West Side Story, a 1950s musical exploration of Romeo and Juliet through the lens of racial conflict in New York City, has remained a cultural milestone 65 years since its Broadway premiere. Director Steven Spielberg set out to bring this story into the 21st century with an adaptation that both challenges stereotypes and remains loyal to a show that is a landmark in the musical theatre canon. With a new screenplay by renowned playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, this reimagining acknowledges the flaws of its source material while communicating its themes in a more complete way.
The original Broadway production of West Side Story opened in 1957 to critical acclaim, and was first adapted for the screen in 1961. The musical attempts to elevate the story of two New York City gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, to Shakespearean levels. But it is impossible to ignore the flaws and oversimplifications in this story. Remaining very loyal to source material, our Romeo and Juliet are Tony, a former Jet member, and Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader. Their three-day love story has always felt rushed, with both characters expressing little regard for the people around them.
Both the musical and the film premiered just as conversations in Hollywood and Broadway were interrogating the portrayals of different races on screen and stage. Most of the original Sharks darkened their skin for their roles; even Rita Moreno, one of the only Puerto Rican actresses in the film, was asked to use makeup. The portrayal of the Sharks often falls into stereotypes, from the sporadic use of Spanish exclamations to the oversexualization of the female characters. In the years since its premiere, this has been the standard method of performing West Side Story, with more recent attempts to update the musical’s themes widely scorned.
But Spielburg and Kushner’s West Side Story takes a very different tone. From the first moments of the film, a thin layer of dust covers every character and object. We see construction crews moving in, foreshadowing the coming gentrification of the West Side with the building of Lincoln Center. The vandalization of a Puerto Rican mural by the Jets shows a deep-seeded racial tension that will fuel every decision moving forward. Kushner’s screenplay also fleshes out the characters in a way that builds up the world. We see Tony and Maria courting and discussing the racial prejudices and limitations that govern their lives. A powerful friendship between Maria’s brother Bernardo and her intended lover Chino justifies Chino’s later desire for revenge. The text also acknowledges the character Anybodys’ gender nonconformity with much more complexity than its predecessor, leading to a tear-jerking moment near the film’s conclusion where the Jets finally accept them as they are.
Several lyrics are changed to better reflect the complexities of identity, notably in the song “America.” The order of the songs has also been changed in a way that allows the narrative to flow more seamlessly. The high energy songs “Cool” and “Officer Krupke” are placed in the first act in this version, when the tone is more playful and youthful, while the love ballads and lamentations are largely clustered in the second act, as energy shifts to a darker, more violent place.
One of the most interesting cinematic decisions West Side Story makes is not having English subtitles during the long sections spoken in Spanish. Spielberg’s adaptation uses much more Spanish throughout than the film, notably when the Puerto Rican characters are in more private spaces in their own community. However, this doesn’t take away from the audience’s understanding of the characters’ motivations, lending to the remarkable performances of the actors. The characters are able to tell their story in their own words, giving them much more emotional nuance than they had in the original film– a chance to express a sense of autonomy in a world where they are constantly being misunderstood. As a viewer, while the experience was disorienting at first, it kept me actively engaged. As a white, English-speaking woman, the choice also made me question my own expectations of a typical cinematic experience, and how my experiences are limited because of the language I’ve inherited.
What makes this movie shine, ultimately, are the performances. Mike Faist and David Alverez play gang leaders Riff and Bernardo, respectively, with a heartbreaking sincerity. Newcomer Rachel Zegler, just 16 when she sent in her audition tape, makes Maria a three-dimensional woman with agency and drive. Ariana DeBose delivers a fiery performance of Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s surrogate older sister, filled with a passion and determination to make a better life for herself in spite of the systemic oppression that surrounds her. Ansel Elgort’s Tony is a sentimental and relatable romantic lead who is not immune from the prejudice of his community, however his singing pales in comparison to the Broadway legends that surround him. The Jets and Sharks are filled with Broadway regulars (diehard theatre fans will no doubt recognize several former Newsies among the ensemble), who bring the world of the film to life through Justin Peck’s explosive choreography. This cast grabs our attention from the film’s first moments, refusing to let go until the final bloodstained moments.
An epic like West Side Story often feels untouchable, but the 2021 adaptation is the breath of fresh air this story needed. As a musical theatre kid at heart, this movie reminded me of the power theatre can have to open our eyes to new perspectives. I left the movie theater feeling both devastated and empowered. And with seven Oscar nominations and an upcoming release on Disney+ and HBO Max, I dearly hope the next generation of theatre-goers will find themselves feeling similarly.
Rachael Poweles is a fourth-year theatre studies and culture and communications double major who longs for the chance to spontaneously break out in song and dance. They can be reached at [email protected].