Stephen Spielberg may seem like an unlikely person to be directing a musical, much less a musical that’s a remake of one that’s as classic as WEST SIDE STORY but here we are. The original 1961 film, which won ten Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, was the biggest film of that year. In today’s dollars, it’s box office take would be over $400 million. With numbers like these, perhaps Spielberg is the right person to direct the remake.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 60 years, WEST SIDE STORY is essentially the story of Romeo & Juliet set around New York’s West 60s and 70s Streets. The area in the late 1950s and early 1960s was home to a melange of working-class ethnic groups. The Irish, Italians and Poles, who had lived in the neighbourhood for years, were being supplanted by a tidal wave of Puerto Ricans who were moving to the city in search of a better life. Similar to Shakespeare’s play, WEST SIDE STORY focuses on two gangs – the Jets (the old residents) and the Sharks (the new residents) – and what happens when a young woman from one group falls in love with a young man from the other. It’s a relationship that is fated to end in tragedy.
Happily, I can say that Spielberg’s update is a huge improvement over the original. Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner injects some welcome context into the story showing the neighbourhood undergoing massive redevelopment, which it was at that time. Although the original film did show some buildings in various states of demolition, there was more emphasis placed on new immigrants coming to the neighbourhood and taking over shops that were once owned by the old residents. In reality, both groups were being turfed out of the neighbourhood as the city embarked on a huge urban renewal project that resulted in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Gone in the remake is the dubbed singing, which was rampant in the original. Back in 1961, it was common for studios to hire ghost singers to sub for actors who didn’t have the best singing chops or who couldn’t sing well enough in the register that the studio wanted. (Rita Moreno, who stars as Anita in the original film and as Valentina in the remake, can sing but she was still dubbed for “A Boy Like That” in the 1961 production because it was to be sung in a register that was too low for her.) For this production, while all the actors are singing with their own voices, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Ansel Elgort (BABY DRIVER; THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), who plays Tony, doesn’t have the strongest of singing voices, which becomes painfully apparent when he’s duetting “Tonight” with his co-star Rachel Ziegler, who plays Maria.
Also thankfully missing from the remake is the brown makeup that the Puerto Rican characters had to wear in the original. Even Moreno had to wear it and she’s Puerto Rican! That would definitely be taboo today.
Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY ditches the stagey look of the original, instead making heavy use of brightly lit, exterior shots for the impeccably choreographed dance numbers, and relying on long-time collaborator, two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN; SCHINDLER’S LIST), to expertly capture the spectacle both from the ground and overhead with plenty of crane shots. New York City Ballet dancer and choreographer Justin Peck pays homage to Jerome Robbins, the play’s original director, with some dance moves that are reminiscent of the 1961 film but, for the most part, he and his dancers bring new energy and originality (and far less “jazz hands”) to the production.
With the exception of Elgort, who is the acting equivalent of Wonder Bread, all the performances are fabulous, especially Ariana DeBose (HAMILTON), who plays Anita, and 90-year-old Moreno, who plays a new character replacing Doc in the original. Elgort, though, is tolerable. Tony is the dullest character of the bunch and I’m not sure if it’s fair to expect the actor to shine as brightly as his co-stars do.
WEST SIDE STORY opened in Hong Kong yesterday (January 6th) but with our cinemas closing today for at least two weeks, it’ll be interesting to see if Disney moves it onto their streaming service right away. If you have a chance to see it wherever you are, definitely do!
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