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How Steven Spielberg Unlocks ‘West Side Story’ for Film

The Sondheim classic has always been a source of untapped potential

20th Century Studios/Ringer illustration

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a potentially dangerous text: It just might encourage every big studio in Hollywood to keep working on all those remakes or reboots of all your favorite childhood films.

But the key word there is favorite: Compared to other successful American musicals, and despite its 10 Oscars, the 1961 adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s play doesn’t have many fans today. Perhaps it’s blasphemous to admit, but Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story doesn’t really work, turning Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s quality tunes into irritating moments of filmed musical theater. Yet perhaps what makes the movie such an intriguing subject is its obvious untapped potential: much like the protagonists at the end of the film, spectators have been left dreaming of what could have been. Now 60 years later, Spielberg has offered his own version of the classic tale, and what feels—almost uncomfortably so—like a correction of the original.

As soon as the Jets first arrive on the scene with their arrogant and menacing finger snapping, the contrast with their predecessors is evident. These New Gen Jets are genuinely intimidating, and so are the surroundings into which they blend effortlessly. Instead of the primary colors that reminded spectators of the film’s origins in theater, here the walls are covered in nothing but soot and stains, the usual urban decay that we learn to live with. These young men, moving as a pack, look more like dangerous delinquents than svelte dancers. In a word, every element, from the set design to the choreography, is steeped in a realist aesthetic—this is definitely not Broadway. Rather than abstracted into sudden dance moves and mean faces, the violence pumping in the veins of these men is made crystal clear. Passersby, absent in the original film, are witnesses to the terror that the Jets spread around the West Side when they push people over without looking back or angrily paint over a mural of the Puerto Rican flag. And when the Sharks show up to defend themselves, fists truly hit faces instead of narrowly and elegantly drifting by them, in time with the music.

With the benefit of hindsight, writer Tony Kushner (collaborating with Spielberg for the third time) is able to stay true to the material and adapt it to history as we’ve known it since 1955, when the play was written. The neighborhood in which the Jets and the Sharks are fighting will never be theirs anyway—as the opening overhead shot makes clear, the Lincoln Center will soon make San Juan Hill simply a memory and define New York culture for generations to come, but not for these young men, who won’t have the means to move into the bigger new apartments that will be sprouting where the slums once were. This cruel reality taints every interaction between the Jets and the Sharks: the desperation of both gangs to belong somewhere is at the forefront and makes their animosity toward each other all the more convincing and heartbreaking. The complexity of those dynamics is restored by Kushner’s attention to the details of this particular context, and made human rather than theoretical thanks to the performers, who breathe as much energy and emotion into their dialogue as their dance sequences.

As Jets leader Riff, lanky and fit Mike Faist is snakelike, at once charming and repulsive, tough and confident but also angry at the changes he sees happening all around him. His enemy, the boxer Bernardo—played by the equally impressive David Alvarez—is on the other side of the same coin, although his and his friends’ pain is compounded by the racism of the authorities. When police arrive to break them up, it is clear which gang Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) despises less—but as the Sharks disperse, they proudly sing the Puerto Rican anthem, making it the film’s first tune. More than just acknowledging cultural differences, West Side Story 2.0 gives equal room to the Hispanic community: the Puerto Rican characters talk to each other, more often than not, in Spanish (which any spectator can still understand), and the casting steers clear of cultural appropriation this time around. The 1961 version was fundamentally flawed by having two white actors play both Tony, the white Romeo, and Maria, the Puerto Rican Juliet he falls in love with. This time, the problem of racism in society is more than a concept to explore through song, drama, and heavy makeup—it’s the reality of life for these characters.

As the tension between the Sharks and the Jets is better contextualized, the dance night that brings together both camps is explained as a “social experiment”—why else would they ever be in the same room? The “Mambo” number is fun and explosive, with an ensemble giving a performance that highlights many different personalities. And just as the racial and economic dimensions are better integrated into the story, Spielberg’s filmmaking better combines the dances with the narrative: no number is a complete pause in the story for a moment of spectacle. Instead, the musical sequences are opportunities for heightened storytelling, choreography and song utilized to move the plot forward in a different yet still cinematic way. Where the original film struggled to depict the love-at-first-sight moment between Tony and Maria during that club night, using ugly blurring effects typical of 1960s Pop American cinema, Spielberg adopts a more traditional and effective approach, relying on delicate compositions and letting the actors (Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler) express the electric connection through their performances. Spielberg understands that if this encounter is as powerful as it is meant to be, it should speak for itself—and it does.

Spielberg’s more cinematic approach may not please everyone, in particular fans of the musical. He multiplies locations, often for the better—the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number is doubly entertaining because its ironic discussion of juvenile delinquency takes place inside a police station, which the Jets then leave in shambles—and other times with diminishing results, as when “America” takes Anita (Ariana DeBose) across town and leaves you longing for the more simple yet more fiery dancing of Rita Moreno in 1961. The combination of dance and story is best achieved in the bone-chilling sequence when Tony tries to take a loaded gun away from his best friend Riff while singing “Cool”: the weapon adds some much needed tension that, in return, jars with the song’s message about staying calm. Elgort, although not the most dynamic dancer of the bunch, fares better here than he did in Baby Driver, perhaps because he’s given more concrete dramatic goals than driving around while tapping along to the music on his steering wheel. As Tony, he is responsible not only for himself, but for his lover and his neighborhood, too.

Tony is also made more complex and, therefore, becomes a better character; his reason for no longer wanting to be part of the Jets is his dark past, when his gang led him to jail and almost to murder. Elgort understands the weight that his character lives with and translates it into a blasé and careful disposition; instead of naively optimistic, his version of “Something’s Coming” is more tentatively hopeful. As for Maria, Zegler brings to her a natural charisma and more awareness, too. Both lovers are fleshed out into much more than romantic ideals of purity and joy.

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s critique of the oppressive power of an unequal society, has often been simplified into the story of two impossibly wide-eyed lovers destroyed by fate, but with their West Side Story, Spielberg and Kushner return it to its original shape. In the process, they amplify the tale’s continued relevance and timeliness. The film’s willingness to be blunt about racism, misogyny, and economic disparity makes its more elevating moments all the more tragic and justified, and the music matches the energy by being more produced, more direct, and somehow better fitted to those sinister themes. Rather than an abstract interpretation of racial violence, Spielberg’s West Side Story uses all the tools of filmmaking to better bring together the classic story and songs into a unified piece of cinema, like a strong fist in which each finger is as determined as the others to revolt.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.