In theaters Friday is “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the 1957 musical. The film is faithful to the music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and draws its screenplay from Tony Kushner, who previously collaborated with Spielberg on “Lincoln” and “Munich.” Delayed due to the pandemic, the film’s release now coincides with the 50th anniversary of the original film.
Generally faithful to the stage production, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” opens on a neighborhood in the midst of demolition as white ethnic and Puerto Rican neighborhoods are being razed to make room for Lincoln Center. A rivalry is established between the Jets, second or third generation white ethnics, and the Puerto Rican Sharks. After becoming infatuated at a dance, Maria (Rachel Zegler), the sister of Sharks’ leader Bernardo, and Tony (Ansel Elgort), a reformed co-founder of the Jets, battle the prejudices and grudges of their communities to be together. Based on “Romeo and Juliet,” the story has a predictably tragic ending brought about by high emotions and dramatic irony. This adaptation doesn’t stray far from the stage production or 1961 film, with the most significant character changes being Rita Moreno’s turn as Valentina (filling in the original part of Doc) and the now explicit introduction of Anybodys (Iris Menas) as a transgender man.
Spielberg’s “West Side Story” has moments of greatness: the rising sun over a stark skyline so black it feels like a stage set, the colorful and frothy staging of “America,” and a romping “I Feel Pretty” through a closed department store. Rachel Zegler’s Maria is spectacular, and the costumes and sets are beautiful. The best parts of the movie are the ones that I feel would be impossible to screw up. With a big budget and some of the catchiest, most known songs in the American musical canon, how could these scenes not land? In between the musical numbers, the film tends to stall or go off course. It is over two and a half hours (almost exactly the time it would take to see it on stage), and there are a number of areas where cuts and modifications to the original would have been welcome.
I want to ground my thoughts on the fraught racial dynamics of the newest adaptation in Spielberg’s own words:
“On stage the actors have largely not been Hispanic, and in the 1961 movie they’re in their 30s, and many who were portraying the Puerto Ricans are white. I wanted to cast it authentically, to ensure that the actors playing the Shark boys and girls were one hundred percent Latinx, and young.”
This adaptation is a testament to why diversity behind the camera is as important as diversity on screen, and how the priorities of a creative team make themselves known. This “West Side Story” values its ties to the stage, and, with the exception of Elgort, the cast is exclusively those with pristine theater pedigrees. But because theater is an even more white arena than film, prioritizing theater chops means casting from a narrow pool and representation is sacrificed. While a handful of the film’s cast are Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent, namely Rita Moreno and Ariana Debose (Anita), the film’s Maria is not. It is not my place to determine who is or is not “representative” of the characters in the film, but it is worth noting that the creative team behind the film is still entirely white and that fact is evident throughout “West Side Story.”
Spielberg also notes the importance of age in casting, that the film was not a teenage love story acted by adults. However, while the cast is not in their 30s, they are overwhelmingly in their mid or late twenties, except for Zegler’s Maria, who was in her late teens at the time. The different between Zegler’s 18 (at the time of filming) and Elgort’s 25 is stark, and frankly uncomfortable. This age gap in the context of the 1950s wouldn’t be remarkable, but now is distracting to say the least. Similarly, while the racial and ethnic slurs hurled in the movie may be accurate to the period, it wouldn’t have sacrificed any of the quality of the film to just not include them. People burst into song and engage in literal dance battles– omitting period-accurate epithets wouldn’t have made the film unrealistic.
In full disclosure, I am not a consistent lover of musicals. There are musicals I like, and even love, but the sincerity and over enunciation of a lot of musical theater is distracting and off-putting to me. Outside of the showstoppers, I cringed through “West Side Story,” struggling to invest in Tony and Maria’s romance and rooting against the Jets and their jazz hands.