Two Stories to Love: WEST SIDE STORY

By Maribeth Thueson

The camera swoops romantically over the towers of lower Manhattan, moving up from the Battery to the brownstone neighborhoods of Hell’s Kitchen while a whistle rings out and another whistle answers. It’s the unmistakable beginning to one of the most revered and beloved musicals of all time, West Side Story (1961), which was filmed in the condemned neighborhood that was subsequently demolished to make room for Lincoln Center. This time the camera soars over wrecked buildings that look the the aftermath of a war-time bombing campaign, coming to rest on a sign with a picture of Lincoln Center, designating the destruction as an urban-renewal project. This second opening is from West Side Story (2021), which makes the demolition part of the story.

I love West Side Story (1961). I mean, I really love it. If murderous aliens came to Earth and demanded proof of why they should let humans live, I would offer WSS as exhibit “A” of the beauty and excellence of which humanity is capable. The jazz-inflected music by Leonard Bernstein, the clever lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the wonderful choreography by Jerome Robbins, the emotional storyline by writers Ernest Lehman and Arthur Laurents, the colorful costumes by Irene Sharaff, and the absolutely terrific performances and dancing – you can’t beat it.

Not that it’s perfect, of course. Natalie Wood’s (Maria) singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, and Richard Beymer’s (Tony) singing voice was dubbed by Jimmy Bryant. But that’s okay, it’s better to have a great voice sing the song if the actor isn’t capable. What’s worse is that as enchanting as Wood was, she was certainly not Puerto Rican, and most of the actors portraying the Sharks weren’t, either. Furthermore, they were all made to wear the same dark shade of makeup, as if all Puerto Ricans have the same skin tone. So you could say there was room for improvement.

All of which made me very nervous when it was announced that Stephen Spielberg was remaking WSS. How dare he? WSS is a classic! You can’t remake a classic! Look what happened when they tried it with Psycho and Charade! And yet . . . maybe this time the Sharks could be portrayed by Latinx actors, and everyone does their own singing.

I am happy to report that the new version of WSS meets those minimum requirements, and that everyone’s voices are up to the task. Some of the singing was recorded on set, which adds to the immediacy and emotion of the songs, especially during “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” None of the music was changed. It’s played mostly by the New York Philharmonic, with some post-Covid additions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it sounds spectacular. The lyrics stay the same, too, with some minor changes to the beginning of “America” to make the comments about Puerto Rico less offensive.

The big changes come in Tony Kushner’s screenplay. Kushner and Spielberg have set their film firmly in the 1957 New York of the stage play, rather than the 1961 world of the first movie. To their credit, they realized their limitations in making a movie about Puerto Ricans and did extensive research to try to limit stereotyped depictions of the characters. These Puerto Ricans are strivers, on their way up in their adopted home: Bernardo wants to be a professional boxer. Anita is a seamstress who wants to sell her own designs. Chino studies accounting, and Maria wants to go to college. They speak Spanish without English subtitles, and they also have additional scenes where they talk about their aspirations. 

The Jets, in contrast, look more like the greasers they are, scruffy, starved, and feral, as opposed to the Jets of 1961, some of whom would have looked at home in a Beach Party movie. Their parents are drug addicts and criminals, and they live mostly on the street. As Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) tells them, the immigrants of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have moved up and out, and those who remain are “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians.” Their shrinking entitlement makes them more determined to defend their territory in their collapsing neighborhood. When they triumphantly declare that they can beat any other gang on the street, they are standing on a pile of rubble, defending worthless ground.

Tony, the Jets’ former leader, was merely a naive kid in the first movie, but in Kirshner’s screenplay he’s been toughened up, having just served a year in jail for beating someone nearly to death in a previous gang fight. Now he is determined to change the direction of his life. Ansel Elgort gives a steady performance as Tony, but he can’t keep Tony from being the blandest character in the show. Rachel Zigler sparkles as Maria, but both of them are overshadowed by the sheer energy of the secondary characters. David Alvarez, who won a Tony at 14 for Billy Elliot, gives Bernardo a suppressed rage, a calculating intelligence, and a macho attitude toward women. Riff, played by Mike Faist, is a budding psychopath, a walking sneer to the establishment.

Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in 1961, is Valentina, Doc’s widow, who runs the candy store. She and Doc had the marriage Tony and Maria should have had, and she is the only adult who has any moral authority with the kids. Doc’s store, which sits right on the edge of the boundary between the no-man’s-land of the demolition and the remaining neighborhood, is neutral turf for both gangs. After the devastating results of the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks, Valentina sings “Somewhere,” a song that wishes for a better life in a better place. In the 1961 movie, the song was between Tony and Maria, making it intimate and personal. In the stage show, the song was sung by the entire cast, making the dream something they all wished for, but in 2021, Valentina sings the song for herself and for both sides in the conflict, taking it back to the original intention in a tender moment. However, as much as I understand the impulse to give Moreno a song to sing, it’s a bit strange that Valentina sings “Somewhere,” and by the time she sings it, it’s too late for the song’s intention. 

Ariana DeBose, who played “the bullet” in the original Hamilton cast, seems likely to be nominated for an Oscar this time around (although wouldn’t it be a kick if Moreno were also nominated?). DeBose’s Anita is full of life and isn’t afraid to say what she thinks. When Bernardo is being a jerk, she doesn’t hesitate to tell him so, claiming that she has rights, too, since she is also paying rent on their apartment. She has the starring role in “America,” shining in a bright yellow dress, whirling out the door into the street and involving the whole neighborhood. In the aftermath of the rumble, you can see her visibly age, and when she is sexually assaulted in Doc’s store, she fights back and gets in some good licks before she is overwhelmed. It’s a bravura performance.

The other character deserving of mention is Anybodys, who was presented as a “tomboy” in 1961, and who is definitely a trans character in 2021, played by the non-binary actor Iris Menas. Anybodys unambiguously declares “I’m not a girl!” and considers it high praise when one of the Jets says, “You done good, buddy-boy.”

Despite these changes, the 2021 West Side Story remains remarkably faithful to the original movie for the first half, and it’s a thrill to watch the new actors inhabit the characters. The choreography, by Justin Peck, which freely quotes Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, uses less ballet and is more aggressive. The rumble’s dancey choreography has been replaced by fight choreography and is much more violent, which fits the realism of the film. “Gee Officer Krupke” now happens in the police station instead of on a stoop, but the glee remains the same. And the dance at the gym is a joyous explosion of movement.

However, in the second half, the order of the songs is changed in a way that doesn’t make sense. Instead of taking place in the dress shop, which no longer exists, “I Feel Pretty” takes place in the department store where Maria works as a cleaning lady, and it is placed after the rumble but before Maria has learned what has happened. That’s probably an effort to lighten the mood, but the song is an awkward fit there because its bright optimism doesn’t fit the mood of the moment. “Cool” now happens as a confrontation between Tony and Riff before the rumble instead of afterward as the Jets are calming their emotions. It’s an exciting number, but it totally changes what “Cool” is about, and I miss the terrific original “Cool” in the parking garage.

We’ll be comparing and contrasting the two versions of West Side Story until the end of our days. It’s not a question of which one is definitive; it’s more evaluating and appreciating the good points and not-so-good points of each, kind of like debating different versions of Shakespeare (the 1968 Romeo and Juliet is definitely the one to watch), or which Batman or Spiderman is best. I grew up with the 1961 version, so it will always have a fond place in my heart, with the luscious George Chakiris and Moreno in her purple dress and Black Orchid perfume, but I will also enjoy watching the 2021 version for the things that it does better. There’s no reason to choose. Love them both.

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