West Side Story: 7 changes in 2021 Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner movie musical from beloved 1961 version

The remake of “West Side Story,” the tragic story of lovers from rival New York street gangs, which opens in movie theaters today, is director Steven Spielberg’s first movie musical. Spielberg is largely faithful to the 1961 movie, which was largely faithful to the 1957 Broadway musical, which was not all that faithful to William Shakespeare’s 1595 play “Romeo and Juliet,” which the fiercely talented foursome of Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim adapted to contemporary times. But the 2021 movie does have some noticeable changes from the 1961 movie, which won ten Academy Awards and is number two on the American Film Institute’s list of Greatest Movie Musicals (Number 1 is “Singing in the Rain.”) Many of the changes are undeniable improvements; some of them are just different; a few require at the very least a little mental adjustment:

1. There is a new character, created for Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for portraying Anita in the 1961 movie, portrays Valentina, a character who was not in the 1961 movie, nor in the 1957 Broadway musical. She is Doc’s widow – and a replacement for Doc in the scenes in which he appeared, as the owner of the local drugstore where the Jets hang out. Valentina is Puerto Rican (as is Rita Moreno), which prompts the question: Why would a gang that views the Puerto Ricans as the enemy hang out in a store run by a Puerto Rican? Let us assume screenwriter Tony Kushner (Pulitzer-winning playwright of “Angels in America,” and frequent Spielberg collaborator) knows what he’s doing: Perhaps we’re thus meant to see how arbitrary and irrational the Jets’ race-based conflict with the rival gang, the Sharks. 

It is Rita Moreno, who is turning 90 years old tomorrow, who as Valentina sings “Somewhere” 

2. The characters get backstories and clarity.

If you wondered why it is that Tony (Ansel Elgort), who co-founded the Jets, now remains aloof from them, Spielberg and Kushner supply an answer: He spent a year in prison after almost killing a rival gang member in a previous rumble. That gave him time to think about his actions and resolve on a new direction for his life.

Other characters are also fleshed out a bit.
Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks and Maria’s (over-) protective brother, is now an aspiring prizefighter, which perhaps helps explain his combative nature. Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Bernardo’s friend whom Maria rejects as a suitor, is little more than a plot device in the 1961 movie. He is now given not just a backstory but an arc: He is serious about assimilating at the start, taking night courses to become an accountant, but becomes alienated by the racism, both individual and institutional, directed at him and his fellow Puerto Ricans.

Anybodys is simply a tomboy in the 1961 movie. In 2021, the character is explicitly transgender, who fights to be respected as such (though the term is not used.) The character is  portrayed by nonbinary actor Iris Menas.

3. New York City has more of a presence, and importance.

The first shots of the 1961 movie are actual birds-eye views of  New York City streets, then a wordless opening musical number (the prologue) in which the rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks chase and fight one another through tenement-lined streets, winding up in a graffiti-marred playground. The 2021 movie makes much more elaborate use of the New York City location.  There are now recognizable New York landmarks, including a New York City subway (circa 1957) which we see Tony and Maria take to travel to the Cloisters! It’s in the Cloisters that they sing “One Hand, One Heart.” We see (authentic-looking but obviously re-created) streets full of storefronts that show the changing character of the residents – an Irish pub replaced by a “cocina criollo” Puerto Rican restaurant. There are scenes on a deteriorating pier in the Hudson river,  in Gimbel’s department store, inside a police precinct, in a Department of Sanitation salt shed. We even get the most quintessential of New York sights — a thick cluster of pigeons who suddenly scatter. (This feels groundbreaking, making us eye suspiciously from now on any New York movie – including the 1961 “West Side Story” – in which they don’t exist.)

But the use of the city’s landscape is not just to offer a more solid sense of place. It makes vivid a theme that Kushner’s screenplay drives home repeatedly  — the phenomenon we now call gentrification, what officials called urban renewal or slum clearance in 1957…what, by any name, was the destruction of whole city neighborhoods, in effect  displacing the poor and replacing them with the rich. We see half-bulldozed buildings, and signs on the fences around rubble-strewn lots that say “Apartments available, May 1958” or show a drawing of the forthcoming Lincoln Center – the performing arts center that replaced most of the Upper West Side neighborhood that was called San Juan Hill, where “West Side Story” takes place.  

4. There is no overture; there is new choreography.

Following the conventions at the time for “event” movies, the “West Side Story” of 1961 begins with a four minute overture of Leonard Bernstein’s luscious score, with nothing visual to look at except a red backdrop with a vague design. Movies stopped offering such overtures in the 1970s. But the new film doesn’t otherwise give the music short shrift.  The score, arranged and adapted by composer David Newman,  is performed gloriously by the New York Philharmonic under conductor Gustavo Dudamel (with some supplemental recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)

The orchestral prologue remains, with the gang members wordlessly chasing one another, but Jerome Robbins’ choreography, especially stunning in that opening number, has been replaced by new choreography by Justin Peck.  

All the songs from the 1961 movie are included, with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics unchanged. But there is one addition: Bernardo leads the Sharks in singing “La Borinquena,” the official Spanish-language anthem of Puerto Rico, composed in the 19th century. 

5. Latinidad, including the Spanish language, has a more palpable presence

That the Sharks sing “La Borinquena” in Spanish — as an act of defiance against hostile police Lieutenant Schrank –is part of the film’s effort to correct the main criticism of the 1961 movie, that it offered an inauthentic, even offensive, depiction of Puerto Ricans.

  Rita Moreno was the lone Puerto Rican-born cast member among the leads. Now, Moreno is a member of a new cast with many more Latino actors, although not necessarily Puerto Rican. The new Anita, Ariana DeBose, born in North Carolina, has an Afro-Puerto Rican father and a white mother. Bernardo is portrayed by David Alvarez (one of the original Tony-winning  Billys in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot the Musical ) , who is the Canadian-born son of Cuban immigrants. Maria is portrayed by newcomer Rachel Zegler, a 20-year-old New Jersey-born daughter of a Colombian-American mother and a Polish-American father. 

The Puerto Rican characters in the new movie speak about a third of their dialogue in Spanish – without subtitles. It deepens the movie when several of the characters urge the Puerto Ricans to speak English; some of the cops do so out of irritation;  Bernado’s girlfriend Anita urges him and Maria to do so to practice their English (implicitly trying to persuade them of the point of view she expresses in the song “America”: Puerto Rico,/My heart’s devotion/Let it sink back in the ocean/….I like the island Manhattan/Smoke on your pipe and put that in.) A charming touch: Tony takes Spanish lessons from Valentina so he can speak of his love to Maria in her native language. 

6. The actors do their own singing

In the 1961 film, Jim Bryant did the singing for Richard Beymer as Tony, Marni Nixon’s singing was dubbed for Natalie Wood as Maria, and Betty Wand even did some of Rita Moreno’s songs. The new cast members reportedly do their own singing. Elgort’s singing voice is fine, which is a pleasant surprise (although he IS the son of an opera director);  The silver voice of Ariana DeBose, a Tony-nominated veteran of six Broadway musicals, is no surprise at all. Rachel Zegler’s voice is likely to launch a recording career. If not everybody sounds like trained vocalists, this is a movie, not a concert. 

7. The actors’ faces look normal

The makeup in the 1961 film (above) is so awful that it makes some scenes hard to watch. Rita Moreno has complained that the makeup was the same dark color for all the Puerto Rican characters, but nearly everybody’s skin color, including the Caucasians’, looks artificial. A more enlightened attitude, better makeup artists, and better film technology have eliminated the distraction of the makeup in the 2021 film.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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