December 15, 2021
Like The Great Gatsby, the enduring fame of West Side Story is due to two factors: Many people encounter it during high school (because teachers show the 1961 movie when trying to get kids to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), and it’s really good.
Developed for Broadway in 1957 by four gay Jews—director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—West Side Story rightfully comes up in almost every argument over what is the best American musical.
On the other hand, the old West Side Story movie has probably played as big a role as any in alienating the straight male audience from musicals. The ballet-dancing chorus boys miming stylized fighting often lose the guys in the back row of the classroom during their first number.
In a better world, Bernstein and Sondheim would have gone on to compose several more musicals together. But Bernstein got sidetracked by all the other things he was good at from doing what he was best at, composing Broadway tunes, while Sondheim, who died last month, went on with heroic determination to make a vast career out of the one thing he wasn’t good at, writing melodies.
The musical as a dominant form of American popular culture likely peaked around the time West Side Story debuted on Broadway: 1957 was such a good year that it lost the Best Musical Tony to The Music Man. Four years later, the movie version was the year’s biggest box office hit and won ten Oscars.
Various developments then knocked the musical off its perch, such as the rise of the electric guitar, which proved difficult to use in musicals because it tended to drown out the lyrics. But another reason was that as homosexuality became more visible in American culture, more guys became leery of musicals.
So, Steven Spielberg, being a patriotic admirer of mid-century America (e.g., Saving Private Ryan), has decided that what we need to acquaint the increasingly multicultural public with the USA’s past glories, rather like what Lin-Manuel Miranda intended to do for The Federalist Papers with his boyish Hamilton, is for him to remake West Side Story. His critically acclaimed film is now in theaters (but not on streaming services because the traditionalist Spielberg has that much industry clout).
Mostly, Spielberg’s West Side Story is similar to the one released when he was 14. But in the interest of tracking the unfolding zeitgeist, here are changes he oversaw:
Spielberg’s big brainstorm for luring in the heavily Hispanic young audience is to keep Bernstein’s magnificent music and even double down on the 1957 setting with added dialogue about Manhattan real estate, but to replace the gay stage violence with straight movie violence. Hence, Justin Peck’s choreography is highly Robbins-like, but butches it up with less toe-pointing.
Also, Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America and Spielberg’s Lincoln) resolved to reduce the problematic elements by eliminating the original film’s outdatedly evenhanded treatment of the two gangs of juvenile delinquents, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Just as Shakespeare didn’t take sides between the Montagues and Capulets, the 1961 film portrays the two groups as rumbling over turf because that’s what young males like to do.
Today, though, objectivity like that is felt to be immoral. You can now tell who deserves to win and who deserves to lose from the color of their skin. So, Spielberg and Kushner make clear that the Sharks and Jets fight because the browns are the good guys and the whites are the bad guys.
The Sharks are no longer even juvenile delinquents, but instead are grown men with jobs and families defending their graffiti-free vibrant community from the nihilistic Trumpist Jets.
But this means the Sharks don’t seem very cool anymore. In 1961, dashing George Chakiris played Bernardo, gang boss of the Sharks and ingenue Maria’s big brother (the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Tybalt), as the epitome of purple-shirted sharkness.
But Spielberg cast David Alvarez, who looks like Russell Crowe due to his Neanderthal brow ridge, to play an honest working man Bernardo. Sounding like Andrew Ferguson when asked by P.J. O’Rourke why Republicans don’t protest, Bernardo now points out that a difference between the Sharks and Jets is, “We have jobs.” (In the original, Maria’s suitors Chino and Tony, both now on the fringe of gang life, have jobs, but there’s no indication any of the other gang members are interested in gainful employment.)
In contrast to the noble Sharks, the new Jets are an isolated lumpenproletariat vastly outnumbered by the righteous BIPOC masses of 1957. You might think that would make the Jets not very scary, but they are presented as horrifying because in the current year white men bad. Jets do evil things like deface a colossal Puerto Rican flag with Jackson Pollock-like splashes from paint cans they stole from the construction site of Lincoln Center.
In an attempt to sound relevant, Kushner portrays gentrification in 1957 as a massive threat to the magic dirt under industrious yet idyllic Puerto Rican neighborhoods, although slumification was then the main trend. (The actual problem with the urban renewal projects of that day is that they robbed the future of beautiful old architecture to someday gentrify, knocking down 19th-century buildings in favor of unlovable Modernist hulks.)
Interestingly, the Jets don’t even seem to have any territory anymore. My guess is that the filmmakers worried that giving the Jets turf to defend would make today’s youth sympathize too much with them.
The movie gets off to a flat-footed start with a long talky section offering Kushner’s dysgenic theory of why the Jets are so poor despite all that sweet white privilege: Nature and nurture has made them white trash, urban Jukes descended from a long line of drunks and crooks. The better sorts of whites, the ones with identity, “the Irish, the Italians, the Jews,” have moved up and out, leaving behind these deracinated losers.
More minor changes:
Anybodys, a tomboy who wants to join the Jets under the name Buddy Boy, is now a transgender super-herox who can fight a half dozen of New York’s finest at once.
Graziella, the grieving girlfriend of the Jets’ leader Riff (Mercutio), displays a newfound sense of female solidarity by trying to rescue Anita, the girlfriend of Riff’s murderer, from the rapacity of the Jets.
Spielberg is being praised for his realism by putting much of the dialogue in Spanish without subtitles. But it’s a musical so who cares about realism? Dancing on sidewalks and singing on fire escapes isn’t realistic either, so why should Puerto Ricans improbably speaking English at home be beyond the pale? (The real reason is of course to signal that it’s not your country anymore, gringo.)
But this ploy ends up with the white kids, especially Riff (an insidiously excellent Mike Faist), getting even more of the best lines than in the 60-year-old movie. Also, much of the new film being in Spanish relieves you from having to listen to some of Kushner’s intelligent but tendentious talk. You can zone out when they are speaking Spanish and wait for the next song.
In the original movie, after Bernardo’s death at the rumble, Chino goes and gets a gun to wreak revenge. But now, the Jets, being future Trump voters, buy the gun that winds up in Chino’s hands, with massive Chekov’s Gun foreshadowing. (In reality, Spielberg is a gun-loving skeet shooter who rewards himself by ordering a custom-made Italian shotgun each time he finishes a movie.)
Yet, these contortions can be forgiven because they serve to set up the most dynamic newly invented scene: Tony and Riff struggling for the pistol on a decaying dock to “Cool.”
But Spielberg’s swirling camera makes an incoherent mess of the Jets’ complex role-playing in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” (Or perhaps the filmmakers feared letting Sondheim’s satire of 1950s soft-on-crime liberal theorizing come across clearly in the Black Lives Matter era.) And the bravura gym dance is too crowded compared with the lucidity of the first version.
Overall, it’s hard to see how Spielberg’s strenuous camerawork adds much to audience enjoyment, since the classic songs and dances were devised to be seen from a stationary seat in the theater.
Fortunately, after a talky first twenty minutes, the superb score takes over and the movie winds up being quite good. Spielberg is much too great of a showman to mess with the music.
And being Spielberg, the new rules about representation don’t require him to scrape the bottom of the affirmative-action barrel: For instance, sure, he hired a Latino to conduct the score, but he can afford Venezuelan superstar Gustavo Dudamel.
And rather than cast Russian-American Natalie Wood as Maria, Spielberg’s team supposedly auditioned 30,000 Latinas before picking Catholic schoolgirl Rachel Zegler. In case you are wondering about how somebody named “Rachel Zegler” represents Puerto Ricans, her mother is from Colombia, which is not exactly Puerto Rico but close enough for Spielberg. She is a Northern European-mestizo mix in the fetching tradition of Linda Ronstadt and, perhaps, Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet in Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 teen romance classic. Zegler sings very sweetly.
(In case you are wondering, it’s now totally crucial that no white ever play a Role of Color, whereas it’s totally cool, as in Hamilton, that a nonwhite play characters as white as Hamilton, Jefferson, or Burr. It’s almost as if Wokeness is a jobs program for nonwhites rather than a manifestation of disinterested principle.)
Nevertheless, while Spielberg’s West Side Story is, on the whole, fine, what about the opportunity cost of the top director spending $100 million to remake a movie that was terrific the first time when there were instead several classic musicals without satisfactory screen versions, such as Camelot, Guys and Dolls, or South Pacific?
Will Spielberg’s West Side Story revive interest in classic musicals among the young? Probably not.
With the ongoing demographic changes, the economic future of live-action movie musicals (animated musicals are thriving) is likely foretold instead by the 2017 surprise hit The Greatest Showman. A musical biopic about 19th-century freak-show owner P.T. Barnum (the most Old American subject imaginable), it was pleasant but notably dumbed down, aiming squarely at the young female demographic that finds TV talent contests challenging fare. Dismissive critics were baffled by its legs at the box office, but they aren’t much in touch with the lowbrow New America they champion.
Twenty-first-century audiences apparently don’t care much about all the brainpower expended on West Side Story. So far, despite all the efforts exerted over the generations by all the famous talents involved, nobody except critics (who are wowed by it) and old white people who liked the 1961 Best Picture-winning film just fine are much interested in going to Spielberg’s reimagining. Its opening weekend rung up a dismal $10.5 million at the box office, leaving studio executives flailing to the press about how The Greatest Showman started slowly too but became a hit. But that sleeper didn’t feature the combination of the (arguably) most famous musical and director of all time.
Today’s youth of color seem particularly unenthused. I saw the new West Side Story Saturday night in the heart of the Mexican barrio of Van Nuys, Calif., and there were about seventeen people in the theater.
One reason might be that the vast Hispanic audience mostly doesn’t identify with Puerto Ricans, being more nationalist than racialist, seeing themselves more as Mexicans, Salvadorans, or whatever rather than as members of the Latinx race. (And other Latinos don’t appear to think all that much of Puerto Ricans.)
Nonetheless, despite all its annoyances, Spielberg’s West Side Story is still West Side Story, which is a very good thing to be.