Spielberg’s First Musical ‘West Side Story’ Is a Beautiful, Vivid Update of a Classic


Ariana De Bose in “America” from “West Side Story” (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

By Megan Fisher, Arts Writer


The Musical Spielberg Has Been Waiting to Make

Steven Spielberg has never made a musical, but his latest movie, an adaptation of the classic “West Side Story,” is something that he has been preparing for his entire career. Hasn’t there always been something rather balletic about the camera in Spielberg movies? Indiana Jones might not burst out into song, but the action sequences are as fluidly choreographed as anything in a Fred Astaire movie.

Think about how many iconic scores have come from a Spielberg movie, “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” “E.T. :The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Indiana Jones” to name a few, and you will be able to see that he understands how to use music on film, the editing techniques and camera movements that buoy up the notes. That talent is on full display within “West Side Story.” The camera glides and dances along with the characters, and the editing eschews the choppy cuts that have infiltrated so many modern movie musicals, allowing for the audience to form a connection with the characters and get swept up in the emotions.

One of the Greatest Scores

The stage musical first premiered on Broadway in 1957, bringing Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” into contemporary New York City with a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from the recently departed Stephen Sondheim, and rousing, athletic choreography from Jerome Robbins. Bernstein’s score is one of the greatest ever written, combining the tenants of operas and symphonies to great, romantic effect. It would introduce songs such as “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America” and “I Feel Pretty” that have become theatre standards, performed during every round of auditions for the high school choirs and musicals.

Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, do not attempt to update the show, but instead illuminate different themes, intensify the racial tensions inherent to the text and strengthen characterization. All of the Sharks are played by Latinx actors and dancers and their dialogue includes a great deal of un-subtitled Spanish. The filmmakers illustrate what makes the text so indelible, why we have gone back to the story of Romeo and Juliet since it was first performed at the Globe Theatre, while at the same time creating something fresh and vibrant. Spielberg and Kushner have chipped away all of the fatty build-ups and found the works art.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ in 1957 New York City

In “West Side Story,” the “two households both alike in dignity” are rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, who are fighting for control of a piece of land within which the construction of Lincoln Center looms sinisterly. The Jets are led by Riff, played by Mike Faist, with charisma and the intensity of a powder keg about to go off. The Sharks are led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), a boxer who is looking out for his younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) who newly arrived from Puerto Rico. As soon as Bernardo warns Maria to stay away from “gringo boys,” the audience knows what is going to happen, and quickly Maria is locking eyes with retired Jet member Tony (Ansel Elgort) from across a dance floor.

In her first film role, Zegler gives a true “Star is Born” performance as Maria. She has an enchanting, gamine Audrey Hepburn-quality, countering the characters naïve innocence with intelligence, bringing a charming comedic touch to “I Feel Pretty.” It is a full-bodied and rich performance that turns Maria into something much more than an ingenue who sings love songs. The same cannot be said for Elgort, who while not bad enough to derail any scenes, never overcomes Tony’s (and Romeo’s) inherent mooniness, and plays the character as though he was doing an impression of James Dean and Marlon Brando combined. Both Zegler and Elgort have clear, lovely singing voices.

While the casting improves on the whitewashing of Broadway original and the 1961 Best Picture Oscar-winning film, it falters in comparison to Jerome Robbin’s choreography. Yet, Spielberg demonstrates enough inventiveness and energy to give the movie a life of its own. It’s an enchanting, graceful fairytale that I hope will make many people a fan of musicals.


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