It seems that lately, big budget Hollywood adaptations of musicals would like you to forget that you’re watching a musical. They ditch the magic for gritty realism, like the much-maligned Les Miserables, or they attempt to drag music into the real world rather than embracing the inherent cheesiness of the genre. Others try to justify why their characters are singing, breaking the suspension of disbelief that is integral to live theater but can sometimes grate on film.
There’s nothing wrong with these approaches to bringing a musical to the screen, per se, but it leaves these films with a soulless void where their heart should be. Where are the true triple threat actors wowing audiences with their talents? Where’s the gonzo romanticism of Moulin Rouge! or the spellbinding dance moves and chemistry of Singin’ in the Rain that had audiences standing up to cheer in the theater?
West Side Story is so bursting with heart, with life, that it singlehandedly renewed my faith in Hollywood’s ability to make a classic, go-for-broke, honest-to-God musical. Director Steven Spielberg embraces the challenge of reinventing one of the most well known (and, it must be said, over-produced) musicals of all time, and he succeeds on a level that is unparalleled. Its greatest strength is its refusal to apologize for being a musical in the first place, embracing that brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s iconic lyrics as the foundation for the film rather than window dressing.
The plot of West Side Story is a familiar one, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City. The Jets and the Sharks are two rival street gangs, with their rivalry centered on racist animosity. The white Jets, led by Riff, believe the Sharks (and the wider Puerto Rican immigrant community) are the reason for their lack of upward societal mobility, while the Sharks contend with racist attacks on their area of town as they try to fit in their new country. When Tony, a former Jet struggling to leave his past behind, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Sharks leader Bernardo, their love will set off a firestorm that ends in heartbreak.
Part of the reason this adaptation works is its ability to pay homage to the source material while updating it for a modern world. The book of the musical got a substantial update by Tony Kushner, and it exceeds the original in every way. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the original 1961 film, steals her scenes as new character Valentina. And the character of Anybodys (played brilliantly by non-binary actor Iris Menas), who was merely coded as transgender in the original film, is given an expanded role and made explicitly trans. Despite the protests of purists, these edits along with the decision to increase the amount of dialogue in Spanish (without subtitling it in English) only serve to make West Side Story a richer viewing experience.
The main credit for West Side Story‘s brilliance must be given to its strong cast. Spielberg and his casting director Cindy Tolan eschewed the typical instinct to cast famous actors who can carry a tune, turning instead to experienced Broadway veterans and undiscovered talents. This makes a huge difference in the quality of the performances. Mike Faist is a Riff for the ages. His desperate aura comes through in both his dancing and his acting. David Alvarez, one of the youngest Tony winners ever for Billy Elliot and a classically trained ballet dancer, is stunning as Bernardo. Watching the two battle is like watching a masterclass in building dramatic tension, and their dancing (along with the talented dancers playing the Jets and the Sharks) is mesmerizing with Justin Peck’s immaculate choreography.
Ariana DeBose had iconic shoes to fill as Anita, but fill them she does. She easily plays Anita’s fun and flirty side, from her joyful kicks in “America” to her dance with Bernardo in “Mambo.” But DeBose is at her best when Anita’s strength is tested by the tragedy that unfolds in the final act. Her breathtaking “A Boy Like That” caused sniffles in the theater at the screening I attended, the audience stunned into silence by the ferocity of her performance. She is undoubtedly a lock for an Oscar nomination if not a win, and either will be well deserved.
But the true center of the film is newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, who was just 17-years-old when she landed the role after her first professional audition. Her poise and beautiful soprano voice would be enough to rank her as one of the best (if not the best) to play Maria, but Spielberg wisely allows Maria to have more anger and a personality outside of loving Tony. Zegler gives us a well rounded Maria who commands attention each time she is on-screen even alongside veterans with years of experience.
Her performance is enough to make up for the one weak link in the main cast: Ansel Elgort as Tony. Compared to the other leads, Elgort just doesn’t have the chemistry to make Tony interesting as a character, and he gets lost in the spectacle. Zegler’s charm instantly shows the audience why Tony would fall head over heels, but nothing Elgort does is compelling enough to make us understand why Maria would leave her life behind for him. It’s the one misstep from a casting perspective, but thankfully, it is remedied by the overall brilliance of the rest of the characters.
As a fan of West Side Story for years, I was prepared to like this adaptation. But I did not anticipate the utter joy I would feel as I watched this spectacle unfold. It is frankly superior to the original, and it is a triumph only Spielberg could pull off. West Side Story deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. From the first whistles and snaps of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score to the gorgeously tragic final scene, West Side Story refuses to be anything other than the stunning piece of theater it is, and it will linger in the hearts of its audience long after the end credits roll.
West Side Story is now playing only in theaters.