, cheesy moves of the past. The costumes are colorful and exciting. While keeping iconic ones for the film like Maria’s white dress for the dance.
THE STELLER “UNKNOWN” CAST
While the cast of West Side Story is being billed as a bunch of unknowns, I personally don’t feel that’s the case completely. Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) has made a career from action movies to coming-of-age, and can now add a musical leading man to that list. While I know Elgort can sing (if you haven’t heard his music, fix that) I didn’t know he could take on the music of Stephen Sondheim and do it justice. His portrayal of Tony blew me away. He’s not only charming but devastatingly heartbreaking. He somehow makes me understand how someone and why someone could fall in love overnight.
Rachel Zegler is an absolute delight as Maria. Her singing voice is rich and beautiful. I absolutely fell in love with her and her career is just starting. You can see her in the upcoming Live-Action Snow White film as Snow. As well as, Shazam! Fury of the Gods in 2023. Having huge shoes to fill is Ariana Debose (Schmigadoon) as Anita. As mentioned above, Rita Morena won an Oscar for her portrayal. As well as, Karen Olivo’s recent Tony Award win. These women can breathe a sigh of relief because they passed the torch to the right person. Debose’s Anita is nothing short of a triumph. I already knew she can sing her face-off, but holy smokes. Her dancing, her acting. I can feel every moment of joy and her devastation.
I love David Alvarez’s (American Rust) edgier, more aggressive version of Bernardo. To me, he’s a very easy character to make one-dimensional. As well as newcomer Josh Andrés Rivera’s Chino. All I can say is, Wow. Mike Faist (Panic) as Riff is a perfect choice. He has a great voice and incredible dance skills that I never saw coming.
THE BIGGEST COMPLAINT
I can already see it coming. “Why are there no subtitles?!” Personally, I found the decision to not have subtitles for the Spanish in this film to be a ballsy move that 100% pays off. As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish at all, I never found myself lost in these scenes. They start in English and mostly end in English. A lot of times someone would say the line in Spanish and someone else would repeat it in English. The energy, storyline, and relationships in these scenes are easy enough for a Toddler to follow. So, if you get confused just ask the person near you who’s laughing at the jokes.
I honestly can’t believe I’m saying this, but leave it to Stephen Spielberg to make me enjoy a musical I have disliked for 2 decades. West Side Story comes to theaters on December 10th, 2021. Make sure you see this on the big screen.