This is a spoiler-free review.
In a year filled with live musicals (In the heights, Dear Evan Hansen, tick, tick… BOOM!), It suits that West Side Storya retelling of a classic story without a tinge of modern cynicism, serves as an exclamation point in 2021’s great musical resurgence.
This version doesn’t lose sight of what made the original 1961 film and the 1957 Broadway adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan in resonance. He remains sentimental about the power of love and the madness of finger-snapping gangs dancing in the streets.
The golden age of musicals that captivated audiences from the 1930s to the 1950s is etched in film history. The musicals brought out colorful costumes, vivid production designs, and spirited performances. This era was marked by a charming aesthetic that rarely emphasized realism and serious social issues.
That is why West Side Story The exploration of juvenile delinquency, xenophobia and the lived experiences of Puerto Ricans in America was then considered groundbreaking – it departed from the conventional musical formula.
That’s not to say the original film was perfect. It was littered with controversial decisions such as casting non-Latin characters for Puerto Rican roles and dangerous portrayals of gang violence and gender identity. Behind the scenes, Natalie Wood and George Chakiris, despite being white actors, were made up in brown face to represent their main Latin characters. The only Puerto Rican actor in the main cast was Rita Moreno, who notably won an Oscar for her supporting role as Anita, becoming the first Latina to win the award.
Sixty years later, Steven Spielberg takes the director’s chair and frees himself from harmful ethnic representations. Basically, the Sharks are all Latin actors, and the Puerto Rican identity is brought to the fore in several of the film’s significant moments. Although there is still much to be desired in giving more writing and leadership powers to Puerto Ricans, it is clear that there were now conscious choices, which were previously absent, to distance Latin culture and language from a purely white imagination.
The unique sensitivity to story and milieu that envelops its diverse cast of characters is where the film’s strength lies. Instead of opening with aerial shots of the vast New York City, the camera hovers over what remains of San Juan Hill after its buildings were bulldozed to make way for the real Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The image of debris and rubble not only juxtaposes the bustling ballet dances, but also recalls the constant threat of displacement and the policies of exclusion imposed on impoverished communities.
Among the undesirables in the eyes of the law are Riff (played by Mike Faist) and Bernardo (played by David Alvarez), the leaders of the Jets and Sharks respectively. Tony Kushner, who adapted the play for this film, reinterprets the gang conflict with more racist undertones, as seen in the Jets explicitly vandalizing the Puerto Rican flag in the opening. In doing so, the tension between the two groups seems more concrete and relevant.
In the eye of the storm are star-crossed lovers Tony (played by a controversial Ansel Elgort) and Maria (played by Rachel Zegler), who surprisingly pulled off the romance this time around. The love story in the original unfolds too quickly, and while that’s still somewhat true here, there are at least attempts to bring out their meet-cute and sprinkle in some much-needed chemistry. Zegler scores the best performance between the two actors, but Tony’s writing carries most of Elgort’s weight.
Anita (masterfully played by Ariana DeBose), arguably the film’s standout character, is wonderfully effusive and charismatic as Bernardo’s feisty girlfriend. DeBose, along with Zegler, boldly proclaim themselves as the singing anchors of this film with their versatile vocals, heard most notably in the tearful “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love” duo.
Among the many changes from the original is the inclusion of Valentina (played by the iconic Rita Moreno), the elderly Puerto Rican shop owner who mentors Tony. She sings the song “Somewhere”, adding a bittersweet tone that comments on the futility of racial conflict preventing Maria and Tony’s romance. Her character also converges with Anita, the role Moreno played all those years ago, in a grueling and heartbreaking moment that makes her presence in the film all the more meaningful.
Anybodys (played by non-binary actor Iris Menas), a tomboy seeking acceptance into the Jets, is reimagined as a trans man in this version. In the original, the Anybodys persona was just a way to achieve sexist jokes. Here, his primary motivation is to be understood and validated as a man, not just as a gang member. This small change adds a layer of nuance to a character living in a transphobic society that would otherwise be an afterthought in lesser films.
David Newman arranges Leonard Bernstein’s legendary composition to ensure that the timelessness of the songs is never lost. The music sounds punchier and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics retain their festive energy. Justin Peck’s choreography is much more explosive, sometimes even a little too much, and adds a kinetic verve that can only be combined with the jaggedness of Manhattan.
Rearranging and adding some scenes works, but some of them drastically change the mood of the scenes in a negative way. For example, the earlier placement of “Cool” reinvents the dance number into a more intimate and creative game of catch-me-if-you-can between Tony and Riff. However, the placement of “I Feel Pretty”, a joyful song about Maria falling in love, is shocking because it comes after a terribly tragic moment.
Without a doubt, the film’s most notable musical number is “America,” essentially an argument between Bernardo and Anita over whether to stay in America or return to Puerto Rico. During this performance, the entire Puerto Rican diaspora comes alive to generate an infectious celebration of geographic and cultural identity. This scene alone is worth it.
West Side Story shows that it’s possible to revisit decades-old musicals to enhance ideas that already existed. Despite all the original’s flaws, it remains notable for its refusal to convey only the “good, true and beautiful” in the slums of New York. Spielberg focuses on the good without ignoring the flaws. The result is a dynamic, socially conscious and empathetic musical with an entirely different flavor, which can catapult the genre to new heights. – Rappler.com
Ryan Oquiza studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is the Chief Film Critic of SINEGANG.ph and one of the podcast hosts for the movie “Sine Simplified.”