You must admit, there’s something emotionally stirring about watching Steven Spielberg’s remake of the Oscar-winning 1961 movie musical “West Side Story” (20th Century Studios) shortly after the passing of Stephen Sondheim.

Opening as it does, so soon after the loss of Sondheim, makes the already heartbreaking Shakespearean story that much more poignant.

Of course, the first question worthy of asking (before “Is it good?”) is why remake the beloved, 60-year-old, Oscar-winning movie version of the Tony Award-winning 1957 Broadway musical? While it’s semi-timely regarding the seemingly endless issue of racism in the United States, does it say anything new on the subject?

In Tony Kushner’s layered and nuanced version of the screenplay, we get context and backstory. The titular West Side neighborhood is not only being torn apart by racial tensions and gang violence in the mid-1950s, but also by the wrecking balls and bulldozers of urban renewal and progress to make way for Lincoln Center and associated residences.

To the dismay of racist Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and his sidekick Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James), teen street gangs The Jets and The Sharks, are making the neighborhood unsafe in his district. The Jets and The Sharks, led by Riff (Tony-nominated actor Mike Faist) and Bernardo (David Alvarez), respectively, are always at each other’s throats. Riff, who never had much to begin with, resents Bernardo and his Puerto Rican compatriots, for making something of themselves despite the odds being against them.

Calmer voices attempt to prevail. Parolee Tony (Ansel Elgort), Riff’s best friend and an ex-Jet, has been reformed after a year in prison following a rumble in which he nearly killed a rival gang member. Tony is employed at Pop’s store run by Pop’s widow Valentina (nonagenarian actor Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original movie version of “West Side Story”), who also provides shelter for him in a makeshift basement apartment. Aware of the consequences, Tony makes an effort to talk Riff out of doing something rash.

Anita (queer, Tony-nominated actor Ariana DeBose), the girlfriend of hothead boxer Bernardo tries her best to cool down her man. Macho Bernardo, who is also controlling his 18-year-old kid sister Maria (Rachel Zegler in her feature film debut), is determined to remain king of his castle and territory.

The powder keg eventually blows at a dance on what is supposed to be neutral turf after Tony and Maria lock eyes. While the young lovers become better acquainted over the course of a few hours against everyone’s wishes, Riff and Bernardo determine that a rumble is the only way to settle the score. That is, of course, a horrible idea and the tragic outcome is meant to be an object lesson for everyone involved (and watching).

Kushner honors and expands on the original material (from Arthur Laurents and Ernest Lehman). But it’s hard to miss his touch throughout. Especially powerful is the decision to give the song “Somewhere” to Valentina to sing following the eruption of violence. Also notable are the changes in settings for “I Feel Pretty” (set at Gimbel’s where Maria is on the housekeeping crew), “Gee Officer Krupke” (at a police station) and especially “America” (on the streets and sidewalks of the barrio).

There’s a reason the timeless songs, with music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, have remained one of the all-time great film and theater scores. The cast, especially Elgort, sing the heck out of them. While (straight!) choreographer Justin Peck’s choreography is original to this movie remake, his nods to Jerome Robbins' groundwork are undeniable.

As for “West Side Story” being Spielberg’s first movie musical, now that he’s gotten it out of his system, he can return to projects for which he is better suited. His camera work is admirable, as is his appreciation of the male butt! His casting of Latinx actors in primary roles, as well as that of non-binary actor Iris Menas as Anybodys, also deserves to be mentioned and praised.

Rating: B


Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.


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