Movies

Spielberg’s West Side Story Proves the Controversial Musical Shouldn’t Be Retired

The dazzling new movie shows there’s a place for the troublesome, ever-evolving show.

A still from the 2021 West Side Story of three women in colorful dresses dancing in a 1960s-era New York street
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

If Stephen Sondheim had not died only a week before the theatrical release of Steven Spielberg’s dazzling remake of West Side Story, the movie’s reception might have felt different. Less elegiac, probably, with more room for an irreverence toward the widely beloved musical that its reluctant lyricist would no doubt have welcomed. Sondheim regarded his contribution to the score as a piece of slightly embarrassing juvenilia, saying he had only accepted the job because his mentor and surrogate father Oscar Hammerstein encouraged him to get experience setting lyrics to someone else’s music, in this case the superstar conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s.

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But the loss of the songwriter who would go on to invent a new kind of musical theater, and the resulting conversations about the history of the form we’ve been having over the last week, also place a variety of preexisting questions in a new light: questions about what it means to adapt West Side Story in 2021, 60 years after Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning film adaptation and 64 since the play’s Broadway debut. Who gets to tell whose story, and in what language? Is a musical about interracial violence conceived and created by four white men (Sondheim, Bernstein, the original show’s librettist Arthur Laurents, and its director and choreographer Jerome Robbins) really best reinterpreted for the 21st century by more white men (Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, choreographer Justin Peck)? Taking on these debates in a productive way, one that doesn’t just restage the same old critical battles like the Jets and the Sharks’ endless turf wars, requires some consideration of the property’s long and, from its inception, troubled history. Arguing about the representation of race and ethnicity in West Side Story is as old as … West Side Story.

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As much as anyone, the auteur of the stage show was Jerome Robbins, who had first gone to Bernstein and Laurents in 1947 with the idea for a Romeo and Juliet–style love story set against the background of the New York slums. Robbins’ idea was to make the forbidden romance between an Irish-Catholic boy and an Eastern European Jewish girl, two children of immigrants kept apart by their families’ biases. The play was to be set on the Lower East Side and called East Side Story.

After a first draft was written, the project was scrapped when the creators decided it was too close in themes and story to a 1922 hit play called Abie’s Irish Rose. That show had since become a long-running radio serial that was canceled in 1945 because of listeners’ objections to its broad ethnic stereotyping, a holdover from vaudeville-era stage comedy that by the post–World War II era seemed offensively dated. A 1946 movie version starring Bing Crosby had been controversial for a similar reason: Variety called the story “a topical misfit” at a time when “minorities become political footballs, when all the energies of postwar rehabilitation seem to focus on better understanding.”

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The choice to make West Side Story’s feuding Montagues and Capulets into white and Puerto Rican street gangs, then, was first meant as a socially progressive gesture, a way of connecting developments within musical theater to problems in the world outside. The show’s radicality to audiences at the time lay not in its casting—aside from Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Anita, there was only one other Puerto Rican actor in the Broadway cast—but in its downbeat subject matter, its fusion of classical and modern musical theater styles, and the centrality of dance to its storytelling.

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The 1961 film adaptation, co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, had an even more explicit social message. Wise was a Hollywood veteran who had been nominated for an Oscar for editing Citizen Kane, and who would later direct everything from The Sound of Music to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He was known for his sensitive handling of “issue” movies that, like the Harry Belafonte–starring crime thriller Odds Against Tomorrow, were sometimes explicitly about racism and racial violence. Yet the casting of white actors in brownface in nearly every Puerto Rican role in West Side Story went unremarked on in the mainstream press, except when it was praised: Time magazine’s review sighed that “Natalie Wood has the right dark glow as the Latin heroine.”

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Audiences, too, seemed largely unbothered by the film’s racial politics. West Side Story was nominated for 11 Oscars, won 10 of them, and became the highest-grossing film of 1961. If anything, West Side Story was seen by most critics as a step forward in the depiction of urban reality on-screen: The reviewer for the Chicago Tribune characterized the film’s mission as “social significance, with song and dance.”

Tony and Maria holding hands with members of their respective communities behind them
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
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During the six decades since, thinking about race and representation on stage and screen has undergone radical and welcome change. The ubiquity of West Side Story as a high school production began to wane as the awkwardness of race-blind casting for this particular show came into sharper relief. A 2009 Broadway revival brought in Lin-Manuel Miranda, fresh from winning the Tony for his Latin-inflected hip-hop musical In the Heights, to write versions of the lyrics to be performed in Spanish. When Spielberg first approached Kushner in 2014 with the idea of rewriting the book of West Side Story, the playwright’s first concern was how to make the story relevant to a modern audience with a more nuanced understanding of and engagement with issues like racism, poverty, gentrification, and assimilation.

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Spielberg and Kushner’s reenvisioning of the story with an eye to its broader historical context makes its ambitions known from the start with a first shot that seems to reference both the bird’s-eye view opening of the 1961 film and the beginning of Citizen Kane. The camera, wielded by longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski with his usual fluid kineticism, sails over the rubble of a recent demolition site, then tilts up a chain-link fence surrounding the property. A sign on the fence indicates that the residential blocks being destroyed by a wrecking ball will one day become the upscale cluster of cultural institutions known as Lincoln Center.

The movie that follows feels both familiar and thrillingly new. Bernstein’s score—played by the New York Philharmonic and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel in a new arrangement by David Newman—sounds more spikily exuberant than ever. The dancing, with Peck’s choreography incorporating Robbins’ balletic style into more athletic, asymmetrical shapes, explodes off the screen. Adam Stockhausen’s production design is suspended between the immediacy of a location shoot and the romanticism of a well-dressed backlot: Clotheslines hung with colorful laundry and Rear Window–style exchanges between neighbors across tenement courtyards figure largely in the staging of group numbers like “America” and “Tonight.” Paul Tazewell’s costumes—color-coded by group affiliation, with the Jets in stay-cool-boy colors and the Sharks in warm yellows and reds—also contribute hugely to the success of ensemble set pieces like the high school dance where Tony and Maria first meet. And the singing, coached by Kushner’s Caroline, or Change musical collaborator Jeanine Tesori, is almost uniformly excellent, even among actors not previously known for their musical theater stylings.

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Most importantly, Spielberg, with his usual keen eye for camera placement and movement, knows how to capture all this in a way that achieves that most difficult of tasks for a filmed musical: The singing and dancing seem to spring organically from the story, with none of the stiffness and claustrophobia that can arise from attempts to bottle the lightning of live performance within a frame. The most surprising thing about West Side Story, Spielberg’s most dynamic movie in years, is how at home the director seems in a genre he has never before worked in. The balance between realism and stylization necessitated by the show is so confidently handled you wonder why he waited until age 74 to start making musicals.

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Just as was the case in the 1961 film, perhaps the least dramatically interesting part of West Side Story is the love-at-first-sight romance between Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort). Shakespeare understood this well: To experience the full tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’s thwarted love, we should find their adolescent infatuation slightly absurd. The lyrics to “Tonight,” an example of the flowery language Sondheim disavowed (“Tonight, tonight/ The world is wild and bright/ Going mad, shooting sparks into space”), let us experience the young couple’s emotional liftoff vicariously, even as we anticipate the disillusionment we know is in store. The interweaving vocal lines in this song, as the lovers’ voices crisscross with those of the gangs preparing for their deadly rumble, remain a transcendent example of musical storytelling. Sondheim’s songwriting was about to head in a different direction, but having been a part of the creation of “Tonight” is hardly an occasion for shame. If his contribution to the score as a twentysomething newcomer is, in a way, a work of juvenilia, that makes it uniquely suited to a storyline driven by the rashness of youth.

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[Read: How Stephen Sondheim Solved the Puzzle of Being Alive]

To give the lovers’ potentially drippy plotline some psychological and sociological texture, Kushner provides Tony with a dark backstory: He has just served a year in prison for beating a member of a rival gang nearly to death, and has resolved to keep his distance from his own former gang, the Jets. This causes tension between Tony and his best friend Riff, played by Dear Evan Hansen stage veteran Mike Faist with anguished intensity and movie-star-making charisma.

On the Sharks side, the star in the making is Rachel Zegler, a YouTube star chosen by Spielberg from among tens of thousands of contenders in a Cinderella-style open casting call when she was only 16. Compared with the 23-year-old Natalie Wood in the 1961 film, Zegler reads on-screen as a real teenager, with a girlish sweetness tempered by fierce intelligence. In comparison, the soft-featured Tony seems like something of a lug, but again, here the film is not far from its Shakespearean source material: Juliet always did have more on the ball than Romeo. As Maria’s brother Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita, David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose display a sparkier erotic connection, especially when they lock eyes during the glorious dance-off that is “America.”

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The actors playing Puerto Ricans often speak in unsubtitled Spanish, a way of acknowledging that some percentage of the audience is made up of Spanish speakers, and also of making the point that whoever feels shut out by this undeciphered speech might do well to recognize that America is a country with no national language. When it comes to gender identity, too, the film quietly but insistently brings itself up to the present. The character of the wannabe Jet Anybodys, originally coded as a tomboyish girl, is here played by the nonbinary actor iris menas as a trans man looking for recognition from his would-be peers.

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Perhaps the most complex expression of the ambivalent response Americans have—and have always had—toward West Side Story can be found in the story of Rita Moreno, whose performance as Anita in the 1961 film made her the first Latina actress to win an Oscar (and remains the most memorably perfect piece of casting in that generally wildly miscast film). In a recent interview, Moreno recalled wearing heavy dark makeup and putting on a thick accent to appear more typically Latina. She also remembers considering withdrawing from the film because of her discomfort with a line in the song “America” that had also caused controversy during the show’s Broadway run: “Puerto Rico, you ugly island/ Island of tropic diseases.” After a producer, unaware of Moreno’s objection to it, pointed out the same lyric to Sondheim as potentially offensive (not to mention, as the New York Times had pointed out, inaccurate), the lyricist swapped out the line for the less derogatory “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion/ Let it sink back in the ocean.”

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Relieved, Moreno sang the revised lyric, won her Oscar, and went on to not make another movie for the next seven years. She simply could not find any role to play that was not a demeaning ethnic stereotype—which, despite the brownface makeup and the put-on Puerto Rican accent, was not at all her experience of playing Anita. Recalling that time in her life, she has said, “Anita, believe it or not, was the only part I ever remember where I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way,” and she also recalled how important the character was to younger Latinx actors looking for role models. Anita in West Side Story remains among the defining roles of Moreno’s distinguished EGOT-winning career, and one she valued enough to return to the same material 60 years later as both actress and executive producer.

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In the remake, Moreno, who will turn 90 the day after the film opens, plays a new character, Valentina, the Puerto Rican widow of the kindly pharmacy owner who offered Tony shelter and advice in the 1961 film. The rueful ballad “Somewhere,” previously a love duet between Tony and Maria, is given to Valentina to sing as a solo while the camera roams through the neighborhood, showing us the rest of the characters one by one as they grieve their losses and prepare to confront their fate. That shift in point of view completely changes the meaning of the song, turning the “us” of the refrain (“there’s a place for us”) into not just the two star-crossed lovers but the immigrant community as a whole.

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The suggestion by some critics (not all of whom have seen the new version yet) that West Side Story is a creaky dinosaur that should be retired from the American cultural repertoire seems, to this admittedly white critic, like an underestimation of the complexity of what the show has meant to performers and audiences alike over the decades, though it is certainly long past time for creators of color to tell their stories as well. The strength of Spielberg and Kushner’s reimagining—in addition to the simple, overpowering beauty of its music, lyrics, and dance—is that it finds a new way to pose the question of who might be included in the “us” of this venerable cultural institution, and how and where they can now begin finding their place.

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