West Side Story

Rating: 5 out of 5.

You’ve got to hand it to Steven Spielberg. In his 50 years of making movies, he has never directed a musical before and when he decides to start, he chooses to remake one of the most illustrious of all time. That takes guts. The 1957 Broadway show was conceived by Jerome Robbins featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It became a landmark 1961 film that made $43.7 million ($400 million adjusted for inflation) and won a whopping 10 Oscars including Best Picture. The soundtrack spent 54 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts, giving it the longest run at No. 1 of any album in history. It was an imposing task. I’m happy to say the gamble pays off.

The beloved tale is a well-known formula of timeworn components. Rival street gangs face off in NYC. It concerns the Sharks who hail from Puerto Rico vs. the nativist white gang the Jets. Side note: actor Mike Faist is a revelation as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and the story isn’t even about him. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a former Jet who went to jail and is now a reformed character. He meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), a beautiful 18-year-old at a community dance. Tony and Maria instantly fall in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together. Ah, movies! Complicating matters is that she’s the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Anita (Ariana DeBose) is his assertive girlfriend. More on her later. Trying to keep the peace is Valentina (Rita Moreno), a widow who now runs Doc’s general store. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, a doomed romance between star-crossed sweethearts. In this case, from different sides in 1950s Manhattan.

This bright, uplifting musical got my emotions going. Each production number is a big rousing larger-than-life event. “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “Somewhere” – I’ve loved these tunes for years. Every fan will cite a favorite. For me, the highlight has always been the spirited “America” sung by the Puerto Ricans that pits the women who list all the things they champion about their adoptive country against their male counterparts who play up all the negative aspects. I appreciate the mixed meter of a chant that espouses pro-American views but is rooted in vibrant Latin rhythms and Spanish guitar. It’s both funny and athletic. When the women start twirling their dresses as the men leap and jump while the camera zooms in and out, I thought, THIS is cinema. I was enthralled. The singing is stellar across the board. In a cast of many highlights, the MVP goes to Ariana Dubose as Anita. She has some pretty big shoes to fill. Rita Moreno famously received a well-earned Oscar for that role. Ariana is more than up to the task.

In a word, West Side Story is spectacular. This grand production is a perfect marriage of old and new. There is such respect for its iconic predecessor. Composer David Newman arranges Bernstein’s timeless score with passion and verve. Meanwhile, Justin Peck updates Jerome Robbins’ influential dance routines. Peck is the resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet. They honor the source material but gently modernize the piece for a 2021 audience. The balletic moves are more realistically violent when depicting the fights. Additionally, screenwriter Tony Kushner spends extra time fleshing out the Puerto Rican personalities. Many have called this the “greatest musical ever made.” * I walked in arms folded with the attitude, “Why are we remaking this classic?” and I left the theater thinking, “Did that just top the original?” The leads as written in the play have never been the most captivating characters. The supporting parts have so much more charisma. That’s true once again, although I’d argue Tony and Maria are slightly more compelling here than their 1961 equivalents. Apologies to Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Whether this tops that version overall is debatable. I can’t give a decisive answer because I’m still not sure. However, just the fact that I’m even entertaining the idea, speaks to the immense talent that is Steven Spielberg.


*Not a definitive list, but offhand I know I enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and The Sound of Music more.

7 Responses to “West Side Story”

  1. Wow. This is now the second consecutive review from revivers I really respect that have given this either top marks or close to it. This excites me big-time. I have so much love for West Side Story, and I didn’t think Spielberg would be able to get close. I didn’t think he would blow it but, perhaps, musicals and Spielberg might have made for an odd match. Apparently that’s not the case!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Job well done Spielberg. This was, in parts, better than the original. I actually got choked up on some of the performances. Loved it!! I agree, Ariana was a highlight, I’m sure Rita was proud. The singing by all was top notch. Riff was pretty darn good too. Been listening to the soundtrack on repeat since. 4 1/2 ⭐️


  3. Hey, maybe the best movie of the year deserves at least half a star better than, for instance, Luca. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Reread my synopsis of the film in my year end recap. I acknowledge that I was stingy in my star rating. However reviews & ratings are always of a particular moment. That is how I felt right after I saw the film.

      Feelings change. In this case, for the better.


  4. You’re absolutely right. The biggest problem with this musical is the vapidity of the two romantic leads, especially as contrasted with the relative colorfulness of most of the supporting characters. I used to blame it on Beymer’s lack of charisma and Wood’s lack of latin-ness; but I was (mostly) wrong. The problem, I think now, goes all the way back to Shakespeare. Mercutio (Riff) was way more interesting (and likeable) than Romeo (Tony).

    A couple of other weaknesses are:

    1. the artificiality of the dialogue and indeed of the whole milieu as depicted at something approaching comic book level. I wasn’t satisfied with the 1961 approach to handling this problem but imposing more grittiness and incorporating “realistic” touches like genuine obscenities doesn’t solve it either; maybe makes it worse.

    2. The temptation to preach. It’s good to see Rita Moreno punching up a part she’s been given well into her 80’s, but maybe the screenwriter tries a little too hard to have the wise old lady give us ordinary folks a lesson about love and hate.

    Anyway, the production’s full of good things, the songs and choreography and overall energy for sure; and as an antidote to too much saving-the-world, thank heavens for the bemused skepticism Sondheim put into the lyrics of, for example, America and Sgt. Krupke.

    Without re-seeing the 61 version, like you, I don’t know which I prefer. The thing that tends to legislate in the earlier version’s favor though is that the whole idea and approach for a musical was way more innovative 60 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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