The voiceover on a trailer for a 1989 re-release of Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story (1961) states: “Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger.” And after viewing the freshest movie interpretation of Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s iconic 1957 stage musical from legendary film director Steven Spielberg, I don’t think I can disagree with this claim. While musical fans continue to enjoy the 1961 screen adaptation and various theatre revivals, there is now room for another of the timeless, brilliant soundtrack and a talent discovered with newcomer Rachel Zegler as female lead Maria.
Set in 1957 New York City, tension is high between the local, young gangs of the Jets and the Sharks. The former are white boys while the latter are Puerto Rican immigrants relatively new to town. Jet leader Riff (Mike Faist) thinks they should end the aggressive conflict already with an all-out rumble, which head Shark Bernardo (David Alvarez) has no problem with. Former Jet and Riff’s best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort), doesn’t want his pals to be involved with any more violent trouble; while Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) would also like to settle the situation with the two groups accepting their differences and moving on. Meanwhile, Bernardo has been trying to set up his younger sister Maria (Zegler) with his protégé Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), until sparks fly between Tony and Maria at a community dance.
Ariana DeBose co-stars as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita and West Side Story ’61 alum Rita Moreno appears as a new character named Valentina who replaces Doc from the original story. Tony Kushner now pens his third script for a Spielberg film following Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012), and gives the dialogue a bit more modern, less old timey tone. Though it took me a while to get into composer David Newman’s new recording of the music after spending most of my life familiar with Johnny Green’s 1961 OST; it’s hard to mess up songs and cues this unique and great. Zegler lives up to the hype critics have been giving her since the WSS ’21 premiere two weeks ago with both the musical numbers and emotional sequences. Elgort, though a bit bland, is mostly fine as Tony, as are Faist and Alvarez. Like most actresses who play Anita, DeBose is just as much a scene stealer here and appears to be having a blast on screen. I did feel Moreno’s Valentina was a bit of an unnecessary addition, though that’s mostly because I generally find actors from classics appearing in the remakes a tad distracting and tacked on.
One thing I wasn’t expecting to enjoy more this time around was ‘Gee, Officer Krupke,’ a song I usually think is the weakest of the musical and rather annoying. But this time they put a laxer spin on it that’s refreshing. Though there are a couple other things I still prefer with Wise & Robbins’ West Side Story—like the placement of the number ‘Cool’ and the direction of the final scene—I think the new WSS is worthy of just as much success as the versions we already know and love. Even more fitting with Sondheim’s death still semi-recent, now is a good time to revisit the ageless plot, themes and characters of West Side Story.
Do you like West Side Story? Does the new movie version look interesting to you? Tell us in the comments!
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