West Side Story

Year of release: 2021       Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, and Rita Moreno.

Most stories, and by extension most movies, have three acts. There is an exposition, a series of conflicts leading to a climax, and a resolution. Most stage musicals have two acts. What this necessitates is the end of act one being the climax, an eleven-o’clock number to keep the second act moving, and a finale that in most other stories would have come sooner. Some musicals work around this problem brilliantly; the climax that ends act one of Gypsy paves the way for the even more devastating finale of act two. The Phantom smashing the chandelier leads to his sabotaging an opera production with his literal presence. And the rumble that ends act one of West Side Story takes an entire second act to deal with the repercussions.

However, most films no longer have intermissions, and placing the dramatic climax at the halfway point of the narrative arc obviously does not work for a continuous two or two-plus hour story. It’s a problem for adapting musicals from stage to screen that Joel Schumacher tried unsuccessfully to work around in his 2004 The Phantom of the Opera, that Rob Marshall more or less succeeded with his 2014 Into the Woods, and one that Spielberg and Tony Kushner solve brilliantly in 2021’s West Side Story.

When I first heard Spielberg was adapting West Side Story, my thoughts were: 1) why can’t he adapt a musical that’s never received a silver screen treatment before? 2) the 1961 film is pretty good, and while there is obvious room for improvement, do we really need a new one? 3) will this be an adaptation of the stage show, or the 1961 film? While I’d still like to see Spielberg tackle a musical that’s never been filmed, the answer to 2) is a resounding yes, largely because the answer to 3) is that he adapted the stage show, not the older film.

I am one of the few West Side Story fans that I know of who vastly prefers the original order of “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and not the 1961 film’s switching of them. For one thing, there is too much tension and anger in the music of “Cool” for it to be a song about calming down after the rumble, and the flippant irreverence of “Gee, Officer Krupke” flows naturally from the rumble into the finale, continuing the cycle of violence.

When I checked the soundtrack listing, I was very pleased to see “Cool” was before the rumble in Spielberg’s West Side Story. I was less pleased to see it was sung by Tony (Ansel Elgort) to Riff (Mike Faist). However, that decision works fantastically. And even if it didn’t, the dance sequence that’s choreographed between Tony and the Jets over the gun that will ultimately end Tony’s life is so spectacular to behold that I would have forgiven the decision had it not worked.

The angular, tritone dominated melody of “Cool” allows it to work in this new context, because it now serves as a futile warning from Tony to Riff, much in the same way that Tony’s famous tritone dominated love song “Maria” indicates the love between the two leads is doomed.

As to “Gee, Officer Krupke” taking place before the rumble, the necessity of reducing the amount of time between the rumble and the finale makes perfect sense for a film. As such, having it take place as part of the leadup to the rumble works great.

Maria’s (Rachel Zegler) big solo “I Feel Pretty” takes place immediately following the rumble. In the stage show, it opens act two. Since Spielberg and Kushner reduced the amount of time between the rumble and the finale, here it opens what would be considered act three of the film. I loved its placement for so many reasons (the 1961 film moved it to pre-rumble, because it was thought to jarring to sing post-rumble). For one thing, the power of the music to begin a new section of the story is in keeping with the way the song was written. Secondly, hearing it immediately after watching two young adults murdered maintains the tragic nature of Maria and Tony’s romance as well as Maria’s disconnect from what just happened.

The other big solo that takes place post-rumble is “Somewhere.” In keeping with the stage show, it’s not a love duet between Tony and Maria (their love duet is in the first act), but a broken plea for a world that is better than the one we have. I won’t spoil who sings it (although it’s pretty easy to guess), but it was a classic Spielberg tear-jerker moment in the best possible sense.

While Spielberg’s West Side Story takes place in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, he makes the cultural divide feel as present as if it took place today. Much has been made of his decision to leave the frequent Spanish speaking unsubtitled, and while it’s not particularly newsworthy if one is familiar with his other films, it does make the culture of the Sharks feel as natural and quintessentially American as that of the Jets.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Ariana DeBose impressed me in The Prom last year, and she’s even better here. Anita’s casual starting of “America” and having it turn into a showstopper only makes her later anger and hatred all the more relatable. Spielberg gets what is easily my favorite performance from Elgort; Zegler is a good soprano, and one role in particular provides the heart to the tragic story.

One of my favorite aspects of Bernstein’s score for West Side Story is the way he takes the love duet and turns it into part of the rumble quintet. It musically weaves together the anger, passion, hatred, and love of all the characters. Spielberg’s setting of it includes a dose of religion, sex, guns, tribal associations, idealism, and youthful confidence. It’s as if he saying this story is not just for the west side of Manhattan, but all of America. It’s all there in Sondheim’s lyrics, but Spielberg’s realization of it is what makes this a masterclass in musical adaptation.

Personal recommendation: A

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