It’s very, very difficult to find anything wrong with Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. That needs mentioning, because remaking long-ago hit movies—particularly musicals—is a tricky business with many opportunities for a pitfall. In his relatively faithful re-imagining of the 1961 cultural landmark, Spielberg not only avoids the potential missteps, he overcomes them with maximum style and grace. At the height of his powers, Spielberg enlarges the original Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise/Ernest Lehman/Arthur Laurents romantic fairy tale without taking away any of the ingredients that made it so powerful. The result is a joy to behold.
In significant ways the new West Side Story falls into the “remedial remake” category. That is, playwright Tony Kushner’s rewrite for Spielberg carefully updates the material to reflect artistic and social realities that were already present—though barely visible—in the original. Real Puerto Rican New Yorkers did indeed speak Spanish to each other, and still do. Eminent domain and sky-high real estate valuations were indeed replacing Manhattan Island’s old-time ethnic enclaves in 1961, and the situation now is even more discouraging. Meanwhile, new immigrants such as Maria, beautifully personified by singer Rachel Zegler; Anita (Ariana DeBose); and Bernardo (David Alvarez) face more racist vitriol in 2021 than they ostensibly did during the John F. Kennedy years, primarily because they’re poor people of color.
These same issues are still achingly relevant today. The poignant refrain behind both the 1961 and 2021 versions is one of hope, the optimistic concept that in spite of everything, love conquers all. Arguably, there was still hope for the Marias and Tonys of the world in the early ’60s. And it’s refreshing to glimpse the notion that hope still exists, stubbornly clinging to star-crossed lovers from warring camps, alongside the bitter observation by one of the Sharks: “Sooner or later the gringos kill everything.”
Of course, even the best-intentioned social messages mean very little after we’ve plopped down in our $23 IMAX seat on a Saturday night, with a duffel-bag-sized sack of popcorn, ready to sing along with “I like to be in America/Okay by me in America.” We come to West Side Story to be entertained with song and dance, not a sociology lecture. Spielberg wallops us with some of the finest production values available: Leonard Bernstein’s patently unforgettable tunes; the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, only slightly updated; Justin Peck’s reinvigorated choreography; Adam Stockhausen’s production design; and Janusz Kaminski’s nocturnal cinematography—even the daytime scenes seem lit by streetlights and the moon.
Maria and Tony—Ansel Elgort from Baby Driver—doing their own singing while dangling from fire escapes, pretty much make us forget about Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Lanky Elgort is convincing as Tony the ex-con born-again dreamer, a mesmerized romantic crooner. TV actor Zegler, however, the pura neta of Spielberg’s vast talent search, is the best of all possible Marias, with a Broadway stage voice to match her slum-goddess face. De Bose; Alvarez; Corey Stoll, as the gangs’ police nemesis, Lt. Schrank; Mike Faist, with an electrifying rapid-fire vocal delivery as leader of the Jets, Riff; and Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino, fulcrum of the rumble’s worst destruction, all contribute ideal support to the doomed lovers. Spielberg and Kushner reserve a special role for Rita Moreno: Moreno’s original Anita enjoys a welcome more-than-cameo as Valentina, a brand-new character, the shopkeeper and moral arbiter of the piece. She carries the Latin soul of the original production around full circle, in a characterization we’d be happy to follow into her own vehicle.
Spielberg’s version brings 60 years of technical advances to an already compelling urban folk tale—thanks again, Mr. Shakespeare. And, naturally, he leaves absolutely nothing to chance. Case in point: the comic-book display in the bodega. There must be thousands of dollars’ worth of graphic collectors’ items on those walls, CGI notwithstanding. In this neighborhood the richness is everywhere we look.