West Side Story Revisited

Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet, where two young people from rival classes in Verona, Italy, fall in love, provided the theme for Jerome Robbins in the play, West Side Story, he conceived in the ‘50s. This material was used in the film adaptation that came out in 1961. I was surprised when I heard that Steven Spielberg was going to do a remake of Westside Story.  How could he improve on a movie that had won 10 Oscars including Best Picture of the Year?  I wondered what motivated Spielberg to remake this great movie.  I found that Spielberg made a short video pointing to his motivation for taking on the project related to the intense divisions in our country in 1957, when the original play was developed and, currently, the divisions in our country that he believes are even worse now than in 1957.  He stated that:

“West Side speaks to every generation.  It’s just that love bridges     every divide.  It’s timeless in the sense that we’d be reminded of the story as often as possible.”

I believe Spielberg wanted to give native actors, (i.e., Latinos) not well-known, a chance to star in his remake. If more people see the film, especially those that are young, and the film generates interest in making more theatrical productions of it, then Spielberg’s efforts will have been worthwhile.  The hope is the underlying message of the story–where hatred need not prevail over the most valued emotion any human can experience love–will be witnessed by a new generation of youth.

But looking back to the original film, I don’t believe some of the changes Spielberg has made in this latest version are improvements. I remember the opening scenes of the 1961 classic, directed by Robert Wise, showing aerial shots of Manhattan starting from the lower end, going uptown to the Empire State Building then Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.  This opening of the film prefigured, in my mind as a 16-year-old, something great was coming.  I looked in awe at these landmarks that I was very familiar with having grown up in New Jersey.

The camera then beams down to some white kids playing basketball. But when the Jets, Riff leading, take over the basketball court the teen holding the ball puts it down and lets them preempt both ball and court. This scene gives the viewer the sense that the Jets are not just protecting their turf from the Sharks but also are bullies beating up on other white kids in the neighborhood.  On the other hand, Spielberg’s opening scenes show heaps of rubbish at a construction site with a sign: “Slum Clearance.” Then urban urchins leap out of the ruins consisting of members of the two gangs, Jets and Sharks.  This presentation more vividly demonstrates the poverty endemic to the gang culture.  However, the aerial shots of the island of Manhattan going up to the Bronx remain indelible in my mind.  Granted here, the fact I was only 16 probably influenced the impact these shots had on me.  Nevertheless, I still think it was a wonderful way of introducing what would come next.

In the original version, Chino is a tough guy who plays the role of a sidekick to Bernardo, the leader of the Shark, the Puerto Rican gang. In Spielberg’s version, Chino is at night school studying accounting and, though in a gang, wears glasses, and he is cast as a studious type.  Perhaps this is Spielberg’s attempt to give the characters some depth of personality and ward off the complaints that the picture stereotyped Puerto Ricans.  However, the fact that Spielberg, as in the original, has Chino kill Maria’s lover, Tony, (spoiler alert) toward the end of the movie, he does not fit that of a meek student trying to better his life.  The original portrayal of Chino is more congruent with the role he plays than the way Spielberg features him to be.

In the earlier version by Wise, Tony wants out of the Jets because he has a job and wants to better himself whereas in Spielberg’s production, he avoids the Jets because he is on parole having been released after serving one year in prison for killing an Egyptian gang member.  I don’t mind this difference except that the actor playing Tony, Ansel Elgort, does not resemble a street ruffian that would possess the moxie and brutality necessary to kill someone.   

When the Jets and the Sharks meet up on a gym dance floor with their girl friends, I remember their outfits to have been both flashier and sexier in the original.  Moreover, in that film when Tony sees Maria, everyone in the background becomes blurred with the camera only focusing on the two of them. A sense of love and urgency is seen in Tony’s eyes when he and Maria drift magnetically toward each other.  This romantic touch is lost in Spielberg’s version where the two, in separating from the others, meet in a hall containing the bleacher seats of the gym.  Maria played by Rachel Zegler, whose mother is Columbian, unlike Natalie Wood, whose voice was dubbed in the original movie, sings all of her songs. This, of course, is a plus for Spielberg.   However, she and Ansel Elgort, in my opinion, do not make a very good fit.  Besides the fact, that he is twice her size, he appears too old for her.  The image of romance leading to a deep love is simply not there.

Spielberg has also changed the scene where, in the original, Tony comes after hours to visit Maria, who is working in a dress maker’s shop owned by a Puerto Rican woman.  Here there is a bit of levity offered when the two of them sing together, One Hand, One Heart, and by using the mannequins at the shop they playfully scheme how their wedding will look to them and to their friends.  Spielberg replaced this scene with the more serious and religious setting offered by the Cloisters in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Spielberg creates a role for Rita Moreno, who played Anita, Bernardo’s girl-friend, and won an academy award for best supporting actress in the 1961 film.  In the updated version, she is Valentina who is the widow of Doc, the owner of the drugstore and hang-out for the Jets.  Here she sings solo: Somewhere.  Although I think it’s a plus that Rita Moreno has a part that allows her to sing a song (rather than Tony and Maria in the original version), I think the role she plays, a Puerto Rican woman who was married to a white male, might have been better served if she were a mentor to the Sharks rather than the Jets.  However, this may have led to substantial changes in the script.

Perhaps a better role for Rita Moreno would have been the proprietor of the dress shop where Maria and Anita work with their friends.  Here, after Maria discovers that Tony has killed her brother, Bernardo, Rita could have sung the piece, Somewhere, that imagines a place bereft of the violence around them where they can live in peace.

I credit Steven Spielberg for bringing in a cast more representative of the people that are depicted in West Side Story. However, the criticism made toward the original screening of the film that the characters were stereotypical presentations remain the same in the more recent version. This is a musical with lots of song and dance with a tragic ending that really does not provide sufficient time for character development. Because there were tears in my eyes in both versions of West Side Story, I was glad Spielberg retained the amazing music and songs from the original.

If Spielberg wanted to dig deeper into the lives of the gang members from both sides, I think he would have needed to make a different film.  Music, integral in movies, would need to be in the background whereas the inner lives of the characters would take the foreground of such a movie.  Perhaps with the increasing participation of Latino artists in cinema such a film someday may be coming.