A Tale of Two West Side Stories | Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine -February 2022  www.scene4.co

A Tale of Two West Side Stories

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

As the camera pans an aerial shot across a misty gray expanse of rubble, half-demolished buildings, criss-crossed grids of tenement fire escapes, and lights ever so swiftly on a suspended wrecking ball above a sign for "Lincoln Square Re-Development,"  my heart skips a beat.  I know this is a skillful combination of set decoration, historical images, and actual footage, but it transports me back  sixty-two years to my own youth, haunting this West Side neighborhood in the 1960s as it transformed itself from an urban jungle to a gentrified cultural mecca.  In my late high school and early college years, I spent countless hours at the new Lincoln Center theatres and library, so I feel a visceral connection to what I am seeing sweep across the screen.

I am riveted as the overture slowly builds and the choreography begins, and within seconds I am completely immersed in the drama on the big screen.  Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story has the stamp of breathtaking authenticity in storytelling, in making that story at once fresh and familiar, and in capturing a time and place that is timeless.

In the last few weeks since first seeing this modern masterpiece, I have taken the opportunity to return to the original 1961 film as well, and the comparison, rather than dim the merits of either version, only emphasizes its powerful originality of the new at the same time that it reminds what a remarkable film in its own right the Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise original was.


When the 1961 movie appeared only four years after the Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins stage version had taken Broadway by storm, the creators were attempting to bring to life that vivid stage version on the screen. Robbins was intent on recreating the stage pictures and choreography at the heart of the musical, while Wise added cinematic flourishes such as the  creative camera work and atmospheric use of real locations.  The overall feeling of the original is a very skillful dramatization of a musical play.  The soundtrack has the full-throated belt of Broadway tinged with Bernstein's operatic writing for the voice; the dance numbers and songs DO stop the show, and yet the performances and the visuals convey an intimacy and sense of cinematic reality.


Spielberg's movie is purely cinematic; it does its best to downplay the bold musical aspects of the score and choreography; it integrates the musical numbers seamlessly into the cinematic flow, so much so that there are no apparent transitions – only subtle cues – a word or tiny line of dialogue that sets up the sung lyrics, a fluid sense of movement and blocking that morphs into the familiar athletic dances.  The underlying aesthetic is realistic - unabashedly violent and gritty throughout - and yet underscored with musical moments that speak to another layer of truth about the characters and their world. Jerome Robbins' choreography for the stage version is preserved virtually intact for the original film.  In the new version, Justin Peck retains the essence and most recognizable elements of Robbins' dances while skillfully integrating them into the fabric of the film. The biggest shifts are in the transitions into and out of the musical numbers - the way walking becomes dancing, for example.  Peck also uses every cinematic trick in his toolbox to create vivid pictures - geometric visual patterns matching angular dance moves, for example.  In the all-out big number sequences like the dance at the gym or "America," he lets the dancers rip, and the cinematographer takes over.

In Spielberg's film Janusz Kaminski's cinematography manages the same fusion blending real present-day New York neighborhoods (dressed in vintage) with constructed sets so seamlessly that 1950s and 60s come to life on the screen.  (As a New Yorker, I recognize 107th Street but I am convinced it is 66th and Amsterdam.)  Kaminski's lens engages in some of the familiar musical tropes – with an homage to the original in the aerial opening and with wide-angle views of the big dance numbers - but he also creates some stunning intimate moments in closeup. The lighting revels in haze filtered grayness or warm, street-lit night scenes but also captures the vivid color of the neighborhood and its people.  Daniel Fapp's cinematography in the original, while it has the benefit of shooting real locations contemporary to the film, does not have the benefit of modern technology and never is able to blend location with set as effectively.


Both original and remake do a fine job of creating ambiance - through set decoration, props, lighting, but modern techniques allow the new film more variety and creativity- from the breadth of locations – the Cloisters is a brilliant replacement for the bridal shop or the geometric wasteland eeriness of the salt shed for the rumble.  Costumes for both versions have an authenticity and flair with Irene Sharaff's originals a touch more color-coordinated in a stagey manner than Paul Tazewell's more tactile clothes.

One of the major assets of the Spielberg version is Tony Kushner's screenplay, which respects the time frame and architecture of Arthur Laurents' original book and Ernest Lehman's screenplay, altering only slightly, for good reasons, the dialogue, such as to segue more seamlessly into a song and making a few other well-chosen changes  that add to the overall effect.  Among these is the decision to replace the character of Doc with that of Valentina, his Puerto Rican wife, played to break your heart by Rita Moreno (the original Anita).  Not only is there a nostalgic connection, but the Doc-Valentina marriage adds a dimension to the Tony-Maria romance.  Other minor changes tighten the storytelling – Maria's parents are omitted, for example. Chino is given more camera time, including a scene when he and Maria are introduced, which establishes his character and his own impending tragedy. Similarly, Anybodys has more screen presence and is unmistakeably transgender, not just a "tomboy" which gives more bite and authenticity to the story.  Some numbers are given a fresh look: the "wedding scene" at the Cloisters or "I Feel Pretty at Gimbel's, not the bridal shop, or making "Cool" primarily a duet for Tony and Riff, which better adds to the tension.


Perhaps the greatest leap forward in the Spielberg version is the inclusivity of the casting.  While in the 1961 film, Rita Moreno was the only Puerto Rican actor cast, the Spielberg version uses exclusively actors with Latinx heritage for all the necessary roles.  And consequently, when Spanish is spoken in the film, and it is far more frequently than in 1961, it is genuine and, though never translated, we always understand by context.


The casts of both films remain memorable. If there is a weak link in the original, it is Natalie Wood, with her manufactured accent and patented sweetness, but even she rises to the emotional moments of the drama. Richard Beymer, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn are striking. The Spielberg version, in addition to ethnic authenticity, has several other virtues: the star-crossed lovers are convincingly youthful, and all the principals do their own singing.  The latter is something that always matters to me, as a viewer, because I am particularly attuned to the subtleties of lip syncing.  Rachel Zegler's Maria is radiantly sung – and acted -and Ansel Elgort manages the difficulties of Tony's music making it sound natural and effortless.  If his delivery is far less operatic than Jimmy Bryant who dubbed Richard Beymer, and if those of us who get chills at a song like "Maria" sung with a perfect Bb headvoice finish, may miss that technique, his renditions have a muted naturalness that fits perfectly with the film's style, and his portrayal of Tony as tender, awkward, conflicted, vulnerable.  Together, he and Zegler quite simply break your heart.  Other standouts in the new cast are Ariana De Bose as a firery, sassy, smart, brave Anita and David Alvarez as a complex Bernardo – both stellar dancers; Mike Faist's Riff- a truly damaged and even sympathetic youth; Josh Andres Rivera as a socially maladroit Chino; Iris Menas as a tough and vulnerable Anybodys; and  Brian D'Arcy James as a jaded Sgt. Krupke.  And then there is Rita Moreno – her "Somewhere" toward the end of the film is worth the price of admission alone.


For all the differences – subtle and not so – one element seems to remain gloriously stable – the musical score: Leonard Bernstein's big, bold, syncopated, jazzy, operatic, romantic music and Stephen Sondheim's poetic, catchy, linguistically sophisticated lyrics.  The 1961 film has Jimmy Green conduct and orchestrate, while the 2021 film employs Venezuelan known for his vivid Romanticism, Gustav Dudamel conducting.

If one remembers the sense of groundbreaking effect Bernstein's music had in 1957 when it first took to Broadway, it is safe to say that his idiosyncratic, eclectic style has by now become revered.  Still the score, the songs, the lyrics, burst from the screen with an untamed vitality.

And then there is another more subliminal element that is, without a doubt, the bedrock of any West Side Story. And that is Will Shakespeare's 1597 play -that had ancient roots even in Shakespeare's time- but, thanks to the Bard, has gripped the imaginations of creatives and audiences for over 500 years.

    From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
    A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
    Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
    Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.

It is a timeless tale of senseless conflict, youthful passion, and the power of love to bring forgiveness. And as such, it is a tale for every season.



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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2022 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
 ©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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