‘I’ ON CULTURE
Was anyone really desiring a new version of West Side Story? Or even thinking about it? I doubt it, but Steven Spielberg decided we needed a new version. I am still not certain why, but the final result is certainly not as bad as I worried it would be. But it is also not really better than the original.
The central change screenwriter Tony Kushner made was to toughen up the characters, to make the young lovers, particularly Tony (Ansel Elgort), not so much an innocent juvenile. While it takes away from Shakespeare’s glorious young lovers theme (remember, West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet), it makes him more understandable. In the new version, he has a reason for wanting to avoid a nasty gang fight; he is on probation for a previous act of violence. Also, his buddy Riff (Mike Faist) is a really just-on-the-edge-of-being-psycho leader of the Jets gang. Russ Tamblyn in the original was more of a mischievous guy.
Everyone knows the story, although it starts differently. In the original, we have the swooping, glorious shot of Manhattan. In the new one, it is a sign that the west side neighborhood is being torn down to create Lincoln Center. All the kids, as well as their folks, will be displaced. That leads to much hostility in the area. Tony meets Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a dance in the gym, not knowing she is the younger sister of the Puerto Rican Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). They meet, kiss and a fight begins. Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) tries to keep him occupied, but the story goes on. Tony and Maria meet and sing on the fire escape, the gangs fight, and Bernardo kills Riff before Tony kills Bernardo. Then Tony and Maria mourn together.
A main complaint by the makers of the film was that Rita Moreno, as Anita, was the only Puerto Rican starring in the original. Thus, Latinos were cast in the key parts of this film, although, in a lovely bit of irony, Alvarez is originally Cuban, Zegler half-Columbian and DeBose half-Puerto Rican. So, there was only a half-Puerto Rican starring in this one. On the other hand, they basically re-created the “Doc” role around Moreno, who is fantastic and does a gorgeous job singing “Somewhere.” So, Puerto Ricans do play a central part.
The songs are the magnificent ones written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, although Lin-Manuel Miranda, added a Spanish twist to a couple of numbers. The score, rated one of the best in Broadway history, is here in all of its glory, and the actors actually sing their parts.
The choreography by Justin Peck is also excellent. It is not quite up to the standard of Jerome Robbins’ work from the original, but then again, Robbins was both a genius and a perfectionist. Ironically, Robbins spent so much money directing and choreographing the music that he was kicked off the film, but his dances remain. Peck’s work is more concise with many different camera angles and brilliant editing. It works well, but is not nearly as artistic.
The performers are all very good. I liked Alvarez particularly. He brought dignity, an iron will and more than a bit of anger to Bernardo. And Moreno might even be more wonderful than she was in the original, where she won an Oscar. Now age 90, she is a national treasure.
The real decider in whether or not the film is better would be whether you prefer a tragic story of young love, following essentially in the footsteps of Romeo and Juliet, or a tale based on the disintegration of family and decency due to issues of urban renewal. Yes, the story is the same, but in the original, we mainly see our innocent lovers. In the new one, we see them as part of a greater tragedy, the breakdown of society. The power of love and loss is still there, but merely part of the tapestry.
The new film is beautiful and disturbing. Was it worth the hundred million dollars or so it cost? To me, no. But other people find it blends in well with today’s standards. Very different, but still the same.
Or, as a song in another film sang, “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.” The fundamentals are still there, the music still sings and the lovers love.