WEST SIDE STORY: How to Retell a Masterpiece and Make Another Masterpiece

Other people can and have talked about how Spielberg was always suited to doing a musical thanks to his masterful technique, and how the cast* is perfectly suited to the material…with the exception of Ansel Elgort, whose genuinely good singing and dancing is counterbalanced by how poor he can get in the scenes with no singing or dancing required, which is why it’s so great that he spends most of the film opposite Rachel Zegler in one of the most “a star is born” performances I’ve ever seen.

(*This is where I mention that 1961 film’s casting…issues might be too mild a word…weren’t in a vacuum. My high school was 99% white and our production had an all-white cast and looking back, WHOA, was that cringeworthy. I also give Elgort credit for doing his own singing, since Richard Beymer was not doing that in ’61.)

What I want to talk about, for my own enjoyment/aid to memory and because I think there’s other nerds out there who’ll care as much as I do, is how Tony Kushner worked with Spielberg to make this a genuinely unique production of West Side Story. Now, I think Spielberg and Kushner have become one of the most A+ director-writer teams ever, up there with Ford and Nugent, Lean and Bolt, Merchant-Ivory and Prawer Jhabvala, etc. Three films, three masterpieces. But also…Arthur Laurents was kind of a drip as a writer? So much of his work for me is filled with characters lacking in dimension and a sense of meandering if nobody’s writing songs to go with the story. To go back to David Lean, him and Katharine Hepburn elevated The Time of the Cuckoo/Summertime to loveliness, and The Way We Were is a chore.

What Kushner and Spielberg did was to keep the plot intact (of course), not cut a single note or lyric from Bernstein and Sondheim, and toss out almost every single line from Laurents’s book (and the Ernest Lehman screenplay from 1961). Yes, ALMOST EVERY SINGLE LINE. A few romantic lines remain, and one scene is kept intact, but otherwise, this is something very new and very exciting, and I want to go start to finish on those changes and how and why they work.

Now, it’s funny to say SPOILER ALERT because everyone knows West Side Story but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, and a lot of people haven’t yet, and want to be surprised by what’s going to be different, don’t read ahead.

Okay?

Snap your fingers with me and let’s go…

The very first shot of the film made me think of another Bernstein film opening: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1949 On the Town, in which a camera glides over a New York morning and low, gradually building music plays (“I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet” in that movie, the Prologue in this one.), and both shots establish a time and a place before the dancing begins. Here, it’s 1957, the same year of the original Broadway production, and a chunk of the turf has been claimed by the city to build Lincoln Center. It’s this rubbly construction area that shows the Jets emerge and dance to Justin Peck’s choreography, an excellent joke in and of itself. But then…

It took about halfway through the Prologue for this to really sink in for me. The stage productions (unsurprisingly) and the Wise/Robbins film take place in a dream of New York City where everyone, except for a few token adults, all of whom are white, is a teenager who knows how to dance, and even then there aren’t THAT many of said teenagers. I’m so used to this idea that I genuinely got goosebumps when the Jets danced down a bustling street full of people…and it hit me that this version’s New York is filled with people! Lots of people going about their days and lives, ticked off by and afraid of the Jets and Sharks, running from them or yelling at them while part of a living, breathing New York in which every wide shot (and there’s so many wide shots) of streets and buildings shows bustle, and this conceit is never dropped. Every musical requires a suspension of disbelief that people carry out their days by bursting into song, but the choice to set West Side Story in a world full of life going on around it heightens the song and dance, and the romances, because now it’s playing out against a stark reality full of struggles, with the warning that this reality is going to intrude on the idealistic love sooner or later.

(To go with this injection of reality, Spielberg and Kaminski also break away from the simple, vivid, and incredibly effective palette of the Wise/Robbins film. Their version is shot in what to me looks like Technicolor run through a bit of dirt and lens-flared overexposure, occasionally popping into pure brightness. It’s a great aesthetic choice that fits the Kushner screenplay.)

Detective Schrank, still the resident asshole who, backed by long-suffering Officer Krupke, delivers the Escalus-like command for fighting to cease, gets more dialogue and brings out the concrete reality the Prologue implies: that the upper west side the Jets and Sharks are fighting over is going to be taken away from them, gentrified into Lincoln Center and other places and delights for the upper classes, and that further conflict serves no real purpose. This is a great touch by Kushner. It’s indicative of late capitalist America, in which the people on the bottom of the economic ladder are fighting each other for what little they can hold onto instead of those gentrifying forces, but sticking to this read only is far too simple. It’s how Schrank makes the case that matters, too. As in the original version, Schrank is antagonistic toward the Sharks for their race alone, but whatever leniency he shows the Jets comes from a mighty scorn that they have let any chance of improving their lives pass them by…chances they had plenty of simply for being Caucasian. This manifestation of Schrank’s disgust adds an extra shade of tragedy to Kushner’s version of Riff. Other productions always show Riff as a cocksure, confident man, but now Riff is depicted as someone who acts cocksure because he sees himself as nothing, a figure the world has no use for, whose future he feels is out of his control except for what he can control: the ability to fight and win, even if it is for this vanishing turf. Kushner and Spielberg also have Bernardo lead the Sharks in the Puerto Rican anthem “La Borinquena” before a single Bernstein/Sondheim song is heard. In making this the first number, it asserts the Sharks’ presence and pride and gives them, along with the much-discussed lack of subtitles, a stronger and more unique foothold in a story told by white men.

As the Prologue gives way to “Jet Song,” one aspect of the film that takes full shape is the portrayal of Anybodys. I remember watching the Wise/Robbins film and Susan Oakes’s performance and thinking “this character is definitely queer.” In the 2021 film, Anybodys is explicitly transgender (and played by a nonbinary actor), someone whose assertions of masculinity are heartbreakingly shot down by both the authorities and the Jets. And to complement Kushner’s deeply sympathetic writing, Spielberg frames Anybodys as someone who is always sneaking around, almost in a perpetual crouch, trying to find the right moment to fit in with the people they look up to…trying to assert a basic human dignity. What makes this powerful is that the Jets show cruelty and exclusion to someone who wants to be on their side more than anything. The gangs are eating their own.

Doc is dead! And in his place, his widow, Valentina, runs the pharmacy/store and is the one Puerto Rican the Jets show respect and courtesy for; something which becomes important later on.

What’s the ideal way to stage “Something’s Coming?” Tony sings it to Valentina as he closes and locks up the store for the night, pressing himself against shelves and windows and throwing down the iron bars. He’s a man in an enclosed space struggling to break free into wide-open skies and spaces.

In Maria’s introductory scene, the same way that the screenplay adds context to the situation, Kushner also seeks to give more background, without getting overly expository, to the characters. Hence, in his writing, Anita is explicitly living with Bernardo and Maria and running her seamstress operations from within the apartment. Bernardo is making a reputation for himself as a boxer when not leading the Sharks. Chino, meanwhile, is now in night school studying to be an accountant—and he looks a lot like Guillermo from What We Do in the Shadows. There’s further dynamics at play: seeing Chino as a man who will have a professional career and marry his sister, Bernardo refuses to let him join the Sharks, but Chino, who idolizes Bernardo, wants nothing more than to support him as a Shark. More importantly, despite their familial love, Maria and Bernardo are at odds. The implication that develops is that Maria was living with their now dead father, and she is chafing at the bit being under Bernardo’s thumb now. She wants an education of her own and something more for herself, not only to be the wife and mother Bernardo thinks she should be, and Anita, trying to get them to speak English even as they argue in Spanish, is constantly playing a frustrated but accepting peacemaker. (Ariana DeBose gives THE performance apart from Zegler.) Compared to how Laurents reduced everyone to one-dimensional figures, this is spectacular work, and Kushner is far from done.

The Dance at the Gym, one of Spielberg’s greatest moments, sees both he and Kushner getting creative. Spielberg maneuvers things so as to make Tony and Maria’s first encounter happen behind the gym’s bleachers, moving in parallel to the mass group action, and Kushner inserts a direct reference to Romeo and Juliet by including the dialogue “by the book” in what surrounds their first kiss.

“Maria” displays why the idea of setting this in such a living, breathing New York is so effective. Having left the gym in an amazed trance, walking through a school playground, Tony begins the song as lights flicker up and bathe him in a heroic glow, but that’s because an old maintenance worker is turning the lights on and he’s staring at Tony with a “who the hell is this kid?” look. The entire sequence keeps pitting Tony’s grand romanticism against reality. He walks through puddles and debris and doesn’t notice. His song is heard by both a little girl, laughing in some sort of confusion, and a matron who wants him to shut up. The constant undercutting takes nothing away from the aching sincerity of the song; indeed, it underscores what a difficulty this love with have in staying alive when outside observers don’t care and even the city seems to be mocking Tony. But then Kushner and Spielberg end the song on the most romantic of notes. Having wandered through the city, Tony stops the song in the midst of an apartment complex and then turns around to head home…only for Maria to appear at that moment, her white dress standing out against the black moonlit scenery. It’s something straight out if a fantasy but feels so real, especially when it leads into a Platonic ideal Balcony Scene, a beautifully sung five-minute symphony.

If “Maria” and “Tonight” are effective for the reasons mentioned above, “America” moves beyond that to full realization of the opened world. The first movie depicted it as Anita and Bernardo and their friends on a rooftop having an argument, all a little drunk and a little horny (maybe a lot horny). Now, we get Spielberg at his very best, with a panoply of wide, frame-filling shots with action and choreography designed to the hilt. The shots are long in terms of running time, and the dancing gets another loving showcase. And Spielberg, from the clever opening of Anita pulling her laundry indoors to the final intersection shot, puts the themes of the argument into visual language with his kinetic filmmaking. America is oppressive with its pollution, its squalor, its continuing creation of spaces designed to keep people out (the active protest against Robert Moses is a key element), but America is also joyous, with the very idea of its promise, no matter how many setbacks one faces, being enough to spur people on. And to tie it back into the very first song, this “America” implies that in the long run, the Sharks will triumph because they have aspirations to succeed and go further while the Jets, emulating Riff, will continue to obsess over what they have, which will soon be what they once had.

As they did in the Robbins/Wise film, “Gee, Officer Krupke” gets moved to the first act where it should be…I’ll say more about songs switching acts momentarily, but I definitely recall seeing the 1961 movie and feeling what a great decision it was to put the song in act one as opposed to act two, where it felt like too bizarre a respite from the tragedy. But in this staging, instead of having the Jets take the piss out of each other post-The Dance at the Gym, they’re enclosed in a police/judiciary headquarters where Schrank and Krupke are trying to get details on the rumble (and Anybodys is sent, with a titanic roar, to the women’s jail). Left alone in a low-rent courtroom while Krupke deals with an emergency, they turn the song into a one-set piece of dance and prop comedy par excellence, enacting the song on Krupke’s own space. There is a sad undercurrent; the Jets, in a place of authority and power, are abandoned with no one to listen to what could be real concerns. The system ignores them even in the system’s realm. But this is countered by the exuberance and hilarity of the performance, as if the Jets are aware and thumbing their nose at it all.

This is followed by one of Kushner’s biggest alterations: for one sequence, he gets the movie out of the Jets and Sharks’ turf as Tony and Maria take a long subway ride to a place Tony says he loves. On the train, despite their happiness to be together, Maria is hostile, insisting Tony stop the rumble even though he doesn’t want to get near the rumble. Temporarily halting the conversation, they end up at the Cloisters, which is shot with as much natural light and shadow as possible, and Tony reveals why he left the Jets and does not want to go to the rumble. No more mere “I feel something’s coming and it’s time for a change.” Per Kushner, Tony almost killed a man in another rumble and spent a year in prison upstate. Now, he’s working for Valentina (who teaches him Spanish phrases before this date in a great comic beat) and figuring out a new direction both because of his parole and he never wants that side of him to come out again. And in my favorite Kushner line, Tony tells Maria about the year since he got out of jail. “All my life, it’s like I’m always just about to fall off the edge of the world’s tallest building. I stopped falling the second I saw you.”

Greatly affected, Maria goes with Tony to the crypt with its stained glass windows, and it’s by this light that they plaintively sing “One Hand, One Heart.” When it’s over, their positions have changed. Tony insists he will try to stop the rumble, and when Maria protests this, saying she was wrong, he responds that they can’t be together and hold onto what they’re building if their worlds are at war. This thought alone provides the minimum of optimism needed for them to leave in happiness.

The sequence is terrific because it does more than build up their backstories and flesh out the characters of two people who are, let’s face it, kind of the story’s wet blankets. It provides as a near finish to act one a moment of what could be, of Tony and Maria not in the West Side, which only adds to the darkness to come.

Okay, remember when I said a few paragraphs ago about switching the song order? In the original stage production, “Cool” is an ensemble number featuring Riff that the Jets sing before the rumble, a sort of rallying the troops to use their energy for the fight to come. Wise and Robbins, since they moved “Krupke” to the first half of the movie, put “Cool” in its place in the second half, where Ice (a character created for the 1961 movie) sings it post-rumble to get the Jets re-focused on protecting Tony and honoring Riff, a further reminder of how livewire the gang is even after the first deaths. I really liked this placement and assumed that, once I saw “Krupke” in its spot from the Wise/Robbins movie, that “Cool” would be similarly positioned. Imagine my surprise when, after a Kushner scene in which Riff acquires a gun for the rumble from two jaded middle-aged barkeeps who knew his father and know how to push his buttons (MORE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT), Tony confronts Riff, snatches the gun, and breaks into “Cool…” a song Tony never sang in the show! The song now becomes a vocal and physical duet between Tony and Riff as they dance around a rotting, abandoned pier in acrobatic but close physical proximity until Riff retrieves the gun and sings the final verse.

With this staging, “Cool” becomes a statement of purpose. In musicals, duets and dances can be sexier than actual sex, and this takes the homoerotic tension between Riff and Tony, two teenagers who’ve sworn “womb to tomb, sperm to worm” and have, as the great Ethan Mordden put it, definitely slept in the same bed, and elevates it to the most intimate a musical can put its characters…the level of acting out deep emotion through music. But it’s the final note that delivers the killing blow as Tony and Riff show mutual frustration and sadness before Riff walks away. It’s clear they want to keep the bond they’ve had their whole lives, but they’re moving in opposite directions.

“Tonight” is “Tonight” but what I appreciate is how Spielberg changes the palette and texture for each singer of the song. The Jets and Sharks are filmed with grit, Anita gets seductive, noirish lighting (even when she’s in church), and Tony and Maria are presented in overwhelming Jack Cardiff-level Technicolor.

The rumble itself is shot with an almost painfully visceral style and a lot of imagination. First, Kushner and Spielberg set it in a giant shed of salt for winter street maintenance. It’s a callback to how the city government is ruining these people’s lives, and it’s an epic setting, AND it provides more great little touches once the two gangs shut the massive garage doors. Anybodys sneaks in, of course, but then comes a moment when Tony arrives too late, tries to lift the door, fails, and then two more hands come. It’s Chino, ordered to stay away by Bernardo. The man who doesn’t want to be there but feels he has to and the man who desperately wants to be there exchange a look of a moment’s solidarity, then lift the door together.

Irony. It’s good.

An excited Riff sends Tony in to fight Bernardo in the “fair fight” they’ve planned, but unlike in every earlier version, and heck, unlike Romeo and Juliet, Tony goes beyond not wanting to fight Bernardo. He tells Bernardo why he doesn’t want to fight him, that he loves Maria. (Clear communication is always A+ in the Andrew J. Rostan book!) Bernardo, so justifiably angry at how white Americans push him and the people he cares about around, now sees a white man upsetting the plans he had for his sister and responds with one crushing blow after another…until Tony returns fire and almost wins, then realizes he gave in to being the man he no longer wants to be, especially for Maria, and stops.

From there, things unfold as we know they will, although Riff has a heartbreaking final moment in which he asks Tony to take the knife out of him and promises “it’s okay,” as if Riff saw when it was too late how ridiculous this was. And in the confusion after Bernardo’s death and the police’s arrival, Chino, broken by his hero’s passing, picks up Riff’s gun; Riff has provided the instrument for his best friend’s death.

“I Feel Pretty” no longer takes place in the dressmaking works. Now it’s set at Gimbel’s, where Maria works the night shift as a cleaning lady, and she sings it while dancing through empty halls of luxury goods and mannequins decked in the designer clothes she tries on. It’s both mocking a WASPy 1950s mega-consumerism that still fuels America today and serves as a sort of aspirational coda to “America.” Two positive emotions in the end, since Maria and her friends laugh all the way through the song.

More importantly, this is the last moment of lightness, bright color, and uptempo music in the film, since Maria’s singing will turn to her learning of the rumble, and from there, only darkness. I can understand any argument that the final half-hour of this film languishes, but from a thematic perspective it’s totally correct.

I have seen “Somewhere” sung by Tony, sung by Tony and Maria together, and sung by BabyJohn as the center of a dream ballet. One of my closest friends once saw a production where it was sung by a small child who appeared nowhere else in the show for a different dream ballet. For this version, Valentina (who, let me stress, is played by Rita Moreno, 88 during the filming), having just learned of the deaths of Riff and Bernard, walks into her store, pours a shot of rum, looks at a photo of her and her late husband, and sings “Somewhere” not as a wish from someone young wanting this future but as a mantra from someone old and wise who will never see this dream come true but has convinced herself, and can convince others, that the day will come. It’s a powerhouse, especially when Spielberg does quick cuts to Anita identifying the bodies and Tony and Maria falling into bed together, the conflicting sides of the song rising up.

The one number Spielberg and Kushner barely change is the final one, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” It’s still shot at close quarters in the apartment, surrounded by Anita’s dresses in a symbol of lost hope, and it still works like a powerhouse because now, thanks to Zegler and DeBose, we feel so much for Anita and Maria that we don’t need tricks or inventions, simply their voices.

There’s a short scene amidst the last musical numbers in which the Sharks try to talk Chino out of his plans for revenge at the same gym where Bernardo trained, but he refuses to listen to this wisdom. It’s a minor counterpoint to the most brutal scene of the movie: Anita being assaulted by the Jets when she tries to deliver Maria’s message to Tony. The basic structure is the same as in the Broadway and Wise/Robbins versions, but there are so many added layers of terror, from Graziella, shut out of the store as she tries to help Anita, yelling at them to stop, to the menace with which the white men go after Anita…it all culminating in Valentina, her voice firmly controlled, telling them she watched them grow up and now they’ve turned into rapists. The Jets trickle out of the store, not able to look at each other, let alone Valentina. It’s over.

The ending is a little bit of a speed run, and part of me wonders/hopes that Spielberg saw Elgort’s overacting in the basement upon hearing the false bad news and decided to get to the finish fast. But he and Kushner pile on the emotions at the end, and do so while, for one scene, keeping the original Laurents dialogue, because Maria’s final lines after Tony’s death were designed to make even the most cynical of us weep.

And with that…a great movie is concluded.

Until next time, Miss Ryder.

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