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West Side Story (2021)

Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

When it comes to operas, plays and musicals, theatergoers don’t often ask why stage revivals happen. It’s been a few years since the last Broadway revival of The Music Man so, well, here comes Hugh Jackman in The Music Man. No problem. 

But Hollywood is different, especially when it comes to remaking Oscar-winning Best Pictures. “Leave well enough alone” seems to be the mantra. For a shortlist of exceptions, you’d have to go back to All the King’s Men, Mutiny on the Bounty and only a handful of others. Neither does Hollywood tend to remake musicals, outside of a couple of runs at Show Boat and a thankfully forgotten animated The King and I

So it’s not surprising that, when Steven Spielberg announced he was remaking West Side Story, the why question emerged. It’s not that the original 1961 Best Picture-winning blockbuster was perfect. Pushback over the decades has included the dubbing of singing voices for the leads, the non-Latinx Maria and Bernardo, Arthur Laurents’ made-up slang that seemed incongruous when taken from stage to the New York streets and more. Still, it’s a dynamic movie, one remembered fondly by many. 

One of the many pleasures of Spielberg’s film — opening in theaters on Thursday, Dec. 9 — is that he quickly and clearly answers why.

The original version posited a turf war between two gangs. The remake puts that turf war in a larger context. In the overhead shots that open the film — an homage to the original — we see more than just rooftops, streets and alleys. We see a west-side New York neighborhood being demolished to build Lincoln Center, destined to bring with it rents that none of these characters could even dream about let alone pay. The gangs are fighting for turf that soon won’t belong to either of them, adding an effective layer of futility to their already desperate battles. 

Further, while the original stage production was heralded for its willingness to address youth violence, the 1961 take offered a fairly lovable gang of Jets. In contrast, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) make clear from the get-go that the anglo Jets gang are jerks, instigating much of the violence that fuels the narrative. And they do it in a way that doesn’t dance around the fact that this is a musical. Even with sharpened edges, the gangs glide into graceful turns and leaps that feel oddly natural, even amid realistic sets. 

It’s a spectacular start, making a case not just for the relevance of West Side Story but for the relevance of unapologetic musicals as a cinematic art form. 

That is, until we meet Tony.

Before I get into how hopelessly miscast Ansel Elgort is here, let me first say that Romeo is the toughest part in West Side Story’s source material, Romeo and Juliet. Early in the play, he’s far less interesting than his pal Mercutio. And when Mercutio dies, there’s a void that actors playing Romeo rarely, in my experience, can fill. He must also contend with the better-written Juliet. The same challenge affects West Side Story. I’m willing to bet an actor playing Tony will never be a Tony Award contender.   

Still, the piece depends on our belief that Tony and Maria fall head over heels for each other at first sight and, further, that we desperately want Tony and Maria to beat the odds and be together. Before Elgort’s Tony even arrives at the big dance, though, he has to convince us he matters, that he’s yearning for something real. Onstage, he gets a few lines of dialogue before launching into “Something’s Coming.” In the film, we get exposition that never rings true. In a world with formidable Jets and Sharks, it’s too much to ask us to believe that this baby-faced bore was not only a founder and leader of his gang but that he went to prison for nearly killing a kid. 

That’s in contrast to newcomer Rachel Zegler, who holds her own as Maria. Kushner toughens her up, giving her pushback lines against brother Bernardo’s toxic masculinity. But a stronger Maria makes Elgort’s Tony even less of a satisfying match for her. As a colleague pointed out, Elgort does to West Side Story what Hayden Christensen did to his Star Wars episodes. I pitied Zegler in the same way I pitied Natalie Portman. There’s only so much you can do when your scene partner is in over his depth.

The other problems are smaller. While Kushner adds depth to the script, the book scenes could use some trimming. Onstage, you never forget West Side Story is a musical and that energy helps drive the show. Here, the momentum flags when we are told what we’ve already seen. And the supporting gang members aren’t given much character, which drains the life out of the would-be showstopping “Gee, Officer Krupke” number.

While there’s no shame in Justin Peck’s choreography, it won’t make you forget that of Jerome Robbins — and there isn’t a dance number here as memorable as the dance / fight in Spielberg’s 1941. (I just rewatched it. It’s goofy but it holds up.)  

On the plus side, there’s Ariana DeBose, who has transitioned from a reliable Broadway talent to a screen actress of pretty remarkable range when you stack her Anita with recent, very different, performances in The Prom and Schmigadoon!  

Casting kudos, too, for Mike Faist (as Riff) and David Alvarez (as Bernardo), who make believable two guys who can both dance seamlessly and hurt you really, really badly. 

And then there’s Rita Moreno in the reconceived role of Valentina, owner of the Jet hangout. Her relationship with her late husband provides a model for what Tony and Marie could become and Moreno provides the richest emotional moments in the film. Apart from its many other strengths, she is reason enough for this West Side Story