In recent years, the retelling of “classic” stories has become incredibly popular with major motion picture companies. Therefore, it was no shock when Spielberg and his team at MGM Studios announced that the classic West Side Story was to be remade. As a self-proclaimed “theatre kid”, I had my doubts. After all, many movie musical adaptations over the past decade have been the butt of many jokes (Cinderella? Cats? The list goes on…). Was it to be any different with Spielberg’s new daunting task? Delightfully, the new adaptation of West Side Story has brought together audiences of young and old, both newcomers and obsessed viewers of the timeless original.
Cinematically, the piece is a beautiful harmony of modern technique and a blend of the original, with nods to musicals of the past. From the single shot Prologue of the acclaimed film, West Side Story captivates its audience. Paul Tazewell’s work in costume design only adds to the film’s work to ensnare the audience in 1950’s New York City. The warm vs. cool color scheme was not only present and clear in the costuming, but in the production design and set decoration, led by Adam Stockhausen and Rena DeAngelo, respectively.
West Side Story (2021): A Captivating
Reimagination of a Controversial Original
There are many aspects of filmmaking, especially in movie musicals; it would be simply absurd if the music was not applauded in West Side Story. With the late Stephen Sondheim writing lyrics and Leonard Bernstein on music for this enduring classic, the film is truly told through song. Nearly overpowering the musical abilities of the film’s talent is the ensemble’s
dance skills. Originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins and choreographed for the current film by Justin Peck, the dancing brings a strong sense of character, culture, and storytelling to the overall plot. With incredibly strong work in both music and dance in the film, the acting aspect seemed to lack. There were, however, multiple outstandingly notable performances, such as by the rising young star, Rachel Zegler as Maria, Tony Award winner David Alvarez as Bernardo, Broadway actor Mike Faist as Riff, and Award-winning Ariana DeBose as Anita.
By: Peyton Hall
The film underwent many edits to revive the spirit of the original, while still creating a modern redevelopment. Spielberg, in collaboration with Tony Kushner, the film’s screenwriter, and numerous Puerto Rican history and culture advisors approached the musical in such a way that many of the original’s short-comings, like the negative depictions of the Puerto Rican characters, were rewritten in a more educated and culturally conscious light. Additionally, the new film adjusts its perspective on the Jets, focusing on their explicit anti-immigrant bigotry, rather than simply on a territorial gang war. Spielberg’s decision to show the Sharks in a light of defending their community from racist and xenophobic attacks removes the original’s view that both of the gangs are bad, and instead, it is the Jets that need to alter their beliefs and attitudes towards the Sharks and their community.
In addition to the changes that were made to the Jets and Sharks, a major breakthrough in the new film was the alteration of the original’s Tomboy character to the revised Anybodys character. In the original, the character is a girl that is not allowed to join the Jets; this decision did not make sense for the new film, as she was written as a shallow point of laughter and exclusion in the 1961 version. Spielberg’s decision to rewrite this character as a transmasculine person, Anybodys, not only ultimately crafted a work of stronger inclusivity, but added nuance to the role unlike ever before. The Jets’ teasing of Anybodys throughout the film, and ultimately, their acceptance of him, allowed for a true character arc to form, unlike becoming a throwaway joke in each past adaptation.
With each of these changes from the original, it would be remiss to mention that the female characters in the film seemed to be redeveloped with more power and commandment of the storyline than ever before. Maria and Anita clearly have commandment of their lives and their own destiny, but many of the ensemble women do as well. The original West Side Story lacked a lens of feminism, or perhaps it was purposefully excluded as a plot point. However, the reimagining focuses more on the strength and influence that these women do have on society, which deepens the meaning of their decisions and creates a more complex storyline.
Did Spielberg and his team get it perfectly right? No. However, did they make a mistake in choosing to revamp this classic film? Also no. From an entertainment standpoint, West Side Story is an incredible masterpiece of love, light, and the power of connection. Art itself is a form of activism. Art has the power to interrupt society, to force its partakers to rethink their own thoughts, beliefs, and previously held ideas. It is a way for society to reflect on itself. Art conveys humankind’s shortcomings, successes, and forthcomings. West Side Story - achievements, flaws, and all - is Art.
West Side Story is currently streaming on Disney Plus +