Award-winning musical theater pioneer Stephen Sondheim, who passed away at 91 on November 26, started his professional career writing the lyrics to West Side Story. Since the musical’s premiere in 1957 and the subsequent movie that followed in 1961, this Romeo and Juliet re-imagining is considered one of the most seminal pieces of performative art in American history. It’s apropos that director Steven Spielberg’s new adaption not only honors the source material but will be the last movie of Sondheim’s work he saw before his death.
For those who somehow missed watching West Side Story as a kid, the story follows two rival gangs, the white Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (a captivating David Alvarez), battling it out for control of their New York City neighborhood. Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former leader of the former gang, meets Bernardo’s younger sister, María (Rachel Zegler) at a school dance and the two immediately fall in love despite every force keeping them apart. As previously mentioned, the musical was based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with pretty direct character comparisons and outcomes.
Taking on a remake of this magnitude is no easy feat and Spielberg made the correct decision of working with screenwriter and Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner. Spielberg and Kusher stay true to both the stage play and the original film adaptation, including similar choreography and framing. What follows in its fast-feeling runtime of 156 minutes is an amalgamation of both iterations of the musical that addresses some of the problematic racial issues of those previous works.
Songs are placed in different scenes, sung by different characters, or made into duets. How Kushner structured not only the plot but who is singing and when songs are sung is an integral part of why this 2021 West Side Story works. Instead of Riff singing “Cool” to hype up the Jets before their rumble with the Sharks, it becomes Tony’s plea to his friend to not bring a gun or fight at all.
Every single female performance is phenomenal. Ariana DeBose (The Prom, Schmigadoon) steals every scene she is in as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, similar to her film predecessor Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for her work). Speaking of, the almost 90-year-old actress also appears in the film as Valentina, a role formed from soda shop owner Doc. Bringing a female sensibility to the mentor role, Moreno’s appearance doesn’t feel like a cash cow cameo connecting the two film adaptions. Instead, it feels like this is how it should have always been. By the time she starts to sing the show’s most iconic song “Someday”, the change not only feels right but earned. She could very well be nominated for an Oscar.
Rachel Zegler gives a star-making performance as María in her film debut. Her voice was made for this role. While Ansel Elgort feels wooden at times, Zegler clearly brings up his energy and performance level. Her doe-eyed heroine doesn’t feel cheesy or saccharine, but brilliantly complex for a character based on Juliet.
In a world of reboots and remakes, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story doesn’t feel like the cash cow it could be. He respects and admires the source material while still acknowledging its problematic nature. Not only are all the Sharks played by people of color but a variety of skin tones are represented, something In The Heights was called out on earlier this year. Instead of portraying the rival gangs on equal playing fields, the racist undertones of the Jets’ motivations are brought forward. The androgynous Anybodys (Iris Menas), who is played more as a tomboy in the original film, is coded as genderqueer bringing a new layer into the story.
These changes made by Spielberg and Kushner don’t feel like they were made to placate a PC crowd or fill diversity requirements. Instead, it adds authenticity and power to its storytelling and to West Side Story’s legacy as a whole.
West Side Story will hit theaters Dec. 10. Watch the trailer below.