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Film review

Spielberg’s beautifully choreographed ‘West Side Story’ update hits every note

Out Dec. 9, the remake, tweaked just enough to resonate today, rounds out its characters more than the original – and with its killer musical numbers, purists won’t be disappointed

  • Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in a still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)
    Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in a still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)
  • Ansel Elgort in a still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)
    Ansel Elgort in a still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)
  • A still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)
    A still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)
  • A still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy: 20th Century Films)
    A still from 'West Side Story' by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy: 20th Century Films)

NEW YORK — As I snapped my fingers and danced my way into the critics’ screening of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” I asked a few of my colleagues which song from the show was their favorite. “‘Something’s Coming,’” one friend said. “It’s maybe the best musical theater tune of all time.”

“No,” another responded. “Nothing beats ‘Somewhere!’”

“I actually prefer ‘A Boy Like That,’” said a voice behind me, while another added, “It’s gotta be ‘America,’ c’mon!”

Of course, they are all right. And if someone had said “Maria,” “Cool,” “Tonight,” or even “The Dance at the Gym: Mambo” that would still be correct. They are all tied for first place.

The music to “West Side Story,” composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has few equals — a blend of Broadway-style show tunes elevated by Bernstein’s Western classical-informed genius, with a little jazz and (as the aforementioned “Mambo” suggests) Latin rhythms, too. And it just so happens that the story, a mid-century Manhattan update on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” ain’t bad either. If you want to call “West Side Story” the greatest of all musicals in the American theater canon, few would argue.

Which is why I am happy to report that this new film adaptation — in theaters December 9 and coming 60 years after the Oscar-winning best picture co-directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise — not only lives up to the property’s pedigree, it’s one that ought to be treasured by all who memorized every note of that original soundtrack album.

The story is the same. A street gang of white nativists (The Jets) are “protecting their turf” against new Puerto Rican immigrants (The Sharks). While he was once the co-founder of the Jets, Tony (Ansel Elgort, who is Jewish on his father’s side) is trying to turn a corner from his violent youth. He catches the eye of Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a dance and the two instantly fall in love. Alas, Maria’s brother is Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks. This is not going to end well! But it will have a tremendous amount of singing, dancing, and dazzling camera movement.

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in a still from ‘West Side Story’ by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)

What’s most exciting is how Spielberg’s version, written by Tony Kushner, maintains the structure and setting of the original, while modernizing it in only the most necessary ways for current audiences. For starters, actual Latinos play the Puerto Rican characters, not Natalie Wood and George Chakiris with dark makeup. (Not that they weren’t great but, come on!) Also, the Spanish-speaking characters speak a lot of Spanish, and without subtitles. Film is a visual medium, and no one knows this better than Spielberg and his long-term cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; if you don’t know a lick of Spanish, you’ll still get what the characters are saying. It’s a great touch.

There are other changes, too, like how the “I Feel Pretty” number, originally just a few gals singing in a dress shop, is now blown out into a full-bore, choreographed romp through Gimbels department store. (Yes, I guess this puts “West Side Story” and “Elf” in a shared universe.)

A still from ‘West Side Story’ by director Steven Spielberg. (Courtesy 20th Century Films)

The biggest change, and one that may rankle Jewish audiences, is that Spielberg and “Angels in America” playwright Kushner, two Jewish titans of their craft making their third collaboration (with a fourth en route), have mostly eliminated Doc, the drugstore owner, the one Jewish character from the original, and the moral voice of righteousness and reason.

But hold on a minute, let me explain. Doc, as a character, is still represented, he’s just dead. Doc’s drugstore, the neutral ground between the rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks, is now run by his widow, Valentina, played by 90-year-old Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican actress who won the Oscar for the role of Anita in the 1961 film version. Having her share a scene with the new Anita (Ariana DeBose) and also sing the tune “Somewhere” (normally sung by Tony and Maria) is an absolute coup for this production. The essence of Doc is still there, and while it is slightly disappointing that there’s no explicit Jewish representation in this version, casting Moreno in this clutch role is perfect.

The overall Jewishness of “West Side Story” is pretty baked-in, anyway. The original Broadway production from director and choreographer Jerome Robbins (Jerry Rabinowitz) was first conceived back in 1947 as (aha!) “East Side Story,” set on Manhattan’s packed-and-blended immigrant neighborhood, the Lower East Side.

The concept was for the doomed lovers to be an Irish Catholic boy and a Jewish girl, a Holocaust survivor who comes to New York via Israel. Arthur Laurents (also Jewish) thought that this felt a little old hat, and pointed to the newest influx of immigrants, whose stories had not been told: Puerto Ricans. Producer Harold Prince, composer Leonard Bernstein, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, all Jewish, rounded out the principal creative team for its 1957 debut. You look at a number like “Gee, Officer Krupke” and it’s vaudeville schtick crystallized in its purest form. (Spielberg’s version is even more energetic than the original.)

While not everything Spielberg touches turns to gold, even his lesser movies have a propulsive quality that eventually one runs out of words to describe. This is not one of his lesser films. The man was born to make musicals — what are sequences like Indiana Jones’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” truck chase if not dances with the camera? — so “West Side Story” is a natural fit.

Steven Spielberg on the set of ‘West Side Story.’ (Courtesy 20th Century Films)

It’s silly to do a compare and contrast to the original, but this new version does take a greater effort to round out the characters. We learn more about Maria and Bernardo’s family, and there’s additional shading to the Jets as well. When the cops harass them (not nearly as much as they harass the Sharks), they are taunted as “the last of the can’t make-it-Caucasians,” unlike the Irish, Italians, and Jews who moved out to the suburbs. (Tony is a Polish Catholic.) There’s also more backstory given about the changes in the neighborhood, like how it is being torn down to make way for New York City’s arts campus, Lincoln Center. This is a nice historical touch considering Leonard Bernstein’s later affiliation, and it also happens to be where the film’s premiere and press screening was held.

Other New York grace notes included a visit to the Cloisters museum uptown (the “wedding scene” moved from the dress shop) and the audio mix’s savvy inclusion of the sound of modern subway brakes. This may be anachronistic, but those in the know (like Tony Kushner himself) will chuckle because, of course, these relatively new electric trains screech out the opening three notes to “Somewhere.” When you leave a movie and even public transit sounds like music, you know it’s something special.

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