West Side Story review: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of classic musical is conservative, with some bright spots

Updated on Dec 11, 2021 01:40 PM IST

West Side Story review: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the musical stars Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria.

West Side Story: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation is a safe celebration of the musical.
West Side Story: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation is a safe celebration of the musical.
By Devarsi Ghosh

Prior to the India release of the new West Side Story, its director Steven Spielberg said that his take on the classic musical is in “direct conversation” with young people of the world right now.

To that effect, screenwriter Tony Kushner slightly updates some of the dialogue to highlight contemporary discourse about ethnic conflict, economic precarity, and police violence in the United States. Unlike the acclaimed 1961 film adaptation, the Puerto Rican characters in Spielberg’s film are played by Latinx actors, keeping in mind the demand for race-appropriate casting today.

But despite these cosmetic changes, the new West Side Story is light on social and political depth, much like the original 1957 Broadway production and the 1961 film.

The stage musical written by Arthur Laurents and directed by Jerome Robbins, featuring lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein was considered a game-changer among musicals for its innovative choreography and dark themes that audiences were unaccustomed to seeing in musical theatre at the time.

Set in working-class New York, the story, inspired by Romeo and Juliet, follows the rivalry between the street gangs Jets, comprising white teenagers, and the Sharks, a Puerto-Rican group. In the new Spielberg film, Riff, the leader of the Jets is played by Mike Faist. David Alvarez plays Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader. When Tony (Ansel Elgort), Riff’s best friend, and Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s sister, fall in love, all hell breaks loose.

The original musical, although inspired by the rise in juvenile delinquency in American cities in the late 1950s, carried timeless themes of racial hatred and young-adult angst. Spielberg and Kushner do flirt with the material’s obvious undercurrent of the need for cross-racial working-class unity to make a last stand against the American political establishment. Here, the Jets and Sharks are again fighting over territory in the Upper West Side of New York, but this time, both groups are threatened by the authorities demolishing their neighbourhood to make way for the Lincoln Center cultural complex.

But Spielberg and Kushner don’t go all the way. Had they fully embraced the text’s untapped potential to produce a politically charged coming-of-age story, we could have had a bold and radical film. Spielberg-Kushner are just fiercely faithful to the text. The end result is a safe celebration of the musical. The parts in the 1961 version which could have been improved at the level of choreography and staging are indeed better in Spielberg's film. But the parts that were absolutely top-notch remain second to none.

First, what’s better.

The superb song America, which was a playful but sharp take on the minority experience in the United States, played out on a rooftop in the 1961 film. Here, the song is brought to the streets and allowed to breathe, soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of its subject matter. The staging and direction of the song Maria in the new film is better as well. The build-up to the pivotal “rumble” fight between the Jets and the Sharks is better-written here. Chino, Bernardo’s preferred romantic partner for his sister, was just another tough guy in the 1961 film. Here, he is a nerd, and that gives him an interesting dimension.

I had hoped that the new film would seriously engage with what I think is the musical’s most underrated character: Anybodys, a Jet woman who sees herself as a man and wants to roll with the boys but is constantly ignored. Here, Anybodys gets a scene to shine, which is great, but, again, the film is too conservative to actually delve deep into issues of gender. I liked Spielberg-Kushner’s replacement of Tony’s father-like boss with the new character Valentina. She is played by Rita Moreno, who played Bernardo’s romantic interest, Anita, in the 1961 film.

Among the performances, Rachel Zegler stands out as a superb Maria. The first-time actor throws herself into the role and is a scene-stealer at every turn. Mike Faist is great as Riff. 

Now, what didn’t work at all.

Ansel Elgort is miscast as Tony. He comes across as too plain and glazed to seem like a man deeply in love. His romantic declarations fall flat, as the power of the lines doesn’t reach Elgort’s eyes. Especially, opposite Zegler, Elgort is a flop. 

The virtuosity of the choreography, staging and direction of most of the song sequences in the 1961 film are simply better; the stage musical’s director-choreographer Jerome Robbins returned to design the dances in the 1961 film, while Robert Wise directed the dramatic parts. The 1961 film’s opening sequence is a fabulous piece of work. It quickly tells us who the Jets and the Sharks are, and feels exactly like how actual street thugs would dance. Here, the opening is just not up to the mark. (The choreography is by Justin Peck). Whatever Wise-Robbins’ film did exceedingly well is simply not bettered by Spielberg-Kushner.

Some of the weaknesses of the original remain intact in the new film. I never understood why Tony and Maria fell for each other. They have nothing in common. They are not a sexy couple like Bernardo-Anita, who look and behave like they are made for each other. We are made to accept Tony and Maria are a thing, because the writers say so. Richard Beymer’s Tony and Natalie Wood’s Maria looked awkward in the 1961 film. Elgort-Zegler is just as bad. (I think the best pair would be Beymer’s Tony and Zegler’s Maria). The finale where the writers shied away from the actual Romeo-Juliet ending to avoid making the musical too depressing, continues to feel strange.

Also see | When Satyajit Ray was advised to sue Steven Spielberg: ‘ET would not be possible without my script’

When I first read that West Side Story was getting a remake, I thought, well, of course. That makes sense, given the material’s themes, which are especially relevant today. I don’t know what conversation Spielberg thinks his movie is having with young people, but, in my view, the new West Side Story is nothing more than Spielberg simply attempting to make a musical film for the first time, based on his childhood favourite.

West Side Story

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez

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