“West Side Story” is considered to be one of the pinnacles of post-World War II middlebrow culture in the United States. Originally performed on Broadway in 1957 and released on DVD four years later, it has survived as both a time capsule and an archive of indestructible tunes for generations to come. In terms of literary brilliance and modern social concern, of humour and seriousness, of reality and fantasy, of street fighting and ballet, what its founders achieved had never exactly been done before, and it hasn’t been replicated since then.
The notion of tying the timeless tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” to the current challenges of juvenile delinquency and ethnic intolerance must have sounded both bold and obvious to the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. Throughout the years since its premiere, “West Side Story” has proven to be irresistible, attracting the attention of countless high-school musical theatre programmes as well as filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose film version reaffirms the show’s indelible appeal while also feeling bold, surprising, and fresh.
In no way can this be taken to imply that the programme has ever been faultless. In spite of the fact that Sondheim penned the lyrics (and died only a few days after Thanksgiving at the age of 91), he regularly despised his own contributions, even the endearing “I Feel Pretty.” Puerto Rican and Anglo (or “gringo”) juvenile gangs are shown inaccurately, according to sociological standards, and their representation has been criticised for cultural insensitivity. Shakespeare’s Verona may not transfer as well into the slums of Manhattan in the mid-twentieth century, though.
However, in the world of musicals, perfection has never been a meaningful criterion. Artists with grit and determination have always created a wonderful, jumbled mash-up of artistic transcendence and commercial ambition, a grab-bag of genres and sources kept together by the energy, creativity, and sheer chutzpah of scrappy and savvy musicians and producers. Possibly this is particularly true in the film industry, where the technology of cinema can both enhance and complicate the creativity of the filmmakers.
Despite the fact that Spielberg’s adaptation has a script by Tony Kushner that significantly revises Laurents’ novel, as well as new choreography by Justin Peck that pays clever respect to Robbins’ artistry, the film cannot be described as faultless. The performances are not consistent. The swooning romanticism of the core love tale is not always in sync with the harshness of the surrounding landscape and environment. The visuals sometimes veer too abruptly from street authenticity to theatrical splendour, which is distracting. The seams — which connect the past to the present, humour to sorrow, America to dreamland — may be visible at times.
However, it is precisely because of these flaws that the film is so thrilling. It’s a stunning exhibition of cinematic skill but nevertheless seems raw, uneasy, and alive at the same time. However, rather than embalming or forcefully remaking a classic, Spielberg, Kushner, Peck and his colleagues have restored the film’s vital and exhilarating soul.
The 1961 picture, directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, was partially shot on location in a neighbourhood that was already on the verge of being demolished at the time of production. At the start of Spielberg’s 1957, the devastation has already begun. Buildings that were formerly tenement buildings are being demolished, with wrecking balls and cranes towering above the ruins. A depiction of the gleaming Lincoln Center arts complex, which will rise where the slums previously existed, is shown on a placard erected at one of the demolition sites.
According to Shakespeare’s play, “two homes, both similar in dignity,” are involved; in Act III, Mercutio famously pronounces “a plague” on both of the households involved. Nonetheless, although structurally crucial to the original material — after all, what exactly were the Montagues and Capulets in the first place, and who cares? — such symmetry does not project well onto the West Side as Kushner and Spielberg perceive it.
The Jets and the Sharks, a white adolescent gang and their Puerto Rican adversaries, are not exact replicas of one another. They crash like taxis hurtling toward one other on a one-way street as they pretend to be fighting for control of a few tattered blocks in the West 60s.
The cast members, particularly Rita Moreno, who played Anita in 1961 and reprises her role as a tired, wise pharmacist called Valentina, deliver the authenticity and conviction that a film of this kind need. For all of the Hollywood flourishes, the core of Spielberg’s rendition of “West Side Story” is a group of children clicking their fingers and singing their hearts out.
The voices are, on the whole, rather loud and distinct. Even if Zegler and Elgort are capable of singing some of the most difficult songs with full-throated power, they are unable to truly embody the enormous, life-altering (and -ending) passion that their characters need. Tony and Maria are kind and pleasant, but they are also a little boring, and their breakneck development from infatuation to everlasting love, which occurs over a few two days, seems a little superficial in comparison to the large, intricate forces at work in their lives.