I famously “hate musicals”, but I know I’m wrong. Both in live theater and in film, musicals carry massive cultural import that are beloved by millions, so the problem is most likely me. Perhaps some are indeed simply bad, but I don’t yet have the vocabulary to identify which ones and explain why.
A friend of mine who is literate in both film and musical theater suggested that it would be a useful exercise to watch the 1961 version of West Side Story and compare it to Steven Spielberg’s newly-released remake version.
I needed to develop a working theory of how musicals should be read or judged. I heard someone on a podcast say that one feature of the musical is that it is meant to be understood by people who don’t speak the language it’s performed in. Even if you don’t know the plot details, you should know from the songs how the characters feel. This might be more true of Opera than the modern musical, but the insight formalized a crucial piece of understanding: the songs in musicals are meant to convey the emotional content of the story. This is the lens through which I’ll attempt judge Spielberg’s effort to update West Side Story. In doing so, I’m hoping that I can knock loose a better appreciation of the form.
West Side Story (1961) worked surprisingly well for me on an emotional level. The most prevalent cultural joke, and implicit critique, related to this film is how silly it is that the Jets and the Sharks dance and sing in a manner unbefitting the gangster personas that they are meant to embody. Yes, it takes a minute to acclimate to this — West Side Story is significantly more stagey than what I’m used to viewing. But the biggest ask in terms of suspension of disbelief is not the neighborhood toughs doing ballet twirls, it’s the central relationship. We have to believe in the love between Tony and Maria. If we don’t, the whole plot is inherently pretty ridiculous, because she sticks with the guy even after he murders her own brother in cold blood.
West Side Story (1961) accomplishes this not through the facts of the narrative, but by the charisma of its leads (Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) and with the emotional impact of the songs. And the songs, to put it bluntly, are bangers. To my (untrained) ears they’re more melodic than what I’m used to hearing from modern musicals, and express the characters’ feelings in the moment instead of just being dialogue in song form. According to my friend, this is Leonard Bernstein’s super power.
By my estimation, Somewhere is the emotional centerpiece of West Side Story.
When you hear this song and see it performed by these leads, you understand that their relationship is not just what they see in each other after a very brief amount of time, but the potential to escape the conflict that they’ve been born into. Do they fall in love suddenly without knowing each other? Yes. But this song gives us reasonable clues as to why. The emotion carried by the melody itself brings us the rest of the way there.
So why did West Side Story need an update? Well, per Spielberg:
“Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”
I don’t think that structural white supremacy is the same thing as “divisions between un-likeminded people”, so this pitch is hard to get behind. It’s also framed more as a mid-production realization than a fundamental reason for the remake. I think this movie exists mostly because Spielberg has done everything else in his career and thought filming his favorite musical would be fun. That’s fine, I guess. Let’s dive into what’s different.
As cinematic techniques gain sophistication over time, there’s a natural and perhaps unavoidable movement towards realism in films. We could almost take it as a given that Spielberg’s West Side Story would be less stagey and more grounded than its antecedent. It’s stunning to look at, richly textured and masterfully filmed with a kineticism that tracks with equally great choreography. At a base level, this is all-time great filmmaker with a huge budget. That alone is worth showing up for.
An increase in visual realism arguably demands a commensurate increase in narrative realism. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner definitely seem to believe this: in the opening seconds, we’re given a socioeconomic context for the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. Both gangs are feeling the pressure of eviction as the city plans a slum clearance and construction of high-end apartments in their contested territory.
Some characters are given more detailed backstories: Tony (Ansel Elgort) has recently been released from prison after nearly beating a Shark to death, which is the reason for his reformation and reluctance to participate in the Jets/Shark conflict. He’s “scared of himself”. Also he’s on parole.
Other characters are simply made to explain themselves with more words. Riff (Mike Faist) opines:
“I don’t know who I am, and who cares who I am? Nobody, including me. I know that this dust that’s covering everything now, that’s the four-story buildings that was standing here when you went upstate a year ago. I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like. And they don’t like me. Know what’s left outta all of that? The Jets. My guys. My guys who’re just like me.”
Reading this back, it almost feels like an attempt to make the Jets’ racism seem relatable or understandable. Or sorry, their “divisions between un-likeminded people”.
In many cases, plot points and thematic elements that were implicit in the original are made explicit. The Jets’ attempted rape of Anita is called what it is. Anybody’s, a queer-coded but textually female character in the 1961 version, is portrayed as unambiguously transmasculine.
Fundamentally, Spielberg has given us a more information-rich version of West Side Story. Mercifully and impressively, this only results in about five extra minutes of runtime. But does all of this information serve the movie’s function as a musical? Again, I am focusing on how the film conveys emotional beats via the songs.
The songs themselves are still the songs: bangers. Their performances are mostly beautifully executed, in some cases exhilaratingly so. However, more realism and context around them adds little to their emotional function.
One song-related choice that baffled me was the displacement of Somewhere to the end of the story, where it is sung by Rita Moreno’s shopkeeper character over a montage. Arguably this version broadens the song’s meaning to be about a community rather than two people, but that sacrifices its vital contribution to our investment in the Tony/Maria relationship.
But even a great performance of Somewhere wouldn’t have salvaged the love story: I did not buy it here, mostly due to the complete mishandling of Tony. The changes to the character in the script combined with Ansel Elgort’s oafish screen presence make him come off as dumb and desperate, a far cry from the bright-eyed dreamer Richard Beymer portrayed in 1961. Newcomer Rachel Zegler does what she can opposite him, but at times it’s not clear why she even likes Tony, let alone loves him. I expected Spielberg and Kushner to slow-burn the romance a bit to make it easier to believe, but Tony and Maria’s connection is if anything even more sudden and aggressive than in the original. More backstory didn’t help at all.
The characters in the original West Side story were by nature more symbolic and archetypical than they were grounded and layered. By attempting to make them more of the latter, it’s possible that Spielberg and Kushner only succeeded in undercutting the emotional punch of the entire story.
Bernardo is super hot, though!