Steven Spielberg’s spectacular re-invention of West Side Story makes the classic Romeo and Juliet-inspired musical his own, subtly revising Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 Broadway hit, along with Robert Wise’s 1961 Oscar-winning screen adaptation.
In the Upper West Side in the 1960s, gang violence erupts in the slums of a crumbling cityscape with palpable tension between the Anglo Jets, ruled by brawl-loving Riff (Mike Faist), and the Puerto Rican Sharks, controlled by the boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez).
These thugs mill around Doc’s store, run by Doc’s weary widow Valentina (Rita Moreno), who lets ex-con Tony (bland Ansel Elgort), co-founder of the Jets, bunk in her basement.
More complications arise as a ‘forbidden’ romance blossoms between Polish-American Tony and Bernardo’s naïve younger sister Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler), just arrived from Puerto Rico to live with Bernardo’s fiery girl-friend Anita (Afro-Latina Ariana DeBose).
Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, who adapted Spielberg’s Munich and Lincoln, puts a new spin on Arthur Laurents’ book, acknowledging the effects of urban renewal/gentrification and re-imagining the way familiar songs are used – like having 90 year-old Rita Moreno sing “Somewhere.”
For those with short memories, Rita Moreno won a Best Supporting Oscar as Anita, beating Judy Garland (Judgment at Nuremberg) and Lotte Lenya (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone).
In another stroke of genius, Spielberg recruited the New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer Jason Peck to stage dazzling dance sequences, paying tribute to trailblazing director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Problem is: for six decades, this musical has been performed and revived repeatedly. If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably because you were in it. It’s considered a period piece, compared with Hamilton, which appeals to Millennials/Gen Z.
Plus, because of the continued Covid threat, many older movie-goers are reluctant to return to theaters, preferring to wait for home-viewing. And it’s frustrating that the Spanish dialogue has no English subtitles.
Nevertheless, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, West Side Story is a visually stunning 9 – in theaters only and worth a trip to see it on the big screen.