What a unique kick watching Steven Spielberg introduce the New York premiere of his spectacular West Side Story remake at Jazz at Lincoln Center, on the southernmost of the 20 blocks where the story’s 1950s turf war between rival street gangs the Jets and the Sharks takes place. Even more so when cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s graceful camera, after gliding, swooping and soaring over the rubble of a sprawling demolition site, closes in on a sign declaring the area “Property Purchased by New York City for Slum Clearance,” with an artist’s rendering of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which is under construction there.
The image of a wrecking ball in that opening sequence is loaded with significance, swiftly conveying the relentless cycle of displacement and gentrification inextricably woven into the history of New York City. It turns back the clock on the Upper West Side to a specific moment in time when two distinct low-income groups were being shoved out of the transitioning neighborhood, their shared erasure paradoxically fueling their reciprocal hatred.
West Side Story
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Pulses with fresh vitality.
In his third collaboration with Spielberg, following Munich and Lincoln, Tony Kushner has adapted the material with a respectful avoidance of cultural stereotypes and a trenchant depiction of the sadly still timely scourge of racial intolerance.
The production is equal parts grit and gloss. The expert period recreation of Adam Stockhausen’s production design and Paul Tazewell’s fabulous costumes create a throbbing sense of place, evident in every gorgeously composed widescreen frame of Kaminski’s visuals. Yet the saturated colors and their radiant glow often recall vintage Technicolor movie musicals. Perhaps those pretty CG-enhanced skies that are such a part of the Spielberg Amblin signature could have been toned down a notch. But there’s no pain in surrendering to the sheer beauty and high style of a big-screen entertainment that’s both a reimagining informed by contemporary values and a lavishly mounted throwback.
The new West Side Story won’t take the place of the glorious 1961 screen version, co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, whose dances remain untouchable. But with its more inclusive, ethnically appropriate and youthful casting, this is an emotionally charged and deeply affecting retelling of a timeless tale for a new generation.
It carries added emotional heft coming just days after the death of lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the last surviving member of an unsurpassed creative team that included director-choreographer Robbins, who hatched the original concept, book writer Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein, whose score remains one of the most thrilling in musical-theater history.
That score, by the way, has seldom sounded better. From the jagged, percussive syncopation of the gang numbers to the transporting romance of the love songs and the agitato drive of the underscoring, the music has been given impeccable treatment by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of conductor Gustavo Dudamel. David Newman did the dynamic new arrangements, while Jeanine Tesori (who co-wrote Caroline, or Change with Kushner) supervised the exquisite vocals.
Spielberg and Kushner clearly have great love not just for the 1957 stage musical but also for the Wise-Robbins film, winner of 10 Oscars including best picture. There’s never any hint of this version attempting to render its predecessor obsolete. More often, it pays reverential homage to the 1961 film. That’s evident — just to name two of the more obvious instances — in the readily acknowledged debt to Robbins’ iconic dance moves in Justin Peck’s exhilarating choreography and in the creation of a customized central role for the wonderful Rita Moreno, the earlier film’s Anita.
The mixed feelings of some Latino audiences toward a group of white men depicting a Puerto Rican community will likely remain, though the principal characters on the Sharks side of the racial divide — Anita (Ariana DeBose), Bernardo (David Alvarez), Maria (Rachel Zegler) and her would-be suitor Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) — certainly are more fully developed here.
Regardless of the sensitivity with which Kushner and Spielberg approach issues of race, class and cultural identity, the musical remains a product of its time. But if we’re going to reject West Side Story on grounds of cultural appropriation, we might also note that the source material, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, depicting a feud between two Verona families, was the work of an English playwright who almost certainly never traveled to Italy.
The casting of the Jets — descendants of white European immigrants led by hotheaded Riff (Mike Faist), who looks up to former gang member Tony (Ansel Elgort) and makes determined efforts to bring him back into the fold — also pushes for authenticity.
Kushner has worked in economical references to illustrate that this ragtag band of guys from predominantly Irish, Polish and Italian families have a history of hostility toward the latest arrivals, starting with the Egyptians in the early ‘50s — even before the area became known as “San Juan Hill.”
The racist euphemism of “urban renewal” carries a bitter sting. One of the strengths of Kushner’s adaptation is the way he amplifies this tragedy of prejudice and xenophobia by pointing up that the cauldron of hate is fed by schisms within the same marginalized group. The second-generation European immigrants may joke about their sorry lot in the satirical number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but the seeds of white entitlement are already evident in their sense of blamelessness. And patrolman Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) answers to the openly bigoted Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll), who has more sympathy for the Jets than the Sharks, but also reminds them that their families are losers who haven’t had the good sense to move on. “The last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” he calls them.
All that carefully drawn social texture puts the story of star-crossed lovers in direct conversation with issues still dividing the country to this day, without ever slipping into didacticism. And the casting of younger actors turns up the flame on the romance, both in the dizzying instantaneous spell of love at first sight and the lacerating pain of loss.
Spielberg from the start conveys the extent to which the Jets feel they own the streets, their dancing taking its cues from Robbins with floating balletic moves that burst spontaneously into Peck’s more vigorous formations. Arming themselves with stolen cans of paint and paintbrushes, they deface a Puerto Rican flag mural, immediately drawing the Sharks in a clash, its visceral violence captured in Kaminski’s astonishingly mobile camerawork. The fights here are definitely fights, not fight ballets.
When Schrank orders the Sharks to disperse, they sing their version of the Puerto Rican anthem “La Borinqueña,” reaffirming their roots in the island territory while also staking their own defiant claim on the Manhattan streets.
Fired up from the conflict, Riff says it’s time for a rumble, insisting that Tony join them. But having spent a year in prison for almost killing an Egyptian immigrant in a fight, Tony has had time for self-reflection and doesn’t like what he saw. He works at Doc’s Drugstore, now run by the late proprietor’s widow, Valentina (Moreno), a doting maternal figure to Tony, who lives out back of the store. But Tony inadvertently adds fuel to the fire when he and Maria lock eyes during “The Dance at the Gym,” making her protective older brother Bernardo see red.
With a couple of exceptions like “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Spielberg and Kushner have reordered the musical numbers according to the stage version, not the previous film. That adds to the propulsion of the story, heightening the heartbreak as romantic rapture gets dragged back down to earth by violence, sending the characters hurtling toward the tragic conclusion.
The physical settings are breathtaking, paramount among them the busy streets, with cars honking and pedestrians nervously ducking out of the way as the cocky gang members strut their way through the “Jet Song.” The same streets crackle with vitality in “America,” with Anita leading the women as they claim their place in a new life about which their boyfriends remain ambivalent, their high spirits gradually drawing in the entire community. The back alleys between apartment blocks, festooned with colorful laundry, lend a magical effect to the love songs, “Maria” and “Tonight,” with Tony scrambling up the fire escape with uncontainable boyish excitement in the latter.
Kaminski gets a bit crazy with the rainbow lighting pouring through stained glass windows, but setting “One Hand, One Heart” at the Cloisters, when Tony takes Maria way uptown for an afternoon, adds a religious solemnity to their vows while also subtly linking the story back to the medieval setting of Romeo and Juliet. Ingenious touches like that make this new West Side Story even more of a love letter to New York City.
The movie’s two biggest set pieces combine visual flair with urgent dramatic impact, revealing Spielberg in masterful command of physical action through his refined sense of space and composition. This might be his first musical, but it feels like he’s been making them his entire career. “The Dance at the Gym” is a knockout, with Bernstein’s warring motifs of mambo and jazz squaring off while Peck marshals the dancers into electrifying faceoffs; and “The Rumble” takes place in a warehouse used to store salt for when the streets ice up in winter, like an indoor quarry, with Kaminski’s use of overhead shots producing chilling effects to match the cacophonous danger of the music.
The placement of Maria’s winsome “I Feel Pretty” (famously one of Sondheim’s least favorite of his own songs) remains slightly awkward, following two deaths of which she’s still blissfully unaware at that point. But the idea of setting it among the clothing displays of Gimbels department store, where the Puerto Rican women work the night shift as cleaners, is enchanting.
Other songs take on a different tone, notably “Cool,” reworked as a challenge in which Tony warns Riff to stop the violence, while Riff turns on his friend, interpreting his cautionary words as disloyalty and severing their “womb to tomb” bond.
The most radical switch is giving the song of yearning for a place of peace and belonging, “Somewhere,” to Valentina, a Puerto Rican who married a “gringo” and wants only to see harmony in the world. Moreno sings it alone in the drugstore, with the hushed tones of a prayer, creating a lovely echo with Tony’s song from earlier, “Something’s Coming,” in which he delights Valentina with his dream of a better life. Moreno’s contribution to the film, and her function as a living bridge from the earlier version, can’t be overstated; her customary emotional generosity and natural warmth light up her every moment onscreen.
Like Richard Beymer opposite Natalie Wood in the 1961 movie, Elgort is a tad bland, which perhaps has something to do with the character’s earnest naivety. But he sings with confidence and certainly looks the handsome part. As Maria, Zegler is a truly captivating discovery, with a delicacy that makes her appear to be floating on air — an impression deepened by her lilting soprano. Her wounded rage in the film’s finale cuts through the character’s sweetness with crushing force.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Faist, whose Riff is a smart-mouth, sinewy beanpole bristling with wiry energy; Alvarez (all grown up since his days as one of Broadway’s original Billy Elliot stars), bringing fierce pride and natural leadership to Bernardo; and DeBose, who practically jumps off the screen with commanding sensuality as Anita, a whirling, skirt-tossing tornado in her dance numbers but also a level-headed voice of reason, ready to shoot down Bernardo’s macho aggression with a well-chosen word or two and a withering glance. Watching Anita appear to age before our eyes as she absorbs devastating news is a moment of piercing sorrow.
Kushner’s mindfulness of contemporary sensibilities generally is seamless. It’s most notable in his rewriting of Anybodys, the wannabe Jet always hovering around the perimeter of their huddles, dismissed as a freak because she’s a girl who doesn’t conform to the standard norms. Here, Anybodys (Iris Menas) appears not as a tomboy in the old-fashioned sense, but a decisively non-binary character who rejects being categorized as a girl. The hovering presence remains the same, but Anybodys makes the virtual invisibility of gender nonconformity an asset, vigilantly observing and reporting back from the enemy camp.
While the film runs an ample two-and-a-half hours, editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar keep things humming with surging forward motion to match the limber ensemble, allowing for appropriate breathing room in more intimate moments. While many wondered about Spielberg’s chutzpah in tackling a movie musical widely regarded as an ageless classic, his richly satisfying remake gives this version a resplendent life of its own.