The 1957 stage musical, West Side Story, was made into a much-lauded, much-awarded film by Robert Wise in 1961. It was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, set in New York, and studded with a fabulous music score (Leonard Bernstein) and brilliant choreography (Jerome Robbins). So popular was the show and the film that some adaptation is always playing on stage somewhere or the other in the world in different languages.
Sixty years later, Steven Spielberg decided to remake the film with Tony Kushner working on a fresh script that kept the original intact, but added a few deft touches. Whenever a classic is remade, there are always doubts expressed; why mess with perfection? Spielberg answered in an interview to Kevin Polowy in Yahoo.com, “Divisions between un-likeminded people are as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”
Which is so true, racial tensions have flared up over time, instead of cooling down, and though language has become politically correct –anyone who publicly uses terms like Dago, Spic or Nigger would probably be sued—attitudes have not changed much.
The new film (streaming on Disney+Hotstar) is set in 1957, when New York is changing, a slum settlement in Manhattan’s West Side, inhabited mostly by Puerto Rican immigrants, is being torn down to make way for the Lincoln Centre and imminent gentrification. Amidst the already simmering discontent, two street gangs, the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks clash. Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy) and Lieutenant Schrank (Cory Stoll) are constantly on their toes to keep the squabbling boys in check.
The Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Sharks by Bernardo (David Avarez) are just waiting for that big “rumble” that will decide which gang rules the streets. Riff’s buddy Tony (Ansel Elgort), just out of prison on parole, refuses to get involved. He is trying to straighten out his life, working with Valentina (Rita Moreno—Anita in the old film and executive producer on this one), the owner of a general store. Valentina, a Latina married to a “gringo” understands both sides, and hopes for peace.
Bernardo, living with his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose–winning awards for her spirited performance) and his sister Maria (Rachel Zegler), wants his friend Chino (Josh Andres Rivera) to marry Maria, but she resists his bullying ways. At a dance, Tony and Maria see each other and fall instantly in love. Shakepeare’s famous balcony scene is replicated on the fire escape of Maria’s tenement, as they promise to meet the next day.
The time and venue of the big face-off is fixed. Maria pleads with Tony to stop the fight, but he is unable to dissuade Riff. Though they had agreed to carry no weapons, knives flash—Bernado stabs Riff, and Tony in a rage kills Bernardo. The track is laid for the inevitable tragedy that follows.
Till the darkness emerges, the film has some lovely songs (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) , like Something’s Coming, Maria, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty and peppy, jazzy background music. The original music and choreography have been adapted and reimagined. The film comes alive with Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Janus Kaminski’s cinematography, which enhances every mood—whether it is the exuberant dancing, or innocent romance. Add to it the detailed production design and lovely period costumes, and West Side Story (seven Oscar nominations) is a treat for the eyes.
Spielberg has kept the spirit of the original and still made it his own–if it is possible to improve on perfection, he has achieved it. Of the seven Oscar nominations, a few are sure to be go to this film.
(This piece first appeared in seniorstoday.in on March 5, 2022)