West Side Story: A Broadway Re-Adaptation That Is More Than Just a Rehash

by Theo Sloan

Reviews

April 29, 2022

What is West Side Story?

West Side Story (2021) is a remake of the 1961 classic movie of the same name, which is itself an adaptation of the 1957 musical of the same name, which is an adaptation of the classic Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet. You might expect a movie that is so many levels of derivative to just be a rehash of other, better ideas, with nothing new to bring to the table, and in many cases you would probably be right. Modern remakes of classic films tend to fall flat, as do many Broadway-to-big screen adaptations (just look at the train-wreck that was Dear Evan Hansen), so it seems like this movie was doomed to failure from the beginning. However, in a shocking turn of events, not only is Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List) the director of the movie, but it was apparently something of a passion project for him, and not just something studio executives conceptualized to turn a profit. So how is the final product? Does it live up to Steven Spielberg’s expert direction and fantastic record, or does it fall into the trash pile of vapid, garbage remakes that only exist to make a quick buck off of people’s nostalgia? That’s what I’m here to talk about today. But first, let me give a bit of context regarding my take on previous iterations of this story.

West Side Story: The Broadway Musical

West Side Story, for those who don’t know, is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the streets of New York City. It chronicles the story of Tony, the ex-leader of a gang of young white men called the Jets, and Maria, the younger sister of the leader of a gang of impoverished Puerto Rican American immigrants called the Sharks. The two meet at a dance and instantly hit it off, and when their connection is discovered, it sends the Jets and the Sharks on a direct path of war against one another. The rest of the show follows the attempts of Tony and Maria to pursue their budding romance, the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks, and, well, if you know the story of Romeo and Juliet, you probably have a decent idea how the story ends. While the musical is certainly not an exact translation of the play, the influence is particularly clear. Other important characters throughout include Riff, Tony’s best friend and the current leader of the Jets; Bernardo, Maria’s older brother and the leader of the Sharks; and Anita, Bernardo’s partner and something of a moral compass for Maria.

West Side Story is also notable for having a score composed by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics written by Steven Sondheim, two of the most famous, influential, and talented creatives to ever grace Broadway with their presence. Needless to say, the result is one of the strongest Broadway soundtracks of all time with impeccable orchestration, an often operatic aesthetic, and lyrics that do a perfect job integrating with the themes of the story, while providing the audience with insight into the story and characterizations that move throughout the show. Even for people as talented as Bernstein and Sondheim, the music in West Side Story stands out in both of their careers as some of the best music they have ever put together.

Although controversial for its grappling with racism and the depictions of the effects of poverty on US youth, West Side Story was a smash hit with both critics and audiences. It had an enormous influence on musical theater, especially in the way it made its spectacular choreography a central focus of the show, but it also had, as noted above, a simply incredible soundtrack and received lots of recognition for that.1 Since then, West Side Story has gone on to become a musical theater classic, and it is generally considered to be as influential as it is good. Many of the musical conventions that define musical theater in this day and age can be traced back to West Side Story, and it’s safe to say that this show has since paved the way for equally visionary and innovative productions that have come out in recent years, such as Hamilton and Hadestown. The original production won several Tony awards including Best Choreography, and every Broadway revival of the show since then has also been nominated for several Tony awards.

Now, full disclosure, I have not seen West Side Story on Broadway. I have listened to the soundtrack for the purposes of this review, and it’s excellent, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see the show live. However, it is undeniable that West Side Story is an influential piece of musical theater that shaped Broadway for decades to come. So how did it fare when adapted for the big screen?

West Side Story (1961)

While I will grudgingly admit that West Side Story’s first adaptation to the big screen is influential, I have a strong distaste for it. To put it simply, everything that is good about it was taken from the Broadway show, and everything that is bad about it is the result of the people making it, putting their feet in their collective mouths and gumming things up in the adaptation process. So, for instance, the songs are all excellent, because they’re all lifted from the show. Bernstein and Sondheim’s excellent respective composing and lyricism remain intact, so it’s no wonder that the songs resonated with movie-going audiences at the time. The singers all sound good, because they’re all talented people, and the story remains compelling, because the people who wrote the book for the Broadway show knew what they were doing. 

Unfortunately, although the singers are talented, I feel like pretty much everyone in this adaptation is miscast. Riff looks more like a preppy kid trying to “dress gangster” rather than an actual leader of a gang, Tony’s actor can’t pull off either side of his character, the sappy romantic or the vicious ex-leader of the Jets, and Maria is played by a white woman wearing skin darkening cosmetics to try and appear “Puerto Rican”—that was racist when the movie first came out, and has only gotten worse with age. And it’s not just Maria either; it’s every Puerto Rican character in the movie. To give an example, one of the actors who played Riff on Broadway was cast in the movie to play Bernardo. Are you kidding me? I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s problematic. Now to be fair, I am all for judging things in the context of their time period, but at the same time, it is my judgment that this was incredibly racist, even in the context of the early 1960s. It’s not even like the show had a particularly racially diverse cast, but that’s because characters often don’t play their race (or their gender) in live theater, and even though it didn’t look great at the time, Broadway these days has actors of color portraying white characters, white actors portraying a variety of different non-white characters, men playing women, and women playing men. So the casting of the musical just doesn’t stick out the way the casting of the movie does. It’s a different medium, and it plays by different rules, not to mention that the vast majority of the revival casts have had racially diverse casts, and the show was made in the 1950s, not the 1960s.

Another issue I have with the first West Side Story movie is that the cinematography is uninteresting, and I feel like the movie’s musical numbers don’t often integrate into the environments very well. In other words, I consider it to be a very overrated adaptation of a phenomenal musical. It is yet another movie that butchers its source material, the only difference this time being that the source material is so profoundly good and well-written that it sometimes overcomes the painful failure of the movie. I may very well write a full review of the 1961 West Side Story at some point, but that day is not today, because I am far more interested in talking about the 2021 movie, and I think I’ve provided enough context to dig into my thoughts on it. So, did West Side Story (2021) live up to the stage show? Or does it get to join the original in its place of honor right next to Cats (2019) and Into the Woods (2014) in the overrated trash-heap of history?

West Side Story (2021)

The first thing that I noticed when I began watching this film is that the cinematography is impeccable. This is a movie containing a lot of complex choreography, and not only does Justin Peck do a fantastic job adapting the original choreography to the big screen, but Spielberg also makes every single shot in this movie pop out of the screen. Even simple pans across the streets of New York are often exciting to look at, and this is all accomplished without sacrificing the grimy feeling that this movie is supposed to have. The juxtaposition of the dirty, drab streets with the colorful, vibrant choreography makes for a unique and entertaining visual canvas for the story to unfold onto. A few highlights in which the choreography and cinematography come together in particularly noteworthy ways include “Jet Song,” “The Dance at the Gym,” “America,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but I truly cannot overstate how every sequence in this movie is impeccably crafted. Just from a technical standpoint, I think this movie manages to justify its existence better than the 1961 version ever did, and that’s before I get into all the stuff that actually matters from a storytelling standpoint.

The 2021 West Side Story has a cast that is diverse in both a racial sense and in the ratio of stars to newcomers. There are some fairly big names attached to this project, such as Ansel Elgort (Tony), Mike Faist (Riff, known for playing Connor Murphy in the original Broadway cast of Dear Evan Hansen), and Rita Moreno (Valentina, played Anita in the 1961 West Side Story), but one of its main stars, Rachel Zegler (Maria), is a complete Hollywood unknown, as is the case for several other major cast members. Speaking of Rachel Zegler, she is simply incredible, and I do not say that lightly. This was her first time ever appearing in a movie, and she out-competed over thirty thousand other applicants to get the role. After seeing her in the movie, I completely understand why she got the part. Not only can this woman sing like few others, but she gives what would be a career-defining performance for any A-list star while doing so. She has to pull off so many different emotional extremes throughout the film, and she moves between them with a nuance that brings a lot of resonance to her character. She and Elgort also have very good chemistry, and even though their romance has a couple story problems that I’ll touch on later, their dynamic does a great job selling me on them as a couple. Speaking of Ansel Elgort, I’ve seen him get a lot of flack on the internet for his performance, but I really don’t see the issue. He has a beautiful voice, he pulls off the incredibly demanding vocal part required of any actor who plays Tony, and he has the acting chops to pull off the wide range of emotions and character beats that Tony has to move through as well. Of the two, I think that Zegler’s performance is noticeably stronger, but that is in no way a condemnation of Elgort. I was sold on him the second he started singing “Maria,” and he only exceeded my expectations as time went on.

The next two important characters to go over are Riff and Bernardo, and both actors do a very good job in their respective roles. Mike Faist has a difficult job in that he needs to straddle the line between menacing and likable, and he knocks his portrayal of Riff out of the park. It is always obvious why he is a leader, both when he’s being the charismatic figure who the the Jets look up to in “Jet Song” and when he’s brutally beating the snot out of his enemies during “The Rumble.” He’s a tough character, because he’s in the wrong a lot of the time, yet I couldn’t help sympathize with his plight at the same time. Part of that is the chemistry he has with Elgort, which does a lot to bring Riff’s relationship with Tony to life, which in turn grounds Riff’s character and keeps him feeling complex and sympathetic. Bernardo is also good, but unfortunately, David Alvarez is given less to work with in the writing department, and this is evident in his performance. There’s never a moment when he does a bad job, and in fact he does an outstanding job during sequences such as “The Rumble,” but I also found his character a bit forgettable at times. This is in no way a critique of Alvarez’s work, but simply a byproduct of an unfortunate writing problem.

Finally, there’s Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno. DeBose plays the character of Anita, who is Bernardo’s partner and acts as a foster mother for Maria. The ideological conflict between Anita and Maria makes up a decent portion of the finale of the movie, and a choice that Anita makes directly and intentionally brings about the ending. DeBose has an enormous job on her hands, as she has to convince the audience that she was driven into making the choice she did and that by the end she both stands by that decision and feels guilt over it. She’s also an incredible singer and is given an opportunity to really shine in “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love.” She recently won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in this movie, and she definitely deserved it. In the 1961 adaptation, DeBose’s character was played by Moreno, and the character Moreno plays here, Valentina, was invented for the 2021 adaptation specifically for her. Valentina, a Puerto Rican widow who owns a drugstore, grounds Tony in reality from the very beginning. There isn’t a ton to her character, but it’s a very sweet part, and I’m glad Spielberg added her in. If anything else, she adds a tad more depth to Tony’s character and gets a chance to sing a nice song near the end.

The music in the movie is still really good. The orchestration is beautiful, the singers sound fantastic together, and Spielberg absolutely succeeds in bringing together the beautiful composition, lyricism, and choreography onto the big screen. Really, my only complaint music-wise is the song “I Feel Pretty,” which is not only compositionally boring, but also does very little to advance the themes, plots, and character arcs in the movie, not to mention that it looks especially weak following “Tonight (Quintet)” and “The Rumble,” which are two of the best sequences in the movie. Unfortunately, this right here brings me to my biggest point of conflict in regard to this movie: the plot.

As I’ve mentioned, West Side Story was originally a modernized musical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and it plays heavily into similar themes of destined tragedy and love at first sight. It executes these themes perfectly well, and the actors do a good job portraying their love for one another. My issue here is just that I don’t find that kind of story compelling. It feels as though the romance is driven by external factors, rather than the characters themselves, and I know that’s the point, but it’s just not really my cup of tea. If this kind of thing is what you enjoy, then it’s likely that you’ll resonate deeply with this movie, but for me, the closest I can get to that is recognizing that everything here is written very well, even if my personal taste prevents me from fully clicking with it.

At the end of the day, West Side Story is a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. It preserves everything that’s great about the music in the stage show, every cast member does an absolutely incredible job, and the choreography and cinematography are both breathtaking. Unfortunately, I still find the narrative to be a bit weak, and the themes that it explores don’t resonate particularly well with me. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that this movie more than does justice to the original Broadway show, and that’s really great to see. I am beyond happy that so many quality musical adaptations were released in 2021, and I think that this version of West Side Story will go down in history as the definitive version for the majority of audiences. Most importantly of all, when combined with In the Heights and Tick, Tick…BOOM, West Side Story (2021) might just be good enough to allow myself and fellow musical theater fans to forgive 2021 for giving us the trash fire adaptation that was the Dear Evan Hansen movie.

West Side Story is well worth renting on Amazon, or streaming on HBOMax, if you prefer, and it’s an absolute must-watch if you’re a fan of musicals, modernized Shakespeare, Steven Spielberg movies, or any combination of the above.


1 “The Great ‘West Side Story’ Debate,” The New York Times, December 1, 2021,
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/01/theater/west-side-story-steven-spielberg-movie.html.

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