Stephen Spielberg’s take on West Side Story seems to be about a slum clearance project rather than a modern take on the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. I will assume that you are familiar with the story: this article contains plot spoilers.
I am not sure exactly why Spielberg made this movie other than perhaps to comment on the evils of urban renewal. While he claimed that this was closer to the Broadway production than to the 1961 Robert Wise movie, it really isn’t true. Gone is the ballet sequence and Laurents’ dialog has been replaced by Tony Kushner’s talky speeches which make the movie drag when it should soar. And the destruction of upper West Side tenements was never part of the plot of the script devised by Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.
Only part of the opening sequence is really choreographed as a dance number, and it eventually devolves into a brutal fight. And the dialog that follows has some pretty cruel lines that seem unnecessary. In the original show, Lieutenant Shrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) come on for just over a minute and deliver 5 lines about cooperating with them and leave. In this version, Shrank’s nasty comments on the Jets and Sharks go on for about 4:45, and includes this winner:
“By the time you get out, this will be a shiny new neighborhood of rich people. With Puerto Rican doormen to chase trash like you away.”
Filmed in sets more like a bombed out city than the Upper West Side housing projects it is really depressing to watch and is possibly a major indication of why audiences are staying away from a movie which, though problematic, has real merit in many other scenes.
Kushner also took it on himself to invent backstories that don’t add much of interest. Tony, in Kushner’s version, had spent a year in prison for nearly killing a boy in a gang fight. Just the guy you’d want your sister to marry!
And for no reason, both Bernardo (David Alvarez) and Chino (Josh Andres Rivera) are amateur boxers. While playwright Arthur Laurents described Chino as a sweet-faced young boy, whom Anita and Bernardo want Maria to marry, Kushner piles it on, making Chino not only a boxer, but a student studying accounting and (snort!) “adding machine repair.” Why do we need to know this? It explains why this Chino wears glasses?
You probably have read enough about this movie already to know that the character of Doc, who runs the drugstore where the Jets hang out has been replaced by Valentina, the late Doc’s wife, played by Rita Moreno, who was Anita in the first movie. This gives her a chance to comment on the story from the Puerto Rican point of view as well as advise Tony. It works quite well.
Laurents, in his book Mainly on Directing, praises the economical use of lines as a technique he learned working on radio. He points out that only 2 lines separate Anita’s discovery that Tony had just left Maria’s bedroom and the beginning of the powerful song “A Boy Like That.” Kushner observed that precept in that scene but unfortunately not in many other scenes in this overly long movie.
There is a lot of other parts of this movie that deserve praise: unlike the first movie, all the performers do their own singing, and they are far better actors than in the Wise film. (In his book, Laurents notes that the acting in that movie was terrible.) And further, the Sharks are actually Latinx actors, not white guys and girls painted brown.
Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers, are played by 27 year old Ansel Elgort and 20 year old Rachel Zegler, although neither matches Larry Kert or Carol Lawrence in singing ability. Both sing well enough to seem convincing in their roles. Zegler as the rather young Maria clearly has fallen for Tony, but there is only one place where that intense love shows in her singing: in the power duet with Anita (Ariana DeBose), “A Boy Like That,” that to me is the best musical number in the show.
Elgort has a light, pretty tenor voice, but he never really cuts loose with passion either in his singing or his acting. In fact, he is the only actor whose lip synching of his performance during sound recording seems off. This is possibly because he was singing more strongly in the studio than he was on the set, and his mouth movements didn’t quite match his singing. For comparison, here is Aaron Tveit singing Maria with real passion.
Ariana DeBose has received a lot of praise for her acting, dancing and singing, and it is much deserved. “A Boy Like That” is certainly her top number. However, in this duet with Maria, she doesn’t hold on to her notes as long as she should to blend better with Maria. But her performance leading the big dance number “America” is outstanding.
To me the strongest acting by far came from David Alvarez as Bernardo. He communicated a strong, powerful gang leader ready to take on anyone. You can’t take your eyes off him!
Justin Peck’s choreography was certainly different from that of Jerome Robbins, but while the Prologue was rather straightforward, the dancing in the Mambo sequence at the Dance at the Gym was truly thrilling. On the other hand, the Rumble wasn’t ballet. It was just a violent fight with Tony eventually holding Bernardo down and hitting him repeatedly until someone stopped him. This was recapitulating the violence he was imprisoned for and was in terrible taste. Of course, he eventually stabs and kills Bernardo after Bernardo knifes Riff and that would have been more than enough.
The original orchestrations were by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, but with Bernstein editing their work so he gets an orchestration credit as well. Orchestrations for this film were by Doug Besterman, Michael Starobin and Garth Edwin Sunderland. Nearly all of the music sounded like Bernstein’s originals except Tonight. Bernstein marked this number as “Moderate Beguine Tempo” in other words a dance rhythm. Part of that is the repeating Da-da da-Da-da-da-da in the accompaniment. But in the Broadway cast recording, there is also a bass line that is off-the-beat—on-the-beat that is completely missing. This helps move the song along. There were also a few odd orchestral passages in the Prologue that I never heard before.
One of the most powerful numbers in Act I is “Cool,” where Riff and the Jets sing about keeping their tension contained until the forthcoming rumble. But instead, in this version, Tony sings it. Riff has bought a gun from a bartender and the song seems to be about tossing the loaded gun around among themselves. Again, this was nothing envisioned in the original LRB script, and considering that the gun did not need to be cocked to fire, was rather stupid.
Musically, my favorite part of West Side Story has always been the Tonight Quintet, featuring Tony, Maria, Anita, Riff (Mike Faist), Bernardo and the Sharks and Jets. On stage this can be very effective, grouping them to suit the music. In the film, this is harder to do, and revolving shots between the five groups just doesn’t work as well. The vocal sound, however, was outstanding.
Usually, the Somewhere Ballet is included in WSS productions, where Tony and Maria and a couple of the Jets and Sharks battle out the Rumble again in ballet form, while an offstage soprano sings “There’s a Place for Us.” It’s a shame that this was lost and giving this song to mezzo Rita Moreno to talk her way through didn’t have the same kind of effect without the ballet. But it was nice to give her this honor.
“Gee, Officer Krupke” was inserted in the first act to give some comic relief but the tragedies hadn’t happened yet. Honestly, this was one of the least funny stagings of this number that I’ve seen. Needs more vaudeville, I guess.
You may have read that Sondheim hated his lyrics to “I Feel Pretty” and wanted to cut the song, as did Spielberg. But fortunately, Kushner intervened because he felt that the suspense of Maria not knowing that Tony was dead was important. And it is a good thing they didn’t, because this number is a standout in this movie, performed by the women who work nights cleaning Gimbels, including Maria, of course.
The ending is close to the original, where Chino finds Tony and shoots him just as Maria arrives. In the original they sing a bit of “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there,” from Somewhere before Tony dies. I missed that but when both gangs walk off together, it was still extremely effective.
So, overall, a mixed bag. I wish they had lived up to their promise to stay close to the original, since the cast would have done it well.