West Side Story - As relevant now as then

West Side Story - As relevant now as then

When I heard that a remake of "West Side Story" was being done, apprehension abounded. Why mess with a classic? After all, the 1961 film won ten Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actress for Rita Moreno in the role of Anita. But if anyone could pull it off it was Steven Spielberg working from a script by Tony Kushner, who also wrote "Lincoln" and "Munich" for the famed director.


Spielberg chose to go back to the 1957 stage play by Arthur Laurents rather than Robert Wise's film. While the story is the same, this film version, with Ansel Elgort as Tony and newcomer, Rachel Zegler as Maria, brings the Romeo-and-Juliet narrative to life for a new generation.


Still set in the late 1950's, this "West Side Story" provides more backstory both to the troubles in the neighborhood that drives the plot and to major characters. When the film begins, the camera reveals what looks like a war zone, crumbling buildings that have experienced the wrath of a wrecking ball. Gentrification on New York City's west side has begun and land is being cleared to make room for the Lincoln Center.


Being displaced by the growth of the city is the neighborhood where the Jets, the gang of white teens, mostly of Irish or Polish descent, battle the Sharks, their Puerto Rican counterparts. Head Jet, Riff (Mike Faist), pleads with pal and parolee, Tony (Elgort), to come back to the gang he helped begin. Tony, though, wants nothing to do with the violence that is simmering just under the surface. He's done a year in prison for almost beating a guy to death and has now embraced a new life, devoid of violence.


Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in "West Side Story."  © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. 


For the Sharks, leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) is a small-time boxer and lover to the fiery Anita (Hamilton alum, Ariana DeBose). Living with them is Maria (Zegler), Bernardo's little sister but she's not so little anymore and is asserting her independence.


The community, including local law enforcement Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James), meanwhile, is trying to get everybody to get along by throwing a dance, thus opening the door for Maria and Tony to see each other across a crowded room and fall madly in love.


One of the gems of this version of "West Side Story" is Rita Moreno as new character, Valentina. She's the widow of Doc from the original film and now runs the drug store. She gives Tony a job and place to stay after he's released from jail and becomes a mother figure for him. At age 89, Moreno still has the charisma and it shines in every scene she's a part of, especially when she and DeBose (former and present Anita) share a small but pivotal scene.



Rita Moreno as Valentina in "West Side Story."  © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. 


The timeless music of "West Side Story," composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim, still soars but Spielberg takes it to a whole new level by making sure the songs serve the story. "One Hand, One Heart" happens when Tony takes Maria to The Cloisters and they exchange their "vows" with colored rays coming through stained glass. "Gee Officer Krupke" takes place in a police station and "Somewhere" is given to Moreno. "America" takes to the streets in "In The Heights" fashion with a colorful and rousing dance routine.



Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort in "West Side Story."  © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. 


And who knew Ansel Elgort could sing? Come to find out he was in a production of "West Side Story" at theater camp when he was 12 years old. The purity of his voice imbues Tony with ethos in this well-rounded character who feels the pull between his newly-discovered love and his old friends. Newcomer, Rachel Zelger is the perfect complement to Elgort.


Kushner's script has a lot more Spanish in it than the original film had but Spielberg chooses not to provide English subtitles. They're really not necessary as the acting is so superb that the emotions are clear even if the words may not be. Beautiful as well, is the accurate casting, especially of the Sharks. All the actors playing the Puerto Ricans in the film are of Latino heritage, many of them of Puerto Rican background. That's a welcome change from when Natalie Wood played Maria in the 1961 film.



Ariana DeBose as Anita in "West Side Story."  © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. 


There are a couple things that viewers of faith need to be aware of, though. Although not a major character, Anybodys (Iris Menas), the character considered a "tomboy" in 1961 is now transgender. There is also implied premarital sex, although it happens after Tony and Maria's promises to each other in "One Hand, One Heart." They seem to consider themselves married but they're really not.


Why a new version of "West Side Story" now? The results of the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks and its aftermath is something that we still see today: people doing violence to others because they are different or think different. The tragedy of "West Side Story" is as poignant today as it was back in the 60's. Perhaps we need to be reminded that hate is something learned but that it can be overcome by love.






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