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West Side Story

Karren Alenier

The big questions about the film remake of West Side Story are: how does it compare to the original 1961 film and what makes the new version worthy of two hours and thirty-six minutes of your time? The Steiny Road Poet saw the remake shortly after it opened in theaters in the US and then several days later watched the 1961 film.

Surprisingly, Steven Spielberg directs the remake. Spielberg had never directed a musical before taking on this exceptional work that earned so many awards. The 1961 film received 11 Academy Awards and numerous other awards. The celebrated playwright Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for the West Side Story remake. Kushner is known for his two-part play Angels in America for which he later wrote the successful screenplay.

Three things stand out about the remake. First, the casting of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, is credible (the 1961 film hired Caucasians because they had the dance skills and put brown makeup on them).


Second, there is widespread Spanish spoken (without surtitles) throughout the film (not just a few familiar Spanish words that gringos know as used in the original film).


Third, the role of Doc who runs the pharmacy is replaced by Doc's wife Valentina and that role is played by Rita Moreno (in the 1961 film, Moreno played Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo and leader of the Sharks). In a notable performance, Moreno as Valentina brings an intimacy to the film in her relationship with the star-crossed lover Tony as well as tying the remake to the original film. Steiny feels that Spielberg and Kushner accrue a certain level of audience trust in choosing to make room for Moreno in their remake.

Noticeable differences occur in the remake. Emphasis is made on clearing the tenements from the land where Lincoln Center will be built. This is the territory being fought over by the two gangs—the Jets and the Sharks. Spielberg trades the basketball scenes of the 1961 film that open the work for a much wider cinematic lens of a larger-than-life wrecking ball.

Maria's song "I feel pretty" no longer spins it staccato charm in the bridal shop where Anita, Maria, and the other Puerto Rican women work. In the remake, all these women are working as a cleaning crew in a large department store when Maria bursts into "I feel pretty."

West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who served as an advisor to the creative team of the remake, regretted many of words he wrote for West Side Story. In a New York Times interview with Kushner dated December 9, 2021, Kushner reports that Sondheim said, "Why did I write a Puerto Rican teenager singing, 'I feel pretty and witty and bright?' It sounds like a goddamn Noël Coward play." So, Kushner has Maria quote from the department store displays. Sondheim responded, "Well, I still hate the song. But it's better for me now than it was." For Steiny's two cents, the replacement scene adds an artificial environment (Maria sings to the department store mannikins) where the Puerto Rican women are working as unskilled laborers (cleaners) versus skilled seamstresses. Additionally, the move from the original film's bridal shop to the department store cuts the connection that allows Maria and Tony to act out their wedding. In the 1961 film, Tony shows up at the bridal store as Anita and Maria are closing for the evening. In the remake, she and Tony visit a church and act out their wedding in a scene that is not connected to the department store. This additional scene feels less creative and overly literal.


Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony fulfill the expectation set by the original film as well as those of the current day—each in their ethnic ancestries as Puerto Rican girl and Polish guy. They are youthful and portray the kind of naïve innocence needed to go up against cultural barriers. They each perform Leonard Bernstein's soul -satisfying music with aplomb. Steiny likes them better in these roles than Natalie Wood, whose voice wasn't good enough for the music and was replaced by the voice of Marni Nixon, and Richard Beymer, whose singing voice was replaced by Jimmy Bryant. Neither of the singers dubbing for Wood and Beymer were given credit or paid well for their work.

Steiny is not sure why Tony is portrayed in the remake as a newly released jailbird who served time for beating another youth. There isn't a patrol officer on his case, and he does things he is told not to do without consequence.

The original Officer Krupke (William Bramley) and Lieutenant Shrank (Simon Oakland) carry their roles with authority and dark humor. Brian d'Arcy as Krupke and Corey Stall as Shrank in the remake do not have that New York moxie to carry off their roles against the sassy members of both the Jets and the Sharks.

Steiny particularly loves that the Jets look so boyish and are such remarkable dancers. The opening scene of them doing the original Jerome Robbins choreography is markedly enhanced by their abilities to sustain their jumps and look like they are floating.


The remake scene where Anita is attacked by members of the Jets is less than convincing. The rawness of the original attack scene makes the audience believe Anita will be gang raped except for Doc appearing and stopping them. The dynamic in the remake is different because it is up to Valentina, a Puerto Rican woman who must stop the white gang members.

Overall, the remake of West Side Story is satisfying and able to create emotional goosebumps from its collective energy of outstanding music, story, players, scenery, and costumes. Favorite scenes include
1. Valentina teaching Tony some Spanish phrases while she questions him about going slow on expressing his love for Maria; 2. the balcony scene where Tony shows his physical strength in climbing up to her and his tender feelings for her through his singing; 3. Maria convincing Anita that her love for Tony is exactly like the love Anita had for Bernardo.  It's hard to tread on the territory carved out by the original film, but Spielberg and Kushner have done remarkably well. The remake isn't perfect, but in many ways, it is better than the original film.


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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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