West Side Story (2021)–exhilarating, provocative, and worth seeing more than once

AT THE MOVIES: Many films just come and go for me, but this one stirred up some strong feelings. My enthusiasm led to an argument with a friend who chastised me for alleged nostalgia. A recommendation elicited yawns from a colleague. After reading other reviews, I felt restless and dissatisfied, so I wrote my own.

The new film version of “West Side Story” is a masterpiece, albeit with occasional plot jumps and tonal inconsistencies. But every musical has those. The 1957 original’s creative team was Arthur Laurents (book and screenplay), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Jerome Robbins (choreography). Often, “West Side Story” is simply presented as a re-telling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in contemporary terms. And the source material certainly shaped the story. But focusing solely on teenage desire and angst would be missing the point. There are deeper, fundamental questions that don’t lead to easy or comfortable answers. What does it mean to be an “American?” How does it feel to aspire to the “American Dream,” and how does it feel when it has passed you by?

First, to acknowledge an elephant in the room. Some recent commentators have asserted that “West Side Story” should disappear as a relic of a colonialist and white supremacist mindset. And the conversation also revolves around appropriation and who can “authentically” speak about the lived experiences of people different than ourselves. Granted, representation in the Broadway show’s and 1961 film’s casting was a problem. And certainly, the work trafficked in stereotypes of Puerto Ricans. Of course, Puerto Rico is unusual in its status as a US territory (since 1898). While remaining largely self-governing, the island often has an uneasy relationship with the mainland. (See the Trump administration as a recent example.) Movements for island statehood have ebbed and flowed without ever really cresting. Is Puerto Rico truly part of the USA, or not? In the 1950s world of the film, the answer is either a defiant no or an optimistic yes. The no is from the white citizens (themselves often from immigrant backgrounds), while the yes is from those hoping to have a better life in their new country. Ostensibly, the conflict between the rival gangs of the Jets and the Sharks is over territory, but it’s really about this question of who is an “American,” who is an outsider, and who is where in the social hierarchy. It may seem that American society has advanced beyond the crude binaries presented by the Jets and Sharks in the 1950s. But if we are honest, “West Side Story” remains a parable for America in the 21st century.

As for representation, this new production actively recruited and cast Puerto Rican actors in many of the roles, embraced some (untranslated) Spanish dialogue, and called upon cultural historians to help shape the film’s depictions of time, place, and daily life. Many of the characters seem to aspire to assimilation into society on the mainland, but there are also explicit nods to a dream of the islands’ independence. For some commentators and critics, these attempts at representation, authenticity, and nuance are not sufficient. For a few, they are futile gestures. Yet for (many) others, the new film rehabilitates an iconic work of American theater for modern audiences. And finally, viewers with no experience of the original show or film will see and hear the work through fresh eyes and ears.

Tony Kushner give us a nuanced portray of the rival gangs– the rival Jets and Sharks. The screenplay adds dimension and complexity to the original’s source material. Their female companions are also drawn with a finer brush. Kushner’s expansion and reimagining of the story also point to the artificiality of singing — the same problem faced by any musical aspiring to be compelling drama. There must be an agreement between authors and audience to accept both spoken dialogue and singing as part of the same storytelling experience. Once agreed to, (many) narrative contradictions largely resolve themselves in a willing suspension of disbelief. As with “1776,” “Hamilton,” “La La Land,” or indeed any work in the American musical genre, the stories are told partially, largely, or completely in song. It is ultimately on the viewer to either engage with the work, or not.

Rachel Zegler’s portrayal of Maria is Juliet in another time and place, and her singing satisfies. Ansel Elgort’s Tony has come in for occasional critical knocks, but he does justice to the material, and then some. And he sings well, with a flexible timbre and vulnerability. Mike Faist’s layered Riff startles in the seeming contradiction of his love for Tony and the Jets, and the free rein he gives to his darker impulses. (His last moments with Tony are arresting in their finality.) David Alvarez’s suave and pugilistic Bernardo is so much more than the caricature of the 1961 film. As Chino says, Bernardo is a fool, but a fool with the charisma needed to balance the magnetism and strength of Ariana DeBose’s Anita. Debose has big shoes to fill, for the original Anita (Rita Moreno) is also here, cast in the newly imagined role of Doc’s widow Valentina. And Moreno is the pole star of the entire enterprise. Tony delivering “Something’s Coming” not to himself as an inner monologue, but rather to Valentina as a statement of joyful possibility, is a masterstroke by Kushner. The number builds a bridge of respect and affection between two generations of performers. And “Somewhere,” which Moreno delivers as a weary and vulnerable monologue about love and loss, may bring tears to your eyes.

Beyond the performances of the principals, the ensembles shine. The singing and dancing of “Jet Song” and “America” are spellbinding examples. Taking the company onto the streets created a huge canvas to choreograph upon, and drew the people (extras) all around into the story. The “minor” players all have individual moments to shine in their ensembles. The satirical “Officer Krupke” illustrates the timing and characterization chops of the Jet players, and adds depth and intelligence to their characters. “I Feel Pretty” becomes a joyful fantasy in the halls of Gimbels department store, where Maria, Anita, and their co-workers have nighttime jobs as cleaners. In this setting, the appealing naivté of the number makes sense, musically and dramatically. Anyone who has spent hours at a tedious or repetitive job and daydreamed of something different will relate.

The cinematography captures broad swatches of time, place, and color in breathtaking detail. As with many American cities in the mid 20th century, Manhattan’s west side is slowly disappearing in a wave of demolitions to make way for “progress,” which would come to be embodied in such iconic locations as the Lincoln Center theater complex. The overall ambiance is gritty, the lighting and art direction often dark. The Jets and the Sharks are disillusioned young people searching for a sense of belonging in a concrete jungle. Their world is literally decaying around them. As with their Shakespearean ancestors, we know they are destined for tragedy, and those outcomes are painful to witness.

Sixty-plus years on, Leonard Bernstein’s music remains fresh and captivating, focusing the aspirations, joys, frustrations, and sorrows of the characters like a laser beam. Steven Spielberg (now 76) could have stopped making movies years ago. That he chose this work as his career capstone(?) demonstrates that big-budget musicals on screen are not only still possible, but necessary. With a Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 92 and an audience score of 94 (!), one can only look to Covid reluctance and yet another Spiderman franchise installment as contributing factors to the lagging box office of “West Side Story.” And with this film, we bid farewell to Stephen Sondheim, the last of the original’s creative team, who passed just as the movie was entering theaters. This only adds to the poignancy and timeliness of this reimagined and refreshed American classic.

If you are curious or still unsure if this movie is for you, here is the “official” trailer.

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